The Chris Martin nobody remembers. Pace, movement, bounce, sweat, and aggression made him the spearhead of the New Zealand attack. © Getty Images
The Chris Martin nobody remembers. Pace, movement, bounce, sweat, and aggression made him the spearhead of the New Zealand attack. © Getty Images

Chris Martin, born December 10, 1974, was the backbone of the New Zealand pace attack throughout the first decade of the new millennium. Unfortunately, he is usually remembered for his ridiculously sub-par batting skills. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a man whose lion-hearted toil was seldom appreciated.

In a decade when Shane Bond’s impactful performances were sporadic, an injury-prone Daryl Tuffey kept coming back with his honest efforts, and James Franklin was on his way from becoming a bowler who batted to a batsman who almost never bowled, Christopher Stewart Martin spearheaded the New Zealand bowling attack.

He turned around at his mark; then, gripping the ball with the long fingers of his right hand, he broke into rhythmic, extended strides; as he approached the umpire, you could almost anticipate the famous leap (with both feet off the ground) that took off from a few yards, hurling the red leather orb. And if the ball managed to hit the pads or come close to an edge, the appeal that followed was sufficient to send a chill down the spine of the bravest of umpires.

He was not express, and neither could he move the ball in the air; he counted on subtle variations of pace and movement off the pitch, which was often enough for him to finish as the third-highest wicket-taker in the history of New Zealand Test cricket — after Richard Hadlee and Daniel Vettori.

With 221 wickets at 32.79, Vettori topped the wicket charts for New Zealand in the previous decade. Martin came second with 176 at 33.61. The tsunami that went by the name of Bond is third on the list: he averaged a mere 22.09, but finished with a mere 87 wickets — less than half of Martin’s.

Despite the wicket count, Martin’s average was far from satisfactory. Pundits would probably agree that Martin, despite his immense skills, was more of a workhorse than a spearhead. Had Bond remained fit, Martin would probably have been the perfect partner, bowling into the wind for hours.

In all Martin claimed 233 Test wickets from 71 Tests at 33.81 with five ten-wicket hauls and a ten-for. His First-Class wicket count read an agonising 599. Never a champion in the limited-over formats, he played 20 ODIs and six T20Is with mediocre returns (he took three wickets only twice, and went for over six an over on both occasions).

The most curious statistic of Martin is probably his success story against South Africa. He is one of 7 bowlers to have taken 50 or more Test wickets against South Africa in the millennium (he has taken 57). His average (26.72) is next to only those of Muttiah Muralitharan (72 wickets at 21.59) and Mitchell Johnson (64 at 25.64); his strike rate (49.6) is marginally next to Johnson’s (49.5).

Like all his teammates, he was a good fielder, but when it came to batting, it was another story altogether. A tally of 123 runs from 104 Test innings at 2.36 (that involved only one double-digit score) hardly tells the full story: it was not about his getting out; it was about how clueless he looked when it came to judging the line, length, pace, movement, and all possible parameters one needs to keep in mind while batting. But more of that later.

Early days

Born in Christchurch, Martin impressed an impact on Martin Crowe, bowling to him in the nets as a teenager. Their paths would cross two decades later, but that is another story. While still in his teens, he made it to New Zealand Academy Development Squad, and impressed with 4 for 51.

After a stint with Canterbury Under-20s he made an innocuous First-Class debut in a Plunket Shield match against Wellington at Christchurch at 23. He was under the radar, and toured Australia with the New Zealand Academy in 1998-99, where he impressed with 8 for 43 and 4 for 33 in a match against Australian Cricket Academy at Brisbane — a side that boasted of Marcus North, James Hopes, and Graham Manou.

Martin spent the summer of 1999 at Scotland, honing his skills for Heriot’s in the Scotland National Cricket League Premier Division. He had an outstanding tournament, finishing with 36 wickets at 14.36 as Heriot’s came third. The performance did not go unnoticed. He made it to the Test squad for the New Zealand A’s tour of England in 2000, and finally to the Test squad for the South Africa tour later that year.

