Graeme Wood © Getty Images
Graeme Wood © Getty Images

The intrepid Graeme Wood was born November 6, 1956. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man who mastered the fast bowlers but often succumbed to his suicidal running between the wickets.

Kerry Packer’s wallet had reduced Australian cricket to one of its lowest pits ever. World Series Cricket took away most of the champions and the nation ran through a terrible phase that included their worst Ashes performance (a 1-5 defeat at home) among other humiliating defeats.

It was during these dark days that the moustachioed Western Australian Graeme Malcolm Wood had appeared on the international scenario. Wood was brave, never flinched, and mastered the West Indians at their den. In short, he was Australia’s crisis man when it seemed that there was no man who could bail them out against the most furious fast bowlers of the world.

Christian Ryan wrote of Wood in Wisden Asia Cricket: “His bravery was part of the fascination. He’d wear a helmet but no grill. He’d field at short leg. He was the man the selectors rang whenever the Windies were in town.”

The greatest enemy of Wood was, however, the man himself: he was so poor a runner between the wickets that he was nicknamed, not too fondly, the Kamikaze Kid. Indeed, the Australian dressing-room often had their heart in their mouth with Wood at the crease, and his batting partners were in a worse state of mind: the phrase running-between-the-wickets was probably not a lesson taught in his cricket coaching days.

He did not believe that he was at fault, though: he thought he was very quick and it was the others who almost never refused a run and wanted to match his speed. He specifically mentioned that he was at ease while running with fleet-footed men like Kim Hughes.

It is indeed a shame that Wood is remembered for the run outs he caused rather than the runs he scored. Thanks to his ferocious back-foot play (he was born and brought up in Western Australia, after all) Wood might have been remembered as one of the best batsmen against fast bowling of his era. He took on the best of bowlers, and when he middled them they usually stayed put.

Ryan possibly described Wood’s technique the best: “Wood had a stance built to combat express bowling. Feet splayed wide apart, bum sticking out, so square-on that his front shoulder pointed almost to midwicket, as if daring the bowlers to aim at it — and when they did he would hook without hesitation, whether there was no man in the deep or three. Bouncers would be swayed rather than ducked, neck craned diagonally and eyes wide open, the ball grazing his moustache. They do not collate statistics that count how often batsmen get cracked on the knuckles, but this is one table Wood might sit atop. A radio commentator once said Wood’s hands were stained violet and swollen to twice the size of a normal human’s.”

The numbers were far from great: 3,374 runs from 59 Tests at 31.83 with 9 hundreds sound pedestrian, as do 2,219 runs from 83 ODIs at 33.62 with 3 hundreds. Even at First-Class level, Wood scored 13,353 runs with 35 hundreds at a rather ordinary 39.97.

What makes Wood really stand out as the master of quality fast bowling is perhaps best illustrated by the following table:

M R Ave 100s
In West Indies 6 562 46.83 2
In other venues 53 2,812 29.91 7
Total 59 3,374 31.83 9

He could play the most feared attack in their den; unflinchingly.

Early days

Wood was born in East Fremantle and soon made it to the Western Australia Colts side at an age of 19. About this time he also played Australian Rules Football for East Fremantle Football Club. He played 14 matches in the Western Australian National Football League between 1975 and 1977.

He made his First-Class debut for Western Australia against the touring MCC side of 1976-77, scoring 37 and 1 at WACA — the only preparation match for the tourists before the Centenary Test. The next season saw him bringing up his first First-Class hundred against Queensland at home: opening batting in the fourth innings he scored 100 not out.

He scored 35, 67 not out, 40, 66, 109, 73, and 40 in the next few innings. With the Australian side already depleted by World Series Cricket and the touring Indians coming from 2 Tests down to level the series Wood was selected for the last Test at Adelaide alongside Rick Darling, Bruce Yardley, and Ian Callen.

Wood played 59 Tests and scored 3,374 runs at 31.83 © Getty Images
Wood played 59 Tests and scored 3,374 runs at 31.83 © Getty Images

Test debut

The new opening pair of Wood and Darling negotiated the new ball safely and looked comfortable against India’s famous spinners. They added 89 in 104 minutes before Wood was stumped by Syed Kirmani off Bhagwat Chandrasekhar for 39. He failed in the second innings, scoring 8, but Australia eventually reached home with a 47-run victory.

