Nathan Astle, born on September 15, 1971, is a former New Zealand cricketer who was one of their premier batsmen in the 1990s and 2000s. Bharath Ramaraj goes through the career of the charismatic batsman.
During the 1994-1995 cricket season, New Zealand’s team was ravaged by a spate of injuries to key players. To make it worse for them, the ever dependable batsman, Andrew Jones, announced his retirement after a disastrous Test series against the pillaging West Indies. In such trying circumstances, with a sizzling knock of 95 against the men from Emerald Isles, the 23-year-old Nathan Astle emerged as one of the brightest lights of New Zealand cricket.
Born in Christchurch, Canterbury, Astle was one of New Zealand’s premier batsmen during the 1990s and 2000s. Statistically, he didn’t exactly carve out eye-popping numbers, but on innumerable occasions in his professional career, he showcased cavalier strokeplay and charismatic courage to send cricket lovers into a tizzy and script some famous victories for New Zealand. He could also bowl parsimoniously and take spellbinding catches.
First steps towards a fulfilling cricket career
Astle took his first steps towards a fulfilling cricket career by joining the East Christchurch-Shirley Cricket Club. It is a famous cricket club in New Zealand that has produced international cricketers like Charlie Boxshall, Jack Alabaster, Bruce Taylor, Vic Pollard, Peter Coman, Craig McMillan, Neil Broom, Michael Papps and Astle himself.
Interestingly, during the early part of his career, Astle invariably used to bat down the order at the No 6 position and was well known for his parsimonious medium-paced bowling.
In 1990-1991, New Zealand’s selectors plumped for Astle to play for New Zealand Young Cricketers against England Young Cricketers. In spite of New Zealand Young Cricketers winning the three-match series convincingly 2-0, the exciting pace-duo of Glen Chapple and Mark Broadhurst, who showed flashes of brilliance in the Under-19 ranks, combined together to trouble New Zealand’s promising batsmen.
Astle himself found the task of facing up to the impressive pace-duo a tough baptism by fire. He accrued only 127 runs at an average of 31.75. Even with a ball in hand, he didn’t make any significant contributions in that series. Yet, it must have been a great learning experience for Astle to face up to some quality bowlers.
In 1991-1992, Astle made his First-Class debut for Canterbury against Central Districts in the Shell Trophy. In fact, in his first three seasons in domestic cricket, Astle found runs hard to come by.
It was only in the 1994-1995 First-Class season when Astle made New Zealand’s cricket-cognoscenti sit up and take notice of his immense potential. In that season, Astle amassed 663 runs at an awe-inspiring average of 55.25.
In 1994-1995, in a crystal clear manner, Astle served notice of his ability to deliver the goods under pressure-cooker situations by steadying Canterbury’s shaky ship with a gut-busting innings of 96 against Auckland. It was a creditable performance from Astle, as it came against an attack consisting of names like Danny Morrison, Mark Walmsley, William Watson, Justin Vaughan and Dipak Patel. But it was Astle’s nerve-tingling knock of 191 against Wellington a few months later that perhaps swayed New Zealand’s selectors into seriously considering him for national selection.
Making a name in one-day cricket
Soon, Astle got a call-up to play for the Kiwis in the one-day series against the West Indies in 1994-1995. However, it was in the series against Sri Lanka when the think-tank’s coup de maître opened the batting with Astle that paved the way for him to carve a niche for himself in the one-day arena.
Astle’s pugnacious knock of 95 at Hamilton against Sri Lanka didn’t just help New Zealand level the series 1-1, but also ended their losing streak in one-day cricket which had extended to a whopping 14 games before that match. Astle’s innings against Sri Lanka served as an indicator to selectors that here was a cricketer who had sparkling talent and an unflinching desire to succeed at the highest level.
In fact, it was under the new coach, Glenn Turner, that Astle seemed to blossom as an opener in one-day cricket. When the New Zealand team travelled to the shores of India to play Tests and One-Day Internationals (ODIs) in 1995-1996, not many cricket pundits gave them even an iota of a chance of doing well. However, the unfancied New Zealand team gave India a run for their money in the one-day series, before eventually losing 3-2.
In the first few matches, Astle struggled to stand up and be counted. But in the fifth match played at Nagpur, he was in rip-roaring form. On a batting paradise, he ripped open Indian bowling line-up and essayed a buccaneering innings of 114. He was particularly severe on any width that was offered by the Indian seamers.