Test debut

Martin returned match figures of 4 for 61 against Boland at Paarl, and followed it with four for 45 against North West at Potchefstroom. Less than a week later he made his Test debut in the first Test at Bloemfontein alongside leg-spinner Brooke Walker.

Stephen Fleming brought him on first-change, after Shayne O’Connor and Tuffey. He dismissed Gary Kirsten, Neil McKenzie, and Shaun Pollock in the first innings and Jacques Kallis in the second, but could not stop a five-wicket defeat. The surprise element came when he batted: his 23-ball 7 included a four. He would cross the 7-mark only once in his Test career. South Africa won the three-Test series 2-0, but with 11 wickets at 26 Martin emerged as the highest wicket-taker (O’Connor, with 8, came next).

Back home, he claimed his first five-wicket haul when he claimed 5 for 71 as the tourists scored 340 for 6 at Wellington. With Bond arriving on the scene, Tuffey being a constant support, and all-rounders like Chris Cairns and Jacob Oram providing back-up, Martin found himself in and out of the side.

Phantom rises

Bond’s injury gave Martin a lifeline in the 2003-04 home series against South Africa, and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs put up 177 at Eden Park for the opening stand before Martin scythed through them, finishing with 6 for 76 and bowling them out for 296.

New Zealand responded with a humongous 595 (Scott Styris and Cairns both scoring in excess of 150). Once again South Africa had a good start, reaching 249 for 2. Once again Martin took charge, took 5 for 104, and bowled out the tourists for 349. It remains New Zealand’s only home Test win against South Africa. It also remained Martin’s only First-Class ten-wicket haul.

Wellington seemed almost a déjà vu for the hosts: after the hosts scored 297 they reached 251 for 3; along came Martin, and soon they were skittled out for 316. Martin finished with 5 for 55. In the process he became the third New Zealand bowler to take three consecutive five-wicket hauls after Jack Cowie and Hadlee, who did it twice (Vettori is the only other New Zealand bowler to have achieved this).

He almost won the Test for New Zealand, removing Gibbs and Jacques Rudolph by his fourth over. Unfortunately, Smith (125*) and Kirsten (76) added 171 for the fourth wicket, sealing the match and levelling the series. It remains the last series that New Zealand managed to draw against South Africa till date. Martin’s heroic performances, coupled with his excellent show in Shell Shield, made him a New Zealand Cricket Almanac Player of the Year.

Spearhead

With Bond and Tuffey both plagued by injuries, the onus fell on Martin to take over the mantle. He had his highs and lows. He toiled on a flat track at The Gabba in 2004-05 where Michael Clarke and Adam Gilchrist slammed hundreds and, more famously, Jason Gillespie and Glenn McGrath scored fifties. Surprisingly, McGrath and Shane Warne bowled New Zealand for 76 on the same pitch.

There was also a six for 54 against Sri Lanka in 2005 in the cold of Wellington. Then came the big performance: after New Zealand were bowled out for 119 next year at New Wanderers, Martin bowled Boeta Dippenaar first ball, and with 5 for 37, led the rout as they crashed from 99 for 1 to 186. Unfortunately, they did not have the firepower to stop South Africa from chasing down 217.

A dozen!

Martin has seldom spoken of his favourite performance, but the one against Bangladesh at Dunedin in 2007-08 would be there with the best. Martin and Oram bowled out the tourists for 137 before Matthew Bell and Oram slammed hundreds. Martin walked out at 340 for 9 to join Iain O’Brien.

There was a huge appeal off the second ball he faced. It was turned down. He got off the mark with a slightly unconventional stroke to third-man off Mashrafe Mortaza, and never looked back. He was ready to face Shahadat Hossain at the other end.

The fifth ball was over-pitched, and Martin off-drove it neatly to the fence. He had another swipe at the next; the ball took the inside edge, went over the stumps, beat a diving Mushfiqur Rahim, and raced for four more. Martin had registered his highest Test score. When will he stop?

A helpless Mohammad Ashraful turned to Sajedul Islam, but Martin managed a single, reaching double-figures for the only time in his career. He claimed two more singles off Mortaza’s next over before O’Brien, still struggling on 5, edged one to Mushfiqur. Martin’s valiant unbeaten effort ended on a 20-ball 12. The innings lifted his batting average from 2.00 to 2.46 — a whopping 23 per cent lift in a single innings.

