I’ve been inspired by a brilliant performance by the Wests Tigers on the weekend. Specifically, I have been inspired by a player who, under the common law of sporting cliché, must always be described by the news media as “mercurial” (and duly was, by the Sydney Morning Herald on the front page of Monday’s sports section).
Because he blends skill, flair and inconsistency in such quantities that the best parts are Picasso and the worst parts are just a woman with a nose on the side of her head.
So here he is, with four accomplices, as part of the Top 5 Sportsmen That Must Always Be Described As “Mercurial”:
1. Benji Marshall (c)
Can do no wrong in my book, owing to his pivotal role (literally) in the Tigers’ miracle 2005 premiership. However kicking out on the full repeatedly, missing tackles effortlessly (literally – on Sunday he ran alongside Wes Naiqama after a linebreak without even attempting to bring him down) and throwing no-look passes where yes-look passes would do could easily be mistaken for mistakes by others. But then Benji beats 7 defenders with 2 steps, 1 swerve, 2 fends and 1 feint and puts his winger away in the corner for a barely believable try. Then sets up two more, kicks the goal and the game is won.
2. David Campese
In any other week, Campo would not just be No.1, he would be goose-stepping Mercury himself. He had speed, step, swerve and skill. He was Australia’s greatest winger, but also a brilliant first receiver (his first try in the 1991 World Cup semi-final anyone?). He could pick up a half-volley from his boot-laces at speed, and kick longer than just about anyone who has played for the Wallabies in 25 years. All he needed was the ball. And that was the problem. In defence, Campo was 50:50 at best – in fact if he played against himself, that would be a representative score! Throw in a couple of pin-point passes to the opposition (Ieuan Evans, Mark Brooke-Cowden) and you have a bloke who was quicksilver itself and who made Rugby compelling for so many years.
3. Phil Blake
The greatest one-season wonder in the modern history of Rugby League. Sure, Blake actually played for 16 seasons (and 261 first-grade games) but the only one I remember was his 27-try season in 1983, when every second try seemed to be from a chip, chase and regather. Had he not already been playing for them, Manly would surely have poached him! Instead, he ended up migrating to Souths – the irony! – and Norths, and Canberra, and Saints, and Warrington, and Auckland. 7 career clubs, 138 career tries, 11 career tackles – that’s mercurial.
4. Michael Slater
Despite his puzzlingly low Test strike rate of 53.3 (or 3.2 runs per over), Slats is credited by many, including me, for revolutionising Test opening in the same way Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana did in one-dayers. Among many great moments, he hit four fours in the first over of the 2001 Ashes series, brought up his ton against England at the SCG in 1999 with a lofted drive over mid-off (Darren Gough was bowling at his sharpest) and invented the now clichéd helmet-kiss for the ton.
Yet he also threw away tons with monotonous regularity: dancing down the track to slog in 1998 against anonymous Pakistani spinner Arshad Khan (as I watched in horror from Kings Cross fleapit the Mansions Hotel), only to be stumped for 96. Repeating the trick against Chuckali in Galle a year later. Peeling off yet another 96 against the weak Windies in 2001 before being caught off another yet another spinner, the iconic Mahendra Nagamootoo. Mercurial.
5. Virender Sehwag
“Viru” is Slats’ spiritual successor, despite obvious differences in nationality, temperament, Test average and technique! Caught for 195 trying to hit Simon Katich out of the world’s biggest ground in 2001, the MCG, Sehwag was undeterred, saying afterwards “it was there to hit”. His devil-may-care approach was rewarded in 2004 when he became the first batsman to bring up a triple-century with a six. He went one (actually, ten runs and about ten overs) better last year, when he scored the world’s fastest-ever triple century, off 278 balls. He has now made ten ducks and eleven scores over 150, and despite an almost complete lack of foot movement is the best batsman to watch in world cricket. Mercurial!
There could be honourable mentions aplenty in this category, from Marat Safin to Kenny Fletcher, but I’m interested in your suggestions.
With thanks to Nicholas Gray and Peter Hemming for their input.