Born on February 21, 1970, Michael Slater was another one of the many cricketers who could have achieved so much more in their careers, but couldn’t, due to reasons and controversies aplenty. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the journey of “Slats”, involving helmets, adultery, injury, divorce, drugs and, not to forget, cricket.
Michael was the second youngest of four siblings, born to Peter and Carole Slater, who left their home in North-East England to settle down in the Australian countryside, in a colourfully named town called Wagga Wagga. Young Michael was involved in a lot of sports during his childhood, including cricket, hockey and football (soccer). After his parents split — an event that he later admitted on having a huge impact on his life — when he was 12, sport was his one and only resort. It was the only solace he would find from the troubles at home. “Sport was everything for me,” he said in a TV interview in 2005. “…I look back and I’m glad I had my sport, ’cause there were some difficult times through my teens that sport gave me that guidance and something to really throw myself into. And, yeah, it was great fun.”
Slater soon decided to pursue cricket as a career, which was kind of an automatic choice after he was selected in the New South Wales Under-16 side. He honed his cricketing skills at the famed Australian Cricket Academy (now Commonwealth Bank Cricket Academy). It was the start of a journey that would be riddled with incidents, sometimes out of his control. Even his formative years weren’t incident free. He was once knocked off his bike by a car, and on another occasion, he hurt his Achilles tendon after rock-throwing game that went awry. As he recuperated from this injury, he even went ahead to declare that he would never play cricket again. Soon enough, at the age of 23, Slater made his Test debut in the 1993 Ashes (This, after playing just 12 First-Class games, when fellas like Greg Chappell had to play about a hundred to get his first Baggy Green).
In only his second Test, after being picked over the equally talented Matthew Hayden, Slater got to play at Lord’s on June 19, 1993. His captain, Allan Border, after a string of unsuccessful toss losses, eventually called right and put his team in to bat. Slater was going out to open the batting on the first morning of a Lord’s Test match. This was it. Slater later admitted to having barely slept the night before. “I dozed for maybe a couple of hours, tops; most of the night I was playing my upcoming innings in my head,” he wrote in his autobiography, Slats – The Michael Slater Story. The innings Slater played in his state of reverie was “technically perfect” on “the biggest cricketing stage of all” and included a “full array of shots, including lavish cover drives and big pulls.” And this was exactly what he did in full consciousness the following day.
He scored a magnificent 152 to get his name engraved on the Lord’s honours board in only his second Test.
He was so excited on reaching the landmark that he went on a little jig in the outfield, like an excited schoolgirl who just saw her favourite rock star. Slater instinctively took his helmet off and kissed the Australian coat-of-arms engraved on it — a ritual that he patented soon after. After crossing three figures, Slater let loose and went on to add 52 more runs in his swashbuckling style. The lashes to the cover boundary and the slashy cuts to the fence were a delight to watch as Slater won over the Lord’s crowd. In all his excitement and exuberance, he almost ran out his opening partner, Mark Taylor, when the latter was on 96.
A fairy-tale beginning to a promising career. Slater cemented his place at the top of the Australian batting line-up. He and fellow Wagga Wagga-raised ‘Tubby’ Taylor went on to forge a formidable opening pair. He missed his second hundred by a run later that year against New Zealand at the WACA. The following Test, when he was on 99 again, he played the ball towards mid-on and set off for what looked like an easy single.
However, David Boon, at the non-striker’s end, slipped as he took off. Slater was almost halfway down the pitch when this happened and, but for a poor throw from the fielder, would’ve been dismissed on the woeful figure again. Incidentally, Slater soon became renowned for suffering from the nervous nineties. His conversion rate from 50 to 90 was a sound 65 per cent. However, he was able to get to three figures from 90 only a dismal 40 per cent of the times.
In late 1996, after Australia lost to India in a lone Test match, Slater was unceremoniously dropped from the team. He had scored 44 in the first innings of that Test and averaged a more than decent 47.41 in the 34 matches he had played. In fact, he had scored his career-best 219 the same year. So, it came as a shock when the selectors dropped him. “It was the biggest shock of my life at the time, and my whole world felt like it was going to fall apart because I was so ingrained and cricket was everything to me and this was the first time it’d been taken away,” he was to say.
It took two years and another tour to India for Slater to get back into the team. The second innings of his career saw a change in opening partners for him after Taylor’s retirement. Matthew Elliott and Greg Blewett were tried out, before finally fixing on Hayden. Things looked hunky-dory until the turn of the millennium when he started having issues with his wife and childhood sweetheart, Stephanie. The couple split soon after and this took a big toll on Slater’s psyche. To add to his woes, he had even taken up a parallel career as a commentator and suffered from panic attacks due to the pressure of performing.