The watershed moment of Astle’s fledgling one-day career, though, came in the opening encounter of the 1996 World Cup against England at Ahmedabad. Astle, who was dropped on one by Graham Thorpe in the slip cordon, made them pay dearly as he waltzed through England’s bowling line-up and essayed a scintillating hundred.
It was high-octane stuff from Astle. One can rekindle fond memories from that innings: with twinkling footwork, how he repeatedly smashed Lancashire’s seamer, Peter Martin, all over the ground; how he consistently peppered the off-side field by cutting and driving Darren Gough and Peter Martin. Just for the sheer purity of ball-striking, it has to go down in history books as one of the finest knocks played in the 50-over cricket World Cup.
The writer also vividly remembers how Astle gifted the £1,000 Man of the Match cheque he received for his century against England to a pani-puri seller called Bharat Shah. It is said that Bharat Shah bowled to Astle in the nets before the match against England and impressed him with his raw pace. He is even said to have sent Astle’s stumps somersaulting in the last ball of his over.
Bharat Shah, after encashing the cheque from the bank said, “The cheque means more than the money.”
Unfortunately for Astle and New Zealand, he couldn’t replicate his heroics during the rest of the cricketing extravaganza. He was involved in terrible mix-ups with his opening partner, Craig Spearman, against both Netherlands and South Africa.
Opposition bowlers too bowled better to him as the tournament progressed. For instance, in New Zealand’s match against Australia in the quarter-final played at Chennai, Australian pacers gave him no room to work with; and finally in sheer frustration, Astle tried to break free by using his feet and was caught behind of Damien Fleming’s bowling.
First Test hundred and subsequent success in the international arena
During New Zealand’s tour to the Caribbean in 1996, Astle was able to shrug off his poor form in the World Cup with back-to-back nerve-tingling hundreds.
It wasn’t all that easy for him, as during the lead-up to the first Test at Barbados, the chunky Barbadian fast bowler Patterson Thompson, with his barrel-chested-action, captured the imagination of cricket loving public in the Caribbean by bowling a nasty bouncer to smash Astle on his chin in a warm-up game.
Danny Morrison on that nasty delivery by Thompson and the scary thought of facing up to Windies pacers of yore: “They’d come in and say ‘Listen mon … bumpers and yorkers … that’s all you’re gonna get’. Then you got a barrage. Thompson clipped Nathan Astle under his chin. It was an ominous start to the series with blood splattered all over his shirt.”
Astle was equal to the task of facing up to Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and the new kid on the block, Patterson Thompson, in the first Test at Barbados. In just his third Test match, Astle came into bat at two for 28 in the second innings, but like a wounded gladiator, he proceeded to smash his tormentor in the warm-up game, Thompson, to shreds.
Now, Thompson was a genuine quick bowler who believed in bowling at the speed of red-lightning. But at the same time, he sprayed it all around the park and had a major issue with bowling no balls. Astle, batting with unrestrained bravado, took full advantage of it and raced to his century at almost run-a-ball.
As the ball kept ricocheting into the boundary boards, it seemed like volcano would erupt from his flashing blade. Astle eventually got out after making 125 out of a mere 150 deliveries. He followed up that monumental effort at Barbados with another stupendous century at Antigua in the second Test. In spite of Astle’s stirring deeds, New Zealand lost the series 1-0.
The following year Astle and the arch-rabbit with the willow, Danny Morrison, surprised one-and-all with a remarkable last-wicket partnership of 106 runs against England to help New Zealand escape with a draw.
Astle wouldn’t have been able to take Kiwis to safe waters if Morrison hadn’t given him company. The sheer dogged determination of ‘duck champion’ Morrison to carve out a painstaking knock of 14 and survive the barrage of bouncers from England’s seam attack took the wind out of England’s sails.
When Morrison walked in to bat with the scorecard reading 142 for nine, Astle must have been a worried man, but Morrison said to him, “Don’t worry, I’m happy doing my bit pushing the singles and turning over the strike. I’ll help keep the score ticking along, don’t worry about me!”
Morrison, after the Houdini act against England: “I felt as if all my Test innings put together couldn’t have lasted that long! I can’t quite believe I’ve just walked off the park with a ‘not out’ against my name and a Test match saved.”
