One of the best ODI games of all time, it’s widely said, was the one that took place between the West Indies and hosts England in 2004. It may not be wrong to say the high-octane final of the Champion’s Trophy, arguably speaking, was the most widely-watched game that year.
The nervy and tense moments, especially in the ending moments, compel fans around the world even today to hit YouTube.
But back in 2004’s Champion’s Trophy, no team or player was able to achieve what New Zealand did in a rather unassuming manner against the United States of America, which one might not have remembered featured in the mini-world cup.
Remember anything special?
In batting first against a cricketing neophyte, New Zealand belted 347 runs on a banal Kennington Oval pitch.
But one man contributed 145 of those many runs single-handedly. And he only took 151 deliveries to reach what would eventually become his personal best ODI score.
Clubbing pure white-balls in the ease with which one strikes tennis balls, Nathan Astle devoured an unsuspecting American attack that on September 10 ran into a rather hungry Kiwi bird.
While New Zealand amassed what would become their highest-ever Champion’s Trophy total, Nathan Astle was responsible for the third-highest ODI knock compiled that year, following Gilchrist’s 172 (vs Zimbabwe) and Gayle’s 152 against the Proteas.
In an era where strikes rates north of eighty were considered mighty, this was Astle contributing to the fact that if you had it in, you could go well over ninety at an elite cricketing stage.
Incidentally, this knock also helped him usurp the likes the Chanderpaul, Dravid, Ganguly, and Sachin in 2004′ ODI batting averages.
But make no mistake. That wasn’t Nathan Astle’s greatest ODI knock even if it helped him create a few records.
Three years prior to setting foot in England, he was up against Pakistan at home, with Dunedin’s Day-nighter. When four previous games, though massively entertaining, failed to give us a result with Pakistan and their hosts tied 2-2, Nathan Astle took it upon himself to finally settle the debate of the series-winner.
But was it going to be any easy? Spurred by Afridi, Mohd. Yousuf, and Moin Khan’s brilliance, Pakistan put up a daunting 285.
Honestly, a total in the midst of 270-300 those days was the near-equivalent of a 330-340 output nowadays given the batting-friendly and powerplay-determined bowling.
Moreover, Pakistan didn’t just have the great Wasim Akram- then at his peak- with Waqar Younis, there was a new menace posing with the white ball.
His name was Shoaib Akhtar.
But Astle was his own man: clean-hitting, bold, and brave.
Arguably speaking, in producing 119 runs off mere 116, cushioned by 21 boundaries, he gave us not just his best ODI performance but perhaps raised the question whether that was one of the most unsung tons ever compiled by a Kiwi in the format?
Early fortunes of being dropped by Shoaib running wide in deep extra cover, of course, aided him, the team only on 30.
But from there on in, it was no holding back the man who seemingly wielded a sword, not a cricket bat that bright afternoon.
A square cut on the backfoot- among the shots of the day- on Wasim indicated early intent. By the ninth over, he had already hit four fours. A similar shot bearing the same output followed in the eleventh over; this time, Astle guiding Akram behind point for another boundary.
The contest was set.
Both teams were having a go at each other, none in a mood to back-off.
But the first bowling change with young Azhar Mahmood didn’t offer any respite with the first delivery (12th over) pounded over the mid-wicket boundary.
Ian Smith in quintessential verve remarked, “that was agricultural,” though to Pakistan the only thought about Astle being agricultural would’ve meant he was seeming like a scarecrow out to fly away any encroachers on a bright lush outfield.
Immediately after, Shoaib tried to bounce him into the back-foot only for Nathan Astle to chop one over the point boundary. The next over, Mahmood, with a string of slower deliveries found himself being timed to the cover boundary.
His opening partner Stephen Fleming- also his captain- did little other than watching in admiration as it was gradually becoming Pakistan against Nathan Astle.
At 15 overs, New Zealand were on 93. 36 of those runs had been scored just through Astle boundaries. In the seventeenth over, he once again cut Akhtar to the square boundary, Shoaib seething in rage.
Another of those typical Nathan Astle cuts with a slight hop in the air. Pakistan even tried Abdul Razzaq, who was shown the way to the point boundary.
But the shot of the day came in the twenty-third over, the right-hander picking Waqar off a good length over deep mid-wicket. With half the overs remaining, he was already approaching a hundred.
Afridi was first swept toward fine-leg in the twenty-fifth over, NZ already nearing 150 on the board.
With his team in a position of utterly unchallenged authority, on 173 already in the twenty-ninth over, the right-hander notched up three figures.
From that point on, even as Pakistan triggered a mini-collapse, New Zealand Astle-d away to a victory in the 49th over itself.
The impact of Nathan Astle’s (then) ninth century was so strong that the next highest score in his team was Fleming’s 60.
And that’s what separates an average player from a good one isn’t it: impact.
If it could be said, Astle, for all his 7,090 ODI runs, and 27 international centuries was a man who loved to impact an inning. 2800 of his 7,000 plus runs came just through boundaries.
He approached every knock, not with outright caution but an instinct of domination. Often, it appeared that the format didn’t bother him or change anything in his approach.
But how was that?
Batting at Christchurch in 2002, Astle gave us an inning that is widely regarded by the greatest assault waged by a Kiwi against the English in New Zealand conditions.
In his 222, which came off just 168 deliveries, Astle danced down the track to Flintoff, dealt with Hoggard through uppercuts, and habitually spanked Caddick everywhere from around extra over to mid-wicket.
After witnessing a dubious surrender in the first inning -147 all-out- Astle’s double-hundred- still the fastest (double 100) in Tests in terms of deliveries- cornered the English before their bowlers rallied for a famous win.
But maybe what truly set Nathan Astle apart in those nostalgic nineties and early 2000s- an era of promising openers; Gary Kirsten, Saeed Anwar, Saurav Ganguly was that while many played to the need of a game, Astle batted without a spot of bother.
He might not have been the most dependable or cautious batsman whose technique caught your eye. But his unworried disposition made him one of a kind.
A batsman who was talented enough to take the game away; perhaps a fearless bat who applied himself in a T20 mold long before the format became a reality.
In 2006, when nearing the end of his journey, he belted 586 ODI runs from 12 outings at 58, with 10 fifties. Proving you could be your best even at 35 years of age (a year before, he struck 480 runs with 2 tons and fifties from 10 Tests), Nathan Astle reached his career-best strike-rate at the fag end of his career.
Moreover, he scored over 1,200 ODI runs against India alone, touching nearly 1,000 versus the Aussies while he darted the Windies for 1,014.
You might not have depended on him for his application against spin but for someone who scored more runs away than at home- his 3642 of 7,090 coming away from home comfort meant Astle also offered the comfort against the uncomfortable.
Long before McCullum exploded with his six-hitting business and Sehwag dominated bowlers, Nathan Astle was doing all of this by purely making his bat talk.
And when he did so, the stadia came alive in the same noisy fashion they do today when an Andre Russell or Ben Stokes come out to bat.
But for scoring well over 11,000 runs and also picking 154 wickets, emerging a main-stay in an era where only Fleming seemed the most technically apt batsman for New Zealand with Roger Twose, Mathew Horne, and Chris Harris being regular fixtures, has the world given enough attention to Nathan Astle?