Renshaw hoping Yorkshire schooling will help him to teach England a lesson
Simon Briggs reports on the Australia opener who learnt his game on the Sheffield club scene
From Sheffield to the Sheffield Shield. It is the journey taken by Matt Renshaw, the 21-year-old opener who will bat at No 1 in the Ashes. No 1 for Australia, that is. Middlesbrough-born Renshaw is the one who got away. English cricket can hardly complain about the defection of a pint-sized wannabe. Our selectors have imported many an unpolished diamond from South Africa, from Tony Greig 45 years ago to Dawid Malan on this very tour. Other recruits, from Craig White to Sam Robson, have had Australian roots. When outback-raised Martin McCague appeared on the 1994-95 Ashes tour, he earned infamy as “the rat who joined the sinking ship”.
But Renshaw swims against the traditional current. Before his family set out for Australasia, he spent a formative summer in the hotbed of club cricket around South Yorkshire, where his father opened the batting and his playmates included Joe Root’s younger brother, Billy. “The other opener was Matt Root, Joe and Billy’s father,” Matt Renshaw’s dad, Ian, recalls now. “We stole a lot of singles but he was more aggressive.”
With two British parents, young Matt could easily have turned out as a solution to England’s top-order woes. Or indeed as a professional footballer, like his cousin Paul Woolston, 19, a goalkeeper at Newcastle United.
Renshaw showed promise in this field too, until he was 10, only for a tumble off his bike to sever his anterior cruciate ligament and effectively decide his sporting future. If we climb the Renshaw family tree, we find four sisters – the McIntyres, from North Shields – who all played hockey and squash. Matt’s mother, Alison McIntyre, met Ian when they were both studying physical education at Leeds Carnegie University, and the couple then began their peregrinations around the world. Today Ian is a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, specialising in “skills acquisition and sports psychology”. He also runs coaching courses on behalf of Cricket Australia.
“I moved to Sheffield in 2000 to work at Hallam University,” Renshaw Snr told The Sunday Telegraph. “That’s when I played my season for Sheffield Collegiate [the club that produced not only Root but also Michael Vaughan, almost two decades earlier]. But it didn’t last long because somebody put a job on my desk that was based in Auckland. Two months later we were moving to New Zealand. Four years after that, we were in Brisbane.” Matt Renshaw’s skills have thus been honed in three countries. More than anything, though, he is his father’s son. As Australia team-mate Usman Khawaja told him: “You’re just your dad’s experiment.”
“My big thing is about how the environment shapes behaviour,” Ian explains. “For instance, if you hit a golf ball on the range and then take the same club on the course, your swing changes completely. Which raises the question, why do we spend so much time on the range? The same thing is true of cricket nets, where you don’t see where the ball goes. So I would work with Matthew in the middle, using cones to mark the position of fielders. I’d have 70 or 80 balls in a bag and I’d send them down, bowling an over of spin and then using a dogthrower to simulate an over of seam and swing. The idea is to focus on the outcome, not whether you’re hitting the ball with a high elbow.”
His techniques are increasingly in demand. Only last weekend, he was at St George’s Park, near Burton-onTrent, to give two presentations to the England and Wales Cricket Board’s coaching conference. The second sketched out the wide variety of techniques he and his son have used in training. Young Matt has become a walking case study.
Was there never any prospect of this talented emigre returning to his roots? You might have thought so after the 2010-11 Ashes Test at The Gabba, when he carried the flag for the England team. “He was just a kid from the Queensland development system,” Ian says. “He got lost on the way out because no one had directed him, Rick Ponting had to say, ‘Over there, son’.”
As soon as Matt had graduated from Brisbane Grammar School, the rump of the family suggested he might fancy spending a summer with Durham. “We tried to get him over two or three seasons ago,” said Steve Woolston, his uncle. “But the Australian set-up were worried about him playing on his British passport.”
He did end up coming over to England for the summer of 2014. But he represented MCC Young Cricketers instead, where he was reunited with Billy Root. This was seen as a compromise by the Australian authorities keen on overseas experience but not the potential re-assimilation that might go with it.
“When Matt came back, he said everyone at Lord’s had called him an Aussie,” recalls his father. “I think he knew then which way he wanted to go, even though he probably didn’t want to tell us.”
The Durham connection might still be consummated but Renshaw – averaging 36 from 10 Tests – would now be an overseas player. “It would be great if it came off,” says Woolston, whose brother, Paul, recently joined the club’s board. “He has so many personal connections here.”
The Renshaws have personal connections throughout English cricket, it seems. One of them is Liam Plunkett, the Middlesbrough-born fast bowler who will take part in January’s one-day international series. “When I played in North Shields, Liam was one of the kids at the club,” says Ian. “His dad was tall and nibbled it around and used to nick me off for fun. The joke was that I coached Liam’s batting so he became a bowler.
“This sport can be a small world. At Sheffield Collegiate I played with Michael Vaughan’s brother, David, and the captain was Richard Kettleborough, who was one of the umpires last year when Matt made his Test debut in Adelaide.
“Joe was about 12 then, and already being talked about as the next Vaughan. Technically, everything was in place. Billy stayed at our place when he came out to play grade cricket, and has a very different personality to Joe.
“We caught up with them again on the 2013-14 Ashes tour. I remember Joe walking out to bat at The Gabba, and there was this unbelievable noise. I was thinking, ‘How do you deal with that?’ We went down to Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test, and the whole family was staying in an apartment, but the wheels had come off the tour by then.”
And so to the inevitable question. Who will Ian be cheering for when the first ball is bowled? He chuckles. “It changes your view when your son’s in the team. Someone asked me this the other day and I said, ‘Who is Trevor Bayliss supporting?’
“Ideally, though, you want a good contest, like the one Australia had in India last winter. If it goes down to the final session, I’ll be happy.”
‘When he went back, everyone at Lord’s called him an Aussie, Matt then knew which way he wanted to go’
‘We tried to get him over to Durham, but Aussies were worried about him playing on his British passport’
English export: Matt Renshaw showed promise as a young cricketer in South Yorkshire but his family emigrated Down Under and the Middlesbrough-born batsman is now poised to open for Australia in the Ashes