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Wild Thing - Fast & Loose

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A degree of sadness accompanied the news in April, confirming that Shaun Tait had slung his last leather clad bomb, hanging up his boots at the age of 34. Not because the game has lost one of its statistical greats, but because Tait brought something to the game was more valuable than even the most miserly test average might have been to the man himself.

Tait’s ability to encapsulate his audience through giving the impression that not even he had full control over what might happen next made him a truly box office cricketer, and one of the first to successfully trot the world T20 stage. Capable of searing pace and with the all-important Aussie grunt, Tait terrorised batsman of real class throughout a fascinating career that was permeated by cricketing highs and personal lows.

Tait is central to some of my first memories of watching cricket, and retains a special place due to that point alone. Bleary eyed, having stepped off a plane in Adelaide a matter of hours earlier ahead of a season of district cricket with East Torrens DCC, I stumbled upon Tait’s Sturt side taking on a woefully under-prepared grade side in a One Day game at Adelaide Oval’s No 2 ground. With South Australia’s physios monitoring every ball, prodding and poking at the elbow which even by 2007 had begun the agonizing decent to dust, ‘Sloon’ went through the gears in what was almost a private showing. It was terrifyingly fast.

That same Australian Summer, his displays in the One Day format saw a test recall after his first and only Ashes test matched back in 2005. One day in particular sticks out, despite it being what on recollection was a very one sided affair between the Australians and New Zealand at Adelaide in December 2007. This was a New Zealand side containing a young Brendan McCullum, but they were a fair way off the truly dynamic force they are today.

McCullum was as daring and dashing then as ever, taking both Lee and Tait on with a seemingly flagrant disregard for the long-term integrity of his own face. Tait was bowling seriously fast. He couldn’t help the trademark sly glances to the speed gun results on the big screen, and the excitement of Gilchrist and co behind the stumps became evident as the country boy slinger went about his work.

It all appeared other worldly for a time, with Tait on one occasion sconning McCullum on the tip of the helmet, sending the ball crashing in to the sight screen on the half volley.

It’s these moments which encapsulated and defined his career, providing those special instances of sheer excitement for the crowds he was there to entertain.

His eagerly awaited test return that summer, in a bitterly fought contest with an Indian side still consisting of Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar, was billed as being the greatest show on earth. The trio of Tait, Lee and Johnson – possibly the fastest combined attack ever, on a sheet of glass covered in grass at the WACA.

What transpired was a series of slow, ineffective spells from Tait as his elbow and body began to weigh him down. That test in 2008 was to be his last, India winning by 72 runs.

The personal decent in to the cricketing wilderness that followed drew unfair criticism, but was undoubtedly a time of reflection for Tait as to the cricketer he wanted to be, and the cricketer his body would allow him to be.

He finished with a test bowling average of 60.40, having announced himself with that snorting inswinger to Marcus Trescothick three years earlier at Trent Bridge.

The shorter formats were where Tait made his real impact. Ten overs still gave opportunity enough to show off the bustling, elbow grinding pace that troubled the very best in world cricket time and time again.

He came close to breaking AB de Villiers’s hip in a T20 back in 2011 with a bolt worthy of Thor himself, and enjoyed two extremely successful World Cup campaigns, proving to be the spearhead of Australia’s 2007 winning campaign. 23 wickets at 20.30, striking every 22 balls in that tournament would be his defining moment in an Australian shirt.

Indeed, his overall stats suggest that it was with the white ball he produced his best work. His ODI, List A, T20 International and Domestic T20 bowling averages all fall in below 24. For a career not necessarily defined by statistics alone, they go some way to telling the story of just how important an asset Tait was in the shorter formats.

He will, however, always retain that allure that only an untamable quick can possess. That innate ability to make things happen in a game, and prevent it from stagnating through either obliteration or capitulation. The game is about entertainment, and the original Australian ‘Wild Thing’ can hold his head high in retirement, reflecting on a job well done in that respect.

© Cricket World 2017