Despite a modest debut, Wood was selected for the subsequent West Indies series. He started on a high note, scoring 122 against Leeward Islands at Basseterre. He was retained for the first Test at Queen’s Park Oval.

The Test began on a disastrous note for the tourists when Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, and Colin Croft shot them out for 90. Facing a 315-run deficit they fared marginally better in the second innings: Wood and Craig Serjeant began on a high note, adding 59 in 54 minutes before Wood was snared by Roberts for 32.

The second Test at Kensington Oval started on a similar note when Darling fell cheaply to Croft. Wood was ready this time: between the Tests he had encountered Wayne Daniel, Sylvester Clarke, and Vanburn Holder at the same ground, scoring 76.

Wood decided to take on the lethal trio of fast bowlers: he scored 69 with 11 boundaries, adding 92 with Graham Yallop in 115 minutes before he shouldered arms to Croft. Jeff Thomson kept the Australian hopes alive, restricting the hosts to a 38-run lead. It was then that Roberts and Garner tore down at the Australians.

He was the only man who stood tall among the ruins, sixth out for 56 out of a team score of 99 during his stay. His innings was flawless till Viv Richards ran him out with a direct throw at the non-striker’s end. There was not much resistance (other than some slogging from Yardley), and West Indies cantered home by 9 wickets on Day Three.

With the Packer-contracted stars ruled out of the third Test at Bourda Australia sniffed a chance to come back. Thomson and Wayne Clark bowled the hosts for 205 before Australia piled up 286 thanks to Wood’s resilient 50. Australia were set 362 for a win and there seemed to be a déjà vu as Clarke reduced them to 22 for 3.

It was then that Serjeant joined Wood, and the two decided to take the attack to the enemy camp: 251 was added in 269 minutes; for once Wood was perfectly happy to play the support act; he carried on after Serjeant fell for 126, and his 335-minute vigil of 126 ended when he was run out (yes, again).

Wood scored another 90 in the last Test of the series at Sabina Park; he eventually finished with 474 runs at 47.40; Alvin Kallicharran (408) was the only other man to go past 350 on the tour.

Ups and downs and run outs

A depleted Australian side was no match for a full-strength England (that too led by Mike Brearley), and the margin was a humiliating 5-1 in favour of the tourists. Wood scored 64 at WACA and 100 at MCG, but little else of note. He had an okayish series, but the embarrassing factor was his running between the wickets: in every Test there was an innings where either Wood or his opening partner was run out.

It all started at The Gabba. Ryan recollected in Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket Paperback: “News that [Gary] Cosier was to open the innings, never his natural habitat, was his second disappointment. And then he realised who he’d be opening with. Graeme Wood patted the fifth ball of the summer to cover-point David Gower and bolted. Cosier hesitated, and kept running, all the way to the pavilion.”

Test Venue Partner Batsman run out
1 The Gabba Gary Cosier Gary Cosier
2 WACA Rick Darling Rick Darling
3 MCG Rick Darling Rick Darling
4 SCG Rick Darling Graeme Wood
5 Adelaide Rick Darling Graeme Wood
6 SCG Andrew Hilditch Andrew Hilditch

An exasperated Ray Robinson later wrote: “It began to look as if the wicket could do with traffic lights.”

Following 3 disappointing Tests (1 against Pakistan at home and 2 in India), Wood was dropped from the Australian side. By the time the India tour had ended, Australia had tried out all of Darling, Andrew Hilditch, Yallop, and even Yardley as openers.

Wood never liked India at first sight. He later recalled: “That tour was one I tried to erase from the memory banks. When I first went to India I couldn’t stand it. I hated it. I hated the food, I hated the place, I hated the environment.” It took a toll on his form and he lost his way somewhere in the middle.

He was, however, retained for the England Centenary Test at Lord’s. Wood got Australia off to an excellent start, adding 64 with Bruce Laird, 86 with Greg Chappell, and 110 more with Hughes. Just when it seemed that he was due for a seriously big score he was stumped brilliantly by David Bairstow off John Emburey for a 295-ball 112.