The final hurrah

chris martin batting
The Chris Martin everybody remembers. Look at the eyes, feet, and bat, and where the ball landed. © Getty Images

Left out of the side later that year, Martin roared back into the side next season. On a Motera pitch that offered nothing to the batsmen (both sides had scored over 450 in the first innings), Martin reduced India to 15 for 5 (and 65 for 6) before VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh bailed them out.

Between them, the Martins — Chris and Guptill — dismissed Phillip Hughes in all four innings on New Zealand’s tour of Australia in 2011-12. Martin played a crucial role in both Tests, returning match figures of 4 for 89 at The Gabba and 4 for 90 at Bellerive. His 8 wickets (at 22.37) was next to Doug Bracewell’s tally of 11. He was once again named New Zealand Cricket Almanac Player of the Year as well as the inaugural Richard Hadlee Medal for the New Zealand Cricketer of the Year.

With youngsters like Bracewell, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, and Neil Wagner arriving on the scenario, time was probably running out for Martin, but he refused to give up. Meanwhile, with Crowe deciding to attempt a comeback, Martin bowled to him in the nets — again. “He [Crowe] used to ring me up every now and then when we were down in Christchurch and I used to come down and bowl to him when I was 16, so maybe the shoe’s on the other foot at this stage,” Martin said in an interview with TVNZ.

His First-Class best (6 for 26) came against Zimbabwe at Napier later that season (he had also taken 2 for 5 in the first innings). In his next bowling innings, at Dunedin, Martin took 4 for 56. Martin toured South Africa next year, where New Zealand were bowled out for an embarrassing 45 at Newlands. He retaliated with 3 for 63, but South Africa won by an innings. It turned out to be his last Test, but not before he finished — quite fittingly — with a duck.

He played another season in New Zealand domestic cricket — this time for Auckland — the highlights of which was five for 21 against Canterbury at Hamilton. In July 2013 he announced his retirement from all forms of the sport. He joined the Canterbury coaching staff next month.

Willow? What willow?

Exactly how Martin landed up with the nickname Phantom (which was often shortened to Tom) is unknown, but it is generally accepted that it was because he was “a walking ghost” with the bat. The commentators did not hesitate to call him a Walking Wicket, and rightly so.

The following graph represents the progressive average (runs per dismissal) and runs per innings for Martin. After 12 innings his aggregate read 12 runs (one must remember that he had scored seven on debut); he maintained the runs : innings ratio of 1 for the next two innings.

ChrisMartin

As is evident, Martin scored 123 runs from 104 innings (exactly half of which were not outs). Though his 36 ducks is significantly behind Courtney Walsh’s tally of 43, his 7 pairs is way clear of the next number on the list (four, shared by Walsh, Muralitharan, Mervyn Dillon, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, and of all people, Marvan Atapattu).

The outstanding statistic of Martin’s batting career (if it can be called that) was his record in innings where he was bowled. He was bowled 27 times, 20 of which were ducks. Chandra and Walsh (14 each) are the only ones to have been bowled for ducks more than ten times. Martin scored 17 from these innings at an average of 0.62. Chandra’s 1.04 seems almost Bradmanesque in comparison.

It was, however, the aesthetic value of Martin’s batsmanship that made him made him the undisputed emperor of tail-enders. There was never any doubt regarding his intent. He was not the ugly No. 11 slogger who went after bowlers irrespective of the match situation.

His defence was near-immaculate, whether on the front-foot or back. Unfortunately, the bat seldom came close to the line or length of the ball. He often went on the back-foot, eyes squinted in concentration, trying to play the perfect punch through the covers, the bat finishing some distance outside off-stump. Unfortunately, the yorker that had crashed on to the leg-stump had beaten him in line, length, movement, and pace.

They made fun of him in the commentary box and in the press, but he was also cheered by the Hamilton crowd when he kept out five balls from Harbhajan while Jesse Ryder, batting on 98, probably had his heart in his mouth at the other end. But Phantom took it in his stride. Like all of us, he always had a laugh about it.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)