Paul Reiffel a godsend to the headline writers

In cricket, as in other sports, what keeps a player going is motivation. The Australian cricketers in particular do not like to continue playing at the highest level when there is no motivation left. Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh, Allan Border and Mark Taylor – to name some – called it a day when they were good enough to last a couple of years more in international cricket. What prompted their decision was the lack-of-motivation syndrome. Paul Ronald Reiffel joined the august company in the year 2000 as he, too, became a victim of the lack-of-motivation syndrome. Announcing his retirement from international cricket, Reiffel admitted: “I’ve not had the hunger for top level cricket.” And that said it all. Considering that he did not have a good World Cup in England in 1999 (7 wickets at 33.86 in 6 matches), his decision to quit was always in the offing. He was not getting younger either. Nor was it his nature to hang around when his ability to put match-winning performances was being questioned.

Nevertheless, he went gleefully because he was a member of the Australian team which won the century’s last quadrennial showpiece event against initial odds. Reiffel would not probably have found a better way to leave the international scene. If he decided to continue playing for Victoria (and simultaneously a stint in English cricket as well), it was just because he wanted to strengthen his State side. Unlike Indian cricketers, their Aussie counterparts take utmost pride in playing for their home teams.

But international cricket misses Reiffel, who was appropriately nicknamed Pistol, who had come like a godsend to the headline writers. He was a decent Aussie, a match-winner on his lucky day. He had some great moments to cherish, both in Tests and ODIs. Reiffel was one of Australia’s heroes in the Caribbean in 1995 when for the first time in more than 20 years, the West Indians were beaten in their own dens.

With Craig McDermott returning down under due to injury, Reiffel turned out to be an ideal foil for Glenn McGrath. The duo, aided by Shane Warne, devastated the West Indian batsmen and Australia won the 4- Test series 2-1. McGrath claimed 17 wickets at 21.70, followed by Reiffel and Warne who took 15 each at 17.53 and 27.06 respectively. In the crucial fourth Test at Kingston in Jamaica, with both teams level at 1-1, Reiffel bagged 3 for 48 and 4 for 47 to fashion an Australian victory by an innings and 53 runs.

The Caribbeans were outplayed in most part of the rubber. And it was a remarkable, memorable series triumph for Australia under Taylor. One of the fascinating sights of the rubber was Brian Lara getting out leg-before wicket to Reiffel for a duck in the second innings of the fourth and final Test. Box Hill in Victoria was where Reiffel was born on April 19, 1966. Though he was a naturally talented player, he achieved success only by degrees. He was not just a shrewd right-arm fast-medium bowler; he was also a good, handy lower-order batsman with the determination of a seasoned pro. He began his career with Ashwood in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs competition, played a few senior matches before joining the district club Richmond when he was 16. Even at an early age, Reiffel was noticed by the talent scouts of Australia, both for the quality and the quantity of his performances.

Reiffel represented Victoria at Under-16 and Under-19 levels. He was picked for the Australian Under-19 tour to India and Sri Lanka in 1984-85. He finally made his first-class debut for Victoria in 1987-88. Three successful English league seasons with East Lancashire, from 1989 to 1991, helped Reiffel hone his skills with a touch of professionalism. The experience of playing in English conditions did come in handy when he toured the Old Country donning the baggy green cap of Australia in 1993.

The Victorian’s entry into the heavyweight division of cricket was a forgone conclusion after his haul of 49 wickets in the 1990-91 season down under. His consistently good performances went a long way towards Victoria winning the Sheffield Shield. Although picked for Australia’s jaunt of Zimbabwe in 1991, Reiffel played his maiden Test a few months later, at Perth, against India. It was the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream for this somewhat quiet and undemonstrative bowler.

Slim but 6 feet 4 inches tall, Reiffel was not a brutal, hostile fast bowler. But he was a shrewd, deceptive and magnificently competitive customer nevertheless. Of course, he tended to be quicker than he appeared. He had been known as one of the thinking cricketers. He had a good tactical memory. He could carry his line of attack against a class batsman and a tailender effortlessly in one over.

“Bobbling in on an approach angled from wide mid-off, he delivers a well-controlled mixture of swing and cut on an off-stump line,” said an Australian critic about Reiffel. His best wicket-taking ball, an offcutter jagging back at pace, had fetched Reiffel a bucketful of wickets in England, although his failure in the World Cup was both surprising and shocking, taking into account the fact that he was expected to be bowling at his best in favourable and familiar conditions.

His accuracy and will to win had been exemplary. Like a typical Australian fast bowler, Reiffel had always hated giving away runs. His steadiness and reliability under all conditions had proved of immense value for Australia in both forms of the game. Although a top-class performer when he felt like it, Reiffel had
been an unlucky bowler. He would bowl beautifully, beat the finest of batsmen but wickets would still elude him. Ironically, he often helped his colleagues take wickets because his tight control made the
batsmen rashly look for runs at the other end!

In fact, Reiffel had an impressive economy rate among his contemporary seam bowlers, not just his Australian colleagues. However, his 104 wickets at 26.96 in 35 Tests, and 106 wickets at 29.20 in 93 ODIs, do not exactly mirror the kind of bowler he actually was. Besides his magic spells in the Caribbean in 1995, his performance in the 1993 Ashes series in England also won him high critical acclaim.

He did not have a good tour to begin with as he was massacred in the first two fixtures of the one-day Texaco series. He appeared to be a favourite whipping boy and it was being doubted whether he would figure in any of the six Tests. With Warne and Merv Hughes dominating the series, Reifel’s problems worsened. He was omitted from the first three Tests. But for injuries to some key players, he would not have been picked for the fourth Test, too.

But the much-awaited opportunity came  his way and he made the most of it with figures of 5 for 65 and 3 for 87 in two innings. Continuing his good form, Reiffel went on to bag 19 wickets in the rubber. In the fifth Test at Edgbaston he took 6 for 71 after an excellent exhibition of cut and swing. One of his hapless victims was Nasser Hussain. Reiffel bowled him with a leg-cutter which pitched on the middle-stump and hit the off-bail. The batsman was completely flummoxed. As a proficient tail-end batsman Reiffel had played some very important innings for Australia and other teams that he represented. His 995 Test runs at 26.53 with a highest score of 79 not out against a strong bowling side like South Africa on his home turf at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1997-98 threw enough light on his skills with the willow. If he had concentrated on his batting a bit more, Reiffel would certainly have established himself as a world-class allrounder in the Shaun Pollock mould. I

ndeed, Reiffel was out-and-out a teamman. There were many tricks up Reiffel’s sleeves in almost all departments of the game. In a one-dayer against South Africa in Sydney in 1993-94, he claimed 4 for 13, made 29 not out and also figured in a runout. What more can a player do in a team sport like cricket? Besides his apparent cricket talents, Reiffel should also be remembered for responding positively to the national call and that also with a string of match-winning performances whenever cast in a lead role.

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