Back home he started with a bang, scoring 111 against New Zealand at The Gabba where nobody else crossed 40; then, just when it seemed that he was finding his groove back he scored 3 consecutive ducks in the same series (including a pair at MCG), lasting only 10 balls.

The sage continued. Once again he scored a hundred — 125 against India at Adelaide — and once again he followed it with 31 runs from 5 innings. He was still picked for the 1981 Ashes tour — possibly because he always gave the idea that there was a hundred lurking around the corner.

In between all this, Wood did something Hughes will perhaps never forget. It was a special occasion for Hughes. He had been going through an extremely hectic schedule. His wife had given birth to twins and he had spent just one full day with his children in the summer. It was under these conditions that Hughes came out to bat. He himself recalled what followed to Ryan:

“There was a big crowd. And I felt, well, a fella’s got twins, he’s pretty pumped up. I remember going out there. I was batting with Graeme Wood. The scene was set for the father of twins to go out and score a double-hundred. I could see it. I could see it. I could picture it.”

“But Woody hadn’t read the script. I was at the non-striker’s end thinking not too much can happen here when Woody smashed one to backward point and said: ‘Yes.’”

“And I said: ‘Well, OK.’”

“I got run out by five yards. Hadn’t even faced a ball.”

Despite not being anywhere close to his best (310 runs at 28.67), Wood played in all 6 Tests of the series. To be fair to him, no Australian barring Allan Border (533 runs at 59.22) averaged more than 30 in the series. Despite the debacle, however, he scored 108 — his first ODI hundred — in the series-decider at Headingley. It ended, of course, in a run out.

In and out

Wood came back to form with 72 at The Gabba and 100 at MCG against Pakistan in back-to-back Tests. He played a hand in Australia’s win against West Indies at MCG, scoring 46 and adding 82 with Laird. In the second Test at SCG, he was hit all over for 188 minutes when he top-scored with 63. The follow-on and the Test were saved.

The West Indians were all over the batsmen in the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup that season. With their four-pronged fast bowling attack they went their jobs ruthlessly. Even then, there was a fifth bowler the batsmen always looked forward to score off — which was the game plan the Australians decided to stick to.

In the third match of the tournament at MCG, however, they unleashed the entire quintet of Roberts, Garner, Croft, Michael Holding, and Malcolm Marshall. West Indies scored 236 for 8, and Wood quietly went up to Greg Chappell and asked: “Who is the fifth? Who do we go after?” He was promptly demoted and did not get a bat as Australia won comfortably.

Then followed another string of poor scores, and, almost as an inevitability, Wood scored a valiant 100 at Eden Park against a rampant Richard Hadlee. The next innings — at Christchurch — saw Wood back at his aggressive best: he smashed 64 in 85 balls and got out with the team score on 82 for 3. The innings reversed the momentum of the series: Australia squared the series.

Thereafter Wood lost his way down the line. He did not have a good outing in the World Cup either as Australia crashed out of the tournament at the league stage for the second time in succession. He got hit on the face by a sickening bouncer for Holding and had to retire hurt.

With several new openers arriving on the scenario, Wood’s position was in jeopardy. Despite his previous success he was dropped for the first 2 Tests on the West Indies tour; when brought back he scored 68 and 20 (Australia scored 97) and he was dropped promptly for the rest of the series as well.

One of his heroic performances of the season came in an ODI against West Indies at Adelaide. It was an amazing innings by all definitions: Garner and Marshall shared 5 wickets between them, Wood batted out the 50 overs scoring 104 not out in a team score of 200 for 9, and turned out to be as successful as any of the bowlers, running out Kepler Wessels, Wayne Phillips, and Rod McCurdy on his own.

England won the Ashes in 1985 by a 3-1 margin. Wood crossed fifty only once during the series: after England amassed 456 at Trent Bridge, Wood, now opening with Hilditch, batted for 596 minutes, fighting his way to a career-best 172. With Greg Ritchie also scoring a hundred Australia obtained an 83-run lead, but the Test was drawn.

He also scored 114 not out in the last ODI of the tour at Lord’s, but his indifferent form, along with the arrival of the likes of David Book and Geoff Marsh, saw him out of both squads.