The major share of this believe-it-or-not rescue mission though, has to go to Astle who showed a tunnel-vision aim and great prowess of adhesion to keep England’s seam attack at bay. He also farmed the strike wonderfully well. In fact, Astle’s heart-stirring knock was akin to a brave captain of a sinking ship holding firm against the wrath of foaming oceans and a gusty wind rising to levels of a hurricane fury.
Views of New Zealand’s then coach, Steve Rixon: “I’ve got to be honest. When the score was 105 for eight at lunch, with only Danny to come, I thought, that’s it — we’ve had it.”
In the same year, Astle left an indelible mark on India’s adoring cricket loving public not just with his pulsating batting, but also by taking key wickets in the Pepsi Independence Cup.
In the first match of the Quadrangular tournament against Pakistan at Mohali, he made Pakistan’s much-vaunted bowling line-up wince with agony at every brutal stroke that he essayed, before tormenting their batsmen with a ball in hand by taking four wickets. Astle’s uncanny ability to disguise the slower ones well and bowl stump-to-stump turned the match on its head and New Zealand won a cliff-hanger of contest by 22 runs.
With the 1999 World Cup looming on the horizon, everyone expected New Zealand’s swashbuckling opener to get them off to rollicking starts. However, Astle flopped miserably, as he just couldn’t counter the seam/swing conditions of England and ended the tournament with a tail-enderesque average of 8.77.
In the subsequent Test series played in England though, Astle was able to curb his natural instincts and score a well-measured hundred against the Englishmen at Old Trafford. Astle was also used by Stephen Fleming to hold one end up with his nagging line and length. To his credit, Astle was able to keep the English batsmen on a tight leash.
By the dawn of the new century, Astle was a well-established member of the New Zealand set-up. With it came the extra responsibility of carrying the burden of shoring up New Zealand’s rather brittle batting line-up on the shoulders of captain Fleming and Astle himself.
During the 2000-2001 season, with the New Zealand cricket team finding itself in dire-straits after series defeats in South Africa and against Sri Lanka at home, a seasoned campaigner like Astle was under immense pressure to notch-up big scores. He made a good fist of it in the ODI series against Pakistan played at home.
With the series dead-locked at 2-2, it all came down to the final match played at Dunedin. New Zealand’s star-performer Astle took upon the gargantuan task of facing up to Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akthar and company with aplomb. He fearlessly used his feet to the pacers and every time Pakistan’s quicks bowled a touch short and wide, he swatted them like flies through the off-side with debonair cuts to take New Zealand to a fine victory.
By the end of the year, when New Zealand travelled to Australia to play the Trans-Tasman Test series, virtually everyone had written off their chances. But in what turned out to be a rain-marred Test series, the plucky Kiwis held their own against the ‘invincibles’ — Australia. Actually, if a few decisions had gone their way, New Zealand could have very well clinched the Test series 1-0 with a famous victory in the final game played at WACA.
In the Test match at WACA, one saw New Zealand’s batsmen touch rarefied zones. Up against the likes of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Shane Warne, their batsmen made critics eat humble-pie with Lou Vincent, Fleming and Astle essaying impressive centuries.
During Astle’s seven-hour long patient vigil at the crease, it was evident that he had come prepared to trust his judgement outside the off-stump on a trampoline wicket. He left as many deliveries as he could, while facing up to the metronomic, McGrath and the lethal Gillespie. As soon as Lee and a slightly off colour Warne came onto bowl, he mercilessly took advantage of some poor bowling.
A few months later, the crowning glory of Astle’s Test career arrived in a series against England at Jade stadium, Christchurch. It was a Test in which Astle went onto essay the fastest double-hundred in terms of balls faced.
It was a curious Test match in the sense that there was enough juice in the drop-in wicket for the first few days for bowlers to make merry. But as the match progressed, it turned out to be a belter of a track.
England’s talismanic all-rounder, Andrew Flintoff, and Graham Thorpe cashed-in with a thrill-a-minute partnership of 281 runs for the sixth wicket in the second innings. Just like a human slingshot, Astle responded in kind with his own version of wondrously entertaining innings to roast England’s formidable pace attack.
On that day, Astle just backed his preternatural hand-eye co-ordination and it rained fours and sixes from his majestic bat. Such was Astle’s ordnance with a willow that England’s captain Nasser Hussain, with a stupefied look on his face, seemed completely helpless. Astle did survive one chance, though, relatively early in his innings: the usually ever-agile Mark Ramprakash dropped a tough catch at short-leg off the luckless Flintoff.
