“Slowly but steadily the 90s seam bowling all-rounders are back in ODI cricket”
The first match of the Benson and Hedges World Cup at Auckland in 1992 between New Zealand and Australia is remembered for Martin Crowe pulling a rabbit out of his hat by giving the new ball to off-spinner Dipak Patel. What is perhaps less remembered is the contribution of four seemingly innocuous all-rounders – Willie Watson, Gavin Larsen, Chris Harris and Rod Latham – famously dubbed dibbly-dobbly-wibbly-wobbly on air by David Lloyd.
The quartet choked the run flow, put pressure on David Boon and gave New Zealand an unexpected 37-run win. The Kiwis would go on to win their first seven matches before losing to Pakistan twice (once in the league and once in the semis) to be knocked out. In that World Cup, though, was born the 90s pace bowling all-rounder.
While the dibbly-dobbly medium pacers are often more talked about from the era, the 90s seam bowling all-rounders included several firebrands like Brian McMillan, Steve Waugh, Abdul Razzaq, Jacques Kallis, Neil Johnson, Hansie Cronje, Chris Cairns and Lance Klusener.
Barring a few of them, none were top performers for their sides yet made their presence felt with telling performances at crucial times. With short cameos, brilliant bursts with the ball, crucial breakthroughs and the odd massive match-winning knock, they were must-haves that teams couldn’t afford to sit out.
This brand of all-rounders had nearly vanished in ODI cricket with the advent of T20s and emphasis on players who could make the team based on one skill alone – batting or bowling. However, the ongoing ODI series in New Zealand between the hosts and Sri Lanka has rekindled memories of the 90s all-rounder thanks to the presence of two unacknowledged players in Jimmy Neesham and Thisara Perera.
Neesham was brought back into the side after nearly two years and has stood out with his cameos this series. The Kiwi all-rounder’s record in ODIs did not make for great viewing when he was dropped from the side. A batting average of 27.03 and a bowling average of 38.02 weren’t numbers that stood level with standards expected in contemporary ODI cricket.
On recall, though, Neesham has shown in two games how a utility player can be crucial to the side. At Mount Maunganui, in the first ODI, Neesham walked in with his side at 316/5 in the 47th over and clubbed an outrageous 13-ball 47 which included five sixes in an over off Thisara Perera to take New Zealand to 371/7, helping add 54 runs in the final three overs.
That Sri Lanka scored 326 makes Neesham’s knock all the more crucial. With the ball, he broke a century opening partnership between Danushka Gunathilaka and Niroshan Dickwella and dismissed the other opener in his next over. He added the wicket of Dinesh Chandimal to peg Sri Lanka back further. A 13-ball 47 and 3/38 in 8 overs for Neesham on a comeback.
He made his comeback all the more special when he followed it up with a 37-ball 64 in the second ODI while going wicketless with the ball. That’s the thing with these all-rounders. They aren’t always contributing in either department like a Ben Stokes or Hardik Pandya. But they stay relevant and keep putting in these crucial performances, making sure their mark is stamped on each and every match in one the three disciplines.
Take for instance Thisara Perera’s knock in the second ODI. After being carted around by Neesham in the first game, Perera came back strong in the second at the same venue. Sri Lanka seemed well and truly out of the game at 128/7 chasing 320. Perera walked in with a swagger characteristic of these brand of all-rounders and swung his bat around with flair, almost not worried about the target in front of him. He gathered support along the way from the tail and brought Sri Lanka within touching distance of a win only to falter in the final hurdle.
The 74-ball 140 and the 63-ball 80 in the final ODI follows a series of good performances in 2018 where Thisara Perera brushed aside criticisms of being a neither-discipline-player and proved why the 90s brand of all-rounders were still relevant in modern ODI cricket. That his batting and bowling average numbers were reversed to make him one of the best all-rounders since 2018 puts him in the elite category.
But it needn’t always be so. This brand of all-rounders is almost always about delivering in one way or the other. Gavin Larsen, for instance, was nicknamed ‘the Postman’ by his teammates because he always delivered when called upon. He was Martin Crowe’s go-to man.
“If I go back to the playing conditions that we were presented within the 1990s, particularly in New Zealand, bits and pieces is a negative perspective. Guys who could contribute in all three portions of the game, with the ball and the bat and be very good fielders – they were like gold nuggets. As the pitches have gotten better and quicker, those types of players have been found out more,” Larsen said in an interview five years ago, underlining why those all-rounders are extinct today.
Quicker pitches have called for better players who are commanding in one discipline at least. But what Larsen probably did not account for was a revamped re-birth of the 90s all-rounder. Neesham and Perera have so far entertained and strung together performances that would be remembered for a while. Unlike the dibbly-dobbly-wibbly-wobbly’s these guys think more about variations aside from the stock ball. With the bat, they play more than cameos. They are match-winners in their own right yet lurk in the shadows of bigger names in the team.
Slowly but steadily the 90s seam bowling all-rounders are back in ODI cricket. Marcus Stoinis, Andile Phehlukwayo, Asela Gunaratne, Chris Woakes, Mitchell Marsh, Andre Russell, Jason Holder and the two all-rounders this series, Jimmy Neesham and Thisara Perera, headline this wave of change. It’s perhaps here to stay this time but it’s still way too early for such predictions. Instead, let’s enjoy them while they are there.