The surprising comeback

To his credit Wood did not give up. He scored 741 runs at 61.75 with 3 hundreds that season and followed it with 560 at 43.07 the next. By now captain of Western Australia, he led them to the Sheffield Shield in 1987-88. Leading from the front he led the batting charts with 1,014 runs at 78.00 (no other Western Australian crossed 600). In the final at the WACA, he sunk Queensland with a 278-ball 141 against an attack consisting of Ian Botham, Craig McDermott, Carl Rackemann, and Trevor Hohns.

He virtually barged his way into the side once again for the Pakistan tour of 1988-89 after a gap of over three years. He did not do too well, but was still given another chance when West Indies came for the subsequent tour. With Marsh and Boon already a permanent fixture at the top, Wood was pushed down the order.

He failed at The Gabba, scoring 6 and a golden duck. The second Test at WACA seemed to be a horror for the batsmen: “No Test cricketer should have been asked to bat on such a pitch, let alone against West Indies,” wrote Mark Ray. Ryan wrote that the pitch was “chipped and crusty, littered with loose flakes of turf as big as pizzas.”

West Indies had as good as won the Test after Richards’ 146 had taken them to 449. After Marsh and Mike Veletta fell, Wood walked out to join Boon; the new-look West Indian attack had only Marshall from the yesteryears, but had three lethal speedsters in the form of Patrick Patterson, Courtney Walsh, and Curtly Ambrose.

Soon after Wood walked, Ambrose removed Boon and Border in quick succession. The score was 167 for 4, and the follow-on was yet to be saved. Wood was joined at the crease by Steve Waugh, almost a decade younger to him and yet to score a Test hundred.

What followed was an amazing partnership between the pair — so dissimilar in age and experience, yet so similar in attitude. The two men put up a 200-run partnership in 202 minutes: the best part of the partnership was that both batsmen played with bravado, never hesitating to play their strokes.

Waugh went first for a 142-ball 95; Wood followed soon with a 176-ball 111 with 12 boundaries, justifying his selection. Ryan later wrote: “Wood jumped up and bunted down the janglers at his throat. The rest he hooked, pulled, cut, or drove. These were not simply shots out of a textbook but shots fired across Caribbean bows, executed with a tumbling back-lift and a loose flap of the arms.”

He was not finished. Australia were left to survive 88 overs (they were already one man down as Ambrose had smashed Geoff Lawson’s jaw). He played his strokes batting for 103 minutes for a valiant 42 but Australia could not save the Test; West Indies were home with 20 overs to spare.

Just when it seemed that Wood had forged his way back to the side he failed at the MCG, scoring 12 and 7. West Indies lost by a whopping 285 runs and conceded the series. He was replaced by Mark Taylor in the next Test; his Test career had finally come to an end for good.

Final days

Wood had another go at finding a spot back in the Test side, but with Marsh, Boon, Taylor, and Jones forming a formidable support unit to Border and Steve Waugh on the ascent, his chance was as good as gone. He still scored 3 hundreds in 1990-91, keeping his chances alive.

He played only 2 matches in his last season before bowing out of First-Class cricket. In his last match, he scored 15 and 32 against Victoria at WACA.

Post-retirement

When Dennis Lillee was appointed president of WACA, Wood, along with Sam Gannon, were nominated vicepPresidents. He later replaced Tony Dodemaide as the WACA CEO in February 2007 but stood down in October 2011 to be replaced by Christina Matthews.

During his tenure, he laid the plans to renovate the WACA ground, aiming to increase the capacity from the existing 30,000. It was, however, delays with the execution of the plan that influenced Wood to resign. In an interview to ABC News, Wood said that “it probably had a little bit to do with it [the delay].”

Wood is married to his Western Australia teammate Veletta’s sister Angela. Their son Christopher has played for Western Australia Under-19s, Under-23s, and Second XI.

… and for those with a penchant for facial hair…

In a surprising move, Wood had decided to shave off his famous moustache in 2005. In an interview with Daile Pepper, the WA Today correspondent, Wood mentioned: “When we were playing in the 80s, of the 11 in the Australian side there would have been five or six that had mos. It was common in the 80s, fashionable. I think by the mid 90s it had died out, but I hung in there until the next decade.”

However, common sense eventually prevailed when Wood decided to re-grow it in November 2009 when he realised that a familiar face was required for a fundraising to help the Prostrate Cancer Foundation.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)