With short boundaries coming into play, he was especially severe on Hoggard by repeatedly smashing him through the line on the off-side with utter disdain. Astle had no time for the reputation of the bowler, as England’s spearhead Andy Caddick wasn’t spared either.
In spite of extracting a bit of disconcerting bounce from the placid surface, Caddick was smashed for three sixes in a single over — the best one of the lot being when he came down the wicket with sheer arrogance to wallop a back of a length delivery from Caddick over the extra-cover region for a humongous six.
Even one of the best defensive bowlers the writer has seen in Flintoff couldn’t escape from the esoteric period of batsmanship by Astle. New Zealand lost the Test match by 98 runs, but Astle’s genius power-hitting must have left dreadful scars on the minds of English pacers.
The sun sets on Astle’s cricketing career
During the later part of Astle’s international career, he had his fair share of ups and downs. The general downward spiral in his Test career could be seen by the fact that barring his hundred at Napier against Sri Lanka in 2004-2005, the only other time Astle crossed the three-figure mark in the last two years of his Test career was against a dispirited Zimbabwean set-up at Bulawayo. In short, on most occasions, Astle seemed like a creaky veteran who was just too late on the ball.
However, in one-day cricket, Astle continued to make mountains of runs at top of the order. In the tri-series final between India and New Zealand played in Zimbabwe in 2005-2006, it was Astle’s masterpiece knock that floored the Indian team into submission.
As the years ticked by, Astle seemed to be lacking in motivation. Finally, just a few months before the showpiece event of cricket, the 50-over World Cup held in the West Indies in 2006-2007, Astle hung up his spiked boots.
Astle on his retirement: “I have been fighting this day for about eight months. I so desperately wanted to go to my fourth World Cup, but deep down inside I knew that I was lacking motivation and the enjoyment levels were just not there.
“Probably the first indications were last year when I was having a good run and not really enjoying the success that I was having. But because I wanted to go to the World Cup I probably fudged over these feelings, which was fine until about a month ago when it really started to hit home that this was no longer the place for me. Enjoyment has always been a huge factor for why I play the game and when that faltered I knew it was time to move on.
“Once I had made the decision that I would not be going to the World Cup, for the sake of the team, I needed to go as soon as possible to make way for another player. I don’t believe it would have been fair on my team mates to hold on.”
There was also an inkling that extreme pressure put on senior players in the New Zealand camp by the then coach, John Bracewell, and high performance manager, Ric Charlesworth, led to the retirements of Nathan Astle, Chris Cairns and, subsequently, Fleming too.
Views of Fleming on controversial coaching methods: “The emotional strain that was put on Nathan and Chris Cairns was never measured. These guys were working under unbelievable pressure to perform during a game with the axe hanging over them. I’ve always wondered, looking back at it, whether that time forced the retirement of Chris and then the retirement of Nathan.”
Nathan Astle and athletic fielding
Astle was a very versatile all-round fieldsman too. He was an expert slip catcher and to make it even better, he could prowl the outfield and take some outstanding catches. He took 70 catches in just 81 tests.
In a one-dayer against the Caribbean team at Jade stadium in Christchurch in 2005-2006, with a salmon leap he took a brilliant catch to send Devon Smith back to the pavilion. More than anything else, the way he was able to judge where the boundary rope was and take an outrageous catch was just unbelievable.
Other interesting facts
Since retirement, Astle has turned his attention to the thrills and spills of auto-racing. Astle has been a regular competitor at the Ruapuna Speedway, Christchurch, in the last few years. This year, at the age of 41, Astle scorched the speedway by coming third in the South Island Sprint Car Championship.
Astle and his wife Kelly run a Kiwi Kids childcare centre where Astle is the director. Another interesting point to note is that Astle’s sister, Lisa, played for New Zealand women’s cricket team in an ODI against Denmark in 1993.
Astle wasn’t one of those cricketers who statistically touched stratospheric levels. He wasn’t one of those willowy-masters whose watertight defence to exquisite, magisterial wrists, everything seemed perfectly aligned. Yet, when on song, Astle was a pure entertainer conjuring up his own version of dazzling brand of attacking batsmanship to tear the game away from the very grasp of a bewildered opposition.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)