AUSTRALIA TOUR OF INDIA, 2019
“I have no idea why they picked me?”
With that one line in an interview to The West Australian, Ashton Turner had rewritten the page on ‘how players react on being picked for the IPL’. There wasn’t the customary excitement of “being part of the biggest tournament in the cricket world” or some new-found humility at having got the opportunity to “rub shoulders with my heroes”. There was just pure “bafflement” over the Rajasthan Royals’ scouting system having thought him worthy of a punt in conditions he’d only ever played in six years ago as a 20-year-old in the Champions League T20.
By the end of Sunday night though, not only Turner but the whole of India knew why he’d been among the only two Aussies picked at the last IPL auction. While powering Australia to their highest ever ODI chase, he’d left most of the host country in desolation, except perhaps for a small group in Jaipur.
For those back in Fremantle or Freo though, the 26-year-old’s frankness comes as no surprise. That’s the way they’ve always known Turner to be. What you see and what he says is what you get. As his long-time club coach Joe Piromalli puts it, “There is no in-between with Ashton. He doesn’t say a lot but once he’s made his mind, he doesn’t go around much. When we have a conversation, it’s pretty quick.”
It’s this clarity of thought, adds Piromalli, that’s translated into his batting too. “When Ashton makes a decision to play a shot, he plays it. There is no second guessing with him.” The Indian bowlers would agree with the Fremantle coach for sure. For, that’s what Turner did pretty much even if it was just his second ODI. He kept deciding to play shots, and kept playing them, to devastating effect. And there was no stopping him. His peers and coaches alike at Fremantle also insist that from a young age it was Turner’s “ball-striking” that has always resonated with them about his cricket.
On Sunday night, it was the thud of his bat striking the ball that was resonating around the PCA stadium, accentuated clearly by the hushed silence that it had helped incite in a cricketing cathedral that’d otherwise been buzzing with partisan energy and noise for over six hours. In anticipation of yet another Indian win. Another series win.
Suddenly there were bodies cascading down, making a beeline for the exit gates. Three Jasprit Bumrah and two Bhuvneshwar Kumar death overs were still to be bowled. But as the 45th over commenced, every Indian at the ground, and a few Aussies, had come to the realisation that they were witnessing something magical, ridiculous even. Australia eventually chased down 359 with 2.1 overs to spare.
“That’s cricket, mate,” a smiling Peter Handscomb, whose century was overshadowed, would say much later, delivering a memorable three-word equivalent to Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous “Football, bloody hell.”
In a match characterised by drama, the winning hit, which deservedly came off Turner’s bat, was conspicuous for the sheer lack of it, as he nudged a length ball from Bumrah towards long-on and hared back for a double. The finish was not theatrical and the celebrations – a smile, a muted fist bump and a handshake – were almost apologetic and not befitting the occasion.
By the end of Sunday night, not only Turner but the whole of India knew why he’d been among the only two Aussies picked at the last IPL auction. © AFP
Yet, it was a poignant end to a game made memorable by a player, whose very presence in the Australia’s famous canary yellow was predicated on his ability to swiftly cover the distance between two sets of white lines on a cricket pitch.
Turner, the Western Australian, earned his stripes playing as a finisher for the Perth Scorchers in the Big Bash League. Often praised for his composed temperament and situational awareness, he graduated to become a stand-in captain for the BBL franchise this season whenever Mitchell Marsh was unavailable. One such Marsh misfortune turned into a golden opportunity for Turner.
In January this year, the younger Marsh brother was ruled out of Australia’s ODIs against India after suffering a bout of gastritis. Australian coach Justin Langer decided to dip into his old BBL franchise and pull out Turner for national duty. Fair enough, except Langer did so with a comparison that, self admittedly, bordered on hyperbole. Turner was bracketed with Michael Hussey, Dean Jones and Michael Bevan in a single sentence.
“I remember when Mike Hussey came into Australian cricket, the thing that almost got him a shot in the one-day side was his running between his wickets,” Langer said then. “That might sound like the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard but you watch Ashton Turner, the way he runs between wickets is unbelievable. One of the hallmarks of great Australian teams, you think about Dean Jones, Michael Bevan and Michael Hussey, is the running between wickets. He can finish the innings off well, he’s an elite athlete in the field and he’s also a captain.”
As it turned out, Langer’s prophecy was not misplaced, evidenced by the remarkable story of how Turner, ice in his veins and fire in his feet, closed out a game in a way no one has ever done before against India. So many things can happen in 50 overs and so many things did. Australia experienced the full swing of the proverbial pendulum: Dead, Revived. Dead. Revived. Somehow, at the end of it all, Turner was left standing on a barely believable 84 off 43. In just his second ODI, he’d walked out with his side in duress and hit 36 off 12 against Bhuvneshwar, 15 off 9 against Bumrah, 18 off 11 against Kuldeep and 15 off 11 against Chahal and finished with a strike-rate of 195.35.
“It’s really… I’m lost for words a little bit,” Turner said, trying to make sense of it all. “I turned out to the ground today and Marcus Stoinis was doing a fitness test. He’s got a broken thumb, and he’s a pretty tough bloke. I thought he would get up and play and I’ll be running the drinks again. So last minute, to transition my mind from not playing to playing. Feel like I’ve had a great opportunity today.
“Batting’s a lot of fun, so if you get an opportunity you just stay out there and try really hard to cash in,” he added almost as matter-of-factly as he spanked the ball around.
The fuse was lit by a superb maiden ODI century from Handscomb and a 192-run partnership that he shared with Usman Khawaja. But when Turner walked in to bat in the 37th over, the Australian flame flickered, the end seemed near with India left with their four frontline bowlers to complete the mop up job. The next two overs from Yadav and collectively brought only 10 runs when as many runs were required to be hit every single over.
India still had two overs each from their wicket-taking spinners. It was by far the sternest baptism by spin Turner had come up against. This is where his innate ability, that those in Perth so rave about, to back his plans and his execution came through. He hit Kuldeep to the short straight boundary and then used his long levers to muscle a sweep between the two spaced-out fielders on the leg side. Kuldeep returned the following over with a googly, which now a set Turner picked up early and deposited over the sightscreen. Chahal floated a slower delivery outside the off-stump expecting the inexperienced batter to slog across the line. But Turner went straight and picked up another six. Fortune sided with the fresh face as Rishabh Pant missed a stumping chance – Turner was on 38 – and then unsuccessfully reviewed for a caught-behind claim.
Turner has carried the tag of “best finisher” in Australia for two years now. © Getty
When the spinners were done, the two premier death bowlers, Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah, were left to defend 62 in six overs between them. They’ve worked with lesser in the past. Yet this one was snatched out by Turner in a single over of exhilarating hitting. Bhuvneshwar, who saw a full toss hoicked over long on, returned with a knuckle ball. Turner calmly guided it wide of fine leg for a four. After sprinting another two with a nudge, he whipped a slower ball from Bhuvneshwar into the deep mid-wicket stands for a 20-run over.
Handscomb summed up the Western Australian’s hitting perfectly saying, “It was like Stick Cricket. That was awesome. No one really moved around in the dressing room. We have seen Ash do this in the Big Bash before a couple of times now. But for him to come out on the world stage, his 2nd ODI and play an innings like that is phenomenal.”
About 20 minutes and a scooped six off Bumrah later, the chase was sealed with his sixth double of the night.
Turner’s rise is not as meteoric as it may seem. He’s been scoring runs consistently across formats over the last couple of seasons. He was the highest run-getter in the Sheffield Shield for Western Australia in the 2017-18 season, and had the best strike-rate – of 162.58 – among all batsmen who scored over 200 runs in that edition of the BBL. He’s also carried the tag of “best finisher” in Australia for two years now – striking at nearly 200 per 100 balls in the death overs – not to forget an average of nearly 50 while chasing in T20s. And though it might seem like Rajasthan Royals have engineered quite a coup right now, the right-hander has if anything been unlucky with injuries to not receive an IPL call-up much earlier. Interestingly, he’d shown Jaipur a glimpse of his hitting prowess back in 2013 when he took on James Neesham and Nathan McCullum while smacking 27 off 18 against Otago.
In fact, he’s had to undergo surgeries to a troublesome right shoulder for three years in a row now. And they’ve always coincided with the IPL season – since he’s gone under the knife following the end of the Aussie cricket summer. The first two, as he’d described in an interview were “keyhole surgeries” but the one last year was a more elaborate exercise to fix the joint that he’d torn while fielding during a one-day game earlier that season.
“The timing has been unfortunate. He’s had to endure 3-4 months of rehab post each surgery, and that’s robbed him of any chance to be in line to get an IPL stint,” says Piromalli.
Turner’s shoulder issues have also prevented him from bowling for nearly two years now. It was as an off-spinning all-rounder that he made his name at the junior level and played ahead of statemate Ashton Agar in the under-19 World Cup back in 2012. But Piromalli believes, and Turner himself had said so too recently, not being able to bowl has helped the youngster improve his batting significantly.
Turner hasn’t given up on the shoulder or his bowling completely yet. The only reason he’s even available, finally, for the IPL this year is because he’s delayed another operation by at least six months to make himself available for a World Cup slot, a gamble that now looks good to pay off following his Mohali exploits. And nobody including Turner will be surprised when it does.