At the beginning of the 2017-18 summer, Matt Renshaw endured the first truly horrid run of his professional career: a stretch of six Sheffield Shield innings worth 70 runs that got him dropped from Australia’s Test team. Four months later, when the ball-tampering scandal broke in Cape Town, he raced from a Shield final to a Test in Johannesburg, jacking himself up on Red Bull to open the batting in the Bull Ring.
Renshaw is now in the UAE with the Test side, under new coach Justin Langer, having had a productive stint with Somerset in the County Championship (tallying three centuries and 513 runs in six matches).
But on the morning of March 25, in Brisbane, Renshaw woke to see his cousin (and housemate) sitting stunned on the couch. “Have you seen what has happened,” his cousin asked. Renshaw joined him on the couch to watch the ball-tampering footage from Newlands. Then he went to play day three of the Shield final.
“Pat Howard was at the ground and talking to all the coaches,” Renshaw recalls, while watching Alastair Cook bat for Essex at Chelmsford. “Then Wade Seccombe pulled me aside and said, ‘You might need to prepare to go to South Africa’. He didn’t have anything for me apart from that and I was like ‘but we’re playing the Shield Final, it is pretty serious.’ And he said that I had to be prepared to go over.”
Two days later, he was waking to a call from Trevor Hohns, Australia’s chairman of selectors, confirming that hunch.
“He said that I needed to get on a plane.” Renshaw helped Queensland win the title before he had to depart that afternoon, without a clue what was waiting for him at the other side. Sure enough, it was cricket’s version of the twilight zone, Bancroft still with his team-mates, readying himself to fly to the mayhem at home.
“I was like, ‘geez, this is full on,'” Renshaw says. “I just didn’t know what to say.”
Then while heading to the Wanderers for his one training run the day before dusting off his baggy green, an unusual edict came through. “We were getting off the bus and the security manager told us to hand our phones in. We had never handed our phones in before.”
When Lehmann entered the dressing room, it was with red eyes. “I was sitting in the corner trying to work out what was going on. As he said [that he was resigning], people started breaking down. I just didn’t know how to feel because I had been out of the side for six months. I was just confused. And obviously, I was pretty upset; Boof was my coach when I was first picked and he has done so much for my cricket but because I was away from that side it was quite a challenging position to be in.”
Did it cross his mind that in another world he could have been the Bancroft character in this sorry story? “Yeah, I have thought about it,” Renshaw replies. “If [David Warner] comes up to you and tells you to try and do this – I don’t know if you should be put in that scenario, but you never know what is going on behind closed doors and what they were trying to do, which is quite a tough thing to think about – how I would have reacted? But you never knew until you are pushed in that scenario.”
“When we were playing in India, it was a bit fiery, but in every meeting we discussed playing on skill and not emotion. That’s one thing I learned from that tour”
Renshaw says that Warner “occasionally” gave him a hard time, but he chalks that up to familiarity between the pair.
“When I was in the side, the times I would be cheeky, he’d pull me up. It was good for me at the time learning about when to do things, and certain scenarios, with batting especially. But when we’re out in the middle we work really well together. I think he potentially sees a little bit of me in him. Hopefully, I can learn from a few things that have happened in his life and when to bring that cheeky side out. There might have been times when I have brought it out at the wrong time.”
Renshaw had been playing golf in a group that included Warner the day he realised he wouldn’t be making his Ashes debut last November.
During Renshaw’s slump in form – in hindsight, he understands that he honed his survival mechanisms so well it came at the expense of his intent to score – Lehmann asked him to travel to the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane to face Australia’s first-choice attack ahead of selection.
“I got through that without getting out and felt really confident and it had given me a second wind, so I thought I was going to be fine and going into the Test series feeling pretty good,” Renshaw says. “Getting dropped after that was quite confusing as I had gone and batted in front of them. I was batting really well and had some sense of hope.”
Renshaw’s slump coincided with Bancroft’s glittering form, meaning the two were pitted in a virtual race to open alongside Warner. This was highlighted by Langer, then West Australia’s coach, who publicly backed his man, Bancroft.
Renshaw is at peace with what happened. “The only way [Bancroft] was going to be play was if I got dropped, so he [Langer] wants his players to get picked and that’s completely understandable. I went and spent some time with [Langer] a couple of times while they were [in England] for the ODIs to get to know him, hopefully before a fruitful Test campaign. It is just about getting to know him as a person.”
But it was also the WA side that gave Renshaw a hard time after he lost his Test spot, in the Shield fixture at the WACA played as the Ashes began in Brisbane. “They were chirping,” Renshaw smiles. “That was when I was wondering if I was really enjoying the cricket I was playing at the time because I wasn’t doing well and thinking too much about the game.”
It took an unplanned T20 stint with Brisbane Heat in the BBL for Renshaw (he played only one match) to feel at peace with the game again. In turn, he started scoring in the Shield again after Christmas, making him the obvious man to fly into the Test side when Bancroft was banned. Fuelled with energy drinks, he threw himself around the Wanderers outfield in a sign to onlookers that he, for one, would not be going through the motions.
“I knew my role over there was to provide loads of energy. I knew if I could bring that into the field and the dressing room, it would relax a lot of people who had been over there two months by then and all that happened before was mentally draining. Going into that final Test, I think we were just trying to get back to where we were before and trying to win back the Australian public.”
To the extent that exhaustion informed the Cape Town saga, Renshaw is not able to judge from the distance he was at when the wheels fell off. He did, however, detect a shift between what he was seeing on television through the marathon summer compared to what the emphasis had been inside the camp a year earlier during another taxing series, for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
“When we were playing in India, it was a bit fiery, but in every meeting we discussed playing on skill and not emotion. That’s one thing I learned from that tour: trying to be the better team without letting our emotions get the better of us because if we do that then our skills will drop. Seeing a few of the things that happened when I was out of the side, I thought, ‘Are they still going on that? The ‘skill not emotion’ mantra? But you just don’t know because you are not in the side.”
It will be a different Australian side that takes the field in Dubai on Sunday, just as it will be a different Renshaw. He asserted himself markedly for Somerset, finding the sort of balance between defence and attack that has seen him compared favourably to another Australian opening batsman from Queensland – Matthew Hayden.
He received an untimely knock to the helmet when fielding at short leg in Australia’s warm-up match against a Pakistan A side in Dubai last week and there are questions over whether he will be fit enough or prepared enough to open in the Tests, but after his struggles last summer and the extraordinary turn of events that took him to Johannesburg, Renshaw is better prepared for what lies ahead.