Slater was to put his troubles with Stephanie down to an “identity crisis”. He needed to discover who he was. The couple did try to reconcile; Stefanie accompanied Slater on the 2001 Ashes tour in a bid to save their marriage. As it turned out, this was to be Slater’s last ever series. Australia had the Ashes in the bag going into the fifth and final Test at The Oval leading 3-1. When the team was announced prior to the Test, Slater found he had been dropped in favour of Justin Langer. Slater had averaged a poor 24.28 in the four matches he had played; after starting the tour brightly with a 77 at Edgbaston, his form had dipped. The selectors decided Slater “needed a break” for the final Test, wrote Hayden, in his autobiography, Standing My Ground.
They “noted that Slats was constantly on the move at the crease, causing poor footwork and bringing his head position out of line.” Perhaps so, but not everyone knew the real reason. Hayden himself was unaware at the time of Slater’s personal crisis. “Batting with him, I could tell he wasn’t himself, though I wasn’t fully aware of the depth of his personal issues,” he wrote.
Langer himself wasn’t in the best of nick, so the team knew that Slater had been dropped for “reasons other than form”, noted Hayden. “C’mon, Tugga [Steve Waugh, the captain], tell them the real story,” Slater had said after the team was announced. “When Gilly [Adam Gilchrist] told Slats he was out of line, Slats peeled away from the group,” wrote Hayden.
Reflecting on those trying times, Slater told the Guardian in an interview in 2005, “It seemed very tough in the midst of a difficult time. My ex-wife Stephanie had come over to England to try and reconcile things, but that’s impossible on tour. It all ended in tears during the fourth Test and Steve Waugh made up his mind. The disappointing thing for me was Steve said nothing before then, or offered any kind of support. A couple of days before the last Test, with the series in the bag, and me looking forward to a flat track at The Oval he said, ‘We’re giving you a break’. It was hard to cop. Justin [Langer] came in and, all credit to him, he’s never been out the side since. There was a lot of anger and bitterness in me then.”
All this had transpired shortly after Slater had been accused by the erstwhile Australian Cricket Board of taking drugs. ACB chief Malcolm Speed had told him, “We’ve been told from a reliable source you’ve got a serious drug problem.” Slater told chat show host Andrew Denton in an interview of what he thought of the allegations: “Well, I didn’t say anything for about a minute. And I didn’t know how to respond. And then I thought, ‘You know, well, you go back to your so-called reliable source and tell him he’s not so reliable, because drugs have never been part of my life, [and] will never be a part of my life. It’s just something I will never stand for.”
Slater admittedly went into a reclusive state after being dropped and shut himself from the world. “The sun just stopped shining and I bailed up at home. I was going through a marriage break-up, being dropped and having my personal life trashed by the most vicious rumours. I tried to escape from society by locking myself away from everyone — including friends and family — for months on end. It seemed as if I was never going to get out of this dark hole,” he said.
However, controversy was to come crashing through the door yet again to trip him over. What Slats describes as a “killer blow” came when he was accused of being the father of Mel and Adam Gilchrist’s first child. “That was the worst slander on all of us,” he said. “It was such an ugly lie. I had so much other stuff going on that I withdrew into myself. A few people close to me said, ‘It’s not true, is it?’ And that just set me off. I’d walk away and say I’m not even going to answer that.”
Such allegations are bound to create a rift between what were once good mates. Gilchrist was subjected to vile taunts when he went on tour to South Africa. Spectators held up signs saying: “Guess who’s the father of your baby?..” Although the duo continue to be great friends today, Slater admits the whole saga had created a wedge between them at the time. “They [Adam and Mel] had to get through it, and so did I. We’re great mates again, but it almost ruined us,” he said.
The ensuing few months were some of the toughest in Slater’s life. He felt as if nothing was going right for him and the whole world was out to get him. “I just got really down on the world at that point and thought, well, you know, what’s good? When is someone going to say something good about me, given that I thought my whole career had many more highs than it did lows. So it was a very tough time.
“…it was so hard…it was so lonely. I just disappeared for a while, and it was probably the worst thing I could have done…Looking back, I wish I’d been able to get out there and be stronger, and not so sensitive about these things, but I suppose you’re only human. And if ever anyone’s going through all those things at once, you know, it wears you down and…yeah…so, it was very lonely.”
However, Slater was never one to get bowed down by a challenge. He took up a commentary job in Australia’s Channel Nine network, where he works till now. He’s part of a formidable commentary team, including names such as Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry, Mark Nicholas, Mark Taylor and Ian Healy — probably the best ensemble in cricket commentary there is. Slater finally seems to be in a happy place right now, turning up for the first Test of the Australian summer and giving his two cents with a mike in his hand. And he probably deserves it, for his perseverance and his resolve to get through rough waters throughout his career.
“I don’t think I’ve ever shied away from the challenge of getting through something,” he later said. “I was a passionate player who, for better or worse, wore his heart right out there on his sleeve…I played the game the only way I knew how: full on.” This is probably the best way you can describe Michael Slater. He was one of the most swashbuckling, delightfully aggressive batsmen of his time and no one can forget those front-foot pulls. He did not fulfil his full potential, and played just 74 Tests and 42 One-Day Internationals. But he was a player who was good enough to make the great Viv Richards “travel the other side of the world to watch him play.”
Not the worst of compliments coming from a childhood hero.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber)