Matthew ‘Matt’ Browning
(15 ODIs, 367 runs at 30.58, highest score: 112*, best bowling: 0/17)
As a young club cricketer, Matthew ‘Matt’ Browning was famously unspectacular. He had the air of a stow-away player in his XI, lacking in any form of grace, plodding around in both the field and at the crease. According to teammates, he also spoke like the dullest of cricketers, and even his body odour was unremarkable, smelling as it did of stale pocket fluff.
But in the winter of 1984, his mother, Lorraine, an electrical engineer at the CSIRO, perfected a battery-powered bat. Browning’s mother then taught him how to install the battery and maintain it. The electrified bat weighed up to twice its original weight, extremely heavy when compared to an unelectrified bat. This extra weight made the bat unwieldy, but the additional force supplied more than compensated for any sluggishness and lack of timing. Of course, Browning had to be careful with his strokeplay because if the battery ever came loose, then he would no longer have an electrified bat. But he was careful - a trait perhaps inherited from his grandfather, a renowned mohel in the local Jewish community. Indeed, it was his grandfather who advised Browning to develop the safety strap that he wore around his waist while batting.
Wielding his ‘Matt Bat’ the following summer of 1984/85, Browning became the most dangerous opening batter in the Adelaide club circuit. No opponent who played against him had ever seen a cricketer wield a bat with such strength and aggression. He struck at the very first ball of the match, and struck fear into the opposition fielders until the last. He was a batter transformed: fearless, ruthless, inimitable.
His limited range of shots with the bat (including three variants of the lofted off-drive) did not affect his statistics that breakthrough summer, which included a highest score of 363, and, in total, over 1200 runs for the season. Of the dozens of stumpings that he suffered, none affected his confidence, and he soon debuted for South Australia in a domestic limited overs match in 1986. Astonishingly, not a single umpire, manager or other official ever thought to question the legality of Browning’s bat, and he scored a thrilling 83* from just 71 balls on debut to guide the South Australian side to victory.
He was then invited to play the 1985 season in English County Cricket with Sussex County Cricket Club. Sussex had signed him based on his growing reputation as a big hitter. But he discovered to his dismay that incompatible electric sockets meant that he would be unable to recharge his bat’s battery while he was in England. Not that this proved a factor, as Test and Country Cricket Board officials swiftly banned the use of his electric bat within moments of first seeing it in action.
Acting Chairman Lord Cuttlesworth expressed surprise that Browning had ‘ever been permitted to bat more than a single delivery with the electric monstrosity’, claiming that the sharp, staccato rattle of Browning’s bat as it completed revolutions and connected with the ball reminded him of the sound of ‘throwing a piano down a flight of stairs’.
To the credit of Browning, however, he swiftly adapted to batting with a standard, unelectrified bat, transforming himself into a determined opener. In the 1992 biography A Bat At Rest, author Ray Robinson described Browning’s reinvention thus: ‘He recreated himself by cutting to ribbons everything that he had been before, the way a bird might thrash itself to bits trying to hatch from a shell it had already left behind’. Robinson would later win Wisden Metaphor of the Year for this imagery.
After a successful county season, Browning was invited to return to Sussex the following summer. But the Australian Cricket Board had other plans. With the national side reaching its nadir in 1985, Browning was one of several promising youngsters the selectors called upon to bolster their batting.
Under the tutelage of Bob Simpson, Browning became a semi-regular in the middle order of the Australian one day side over the next two years. His role was to anchor the innings in the likelihood of a top order collapse, a position for which he proved eminently suitable.
Browning’s finest moment in that role came against New Zealand in 1985/6. Before the series began, captain Allan Border described his opponents as a ‘shit-faced mob’, a team that would have been content with a score of 150 in the first innings. So when they scored 277 batting first, the Australians were stunned. Even more so, when they lost five wickets to the opening bowling spells of Richard Hadlee and Ewen Chatfield. But from 5/24, Browning anchored the innings, batting cleverly with the tail. He scored a magnificent 112* (148) to get Australia to within a dozen runs of victory before he was the last man out, stumped off Jeremy Coney.
Throughout the following year, Browning continued to be in and out of the one day side, but he ultimately failed to make the squad for the 1987 World Cup. Following the surprise victory by Border’s men in that tournament, he was left behind, a stopgap relic of a disappointing era that Australian fans were keen to forget.
In 1988, however, Browning became the first cricketer to perform with an electric bat before Queen Elizabeth II. At the request of her Majesty, he was given permission to use his beloved and otherwise prohibited Matt Bat in an Adelaide bicentenary exhibition match against a touring Royal England Invitational XI. He was dismissed for a duck, stumped. It was a sign, perhaps, that time, and Browning, had moved on.
And so, too, had Australian cricket. Despite injuries and retirements that consistently had his numerous diehard fans speculating on a return to the national side, Browning played only one more ODI. This was in 1991, when he replaced an injured Steve Waugh. Infamously, captain Allan Border asked Browning to bowl the final over of the match - the first of his career at any level - with the West Indies needing 13 off the over to win. It was a target they achieved in just two legal deliveries. Browning ended his international limited overs career with bowling figures of 0.2 overs, 0/17, with 3 no balls and 5 wides, statistically the worst economy rate in the history of the format.
But it is as a batter that Matt Browning will be most fondly remembered. Fans will cite his fair skin and blond hair, his slender but chiseled physique, and his handy moustache. He was as elegant a batter as he was handsome, which is to say, neither. But his strength lay in his ongoing determination to prove that he could bat without the aid of electricity, a hypothesis that remains unsettled to this day.
Since his retirement, Browning has worked in investment banking and founded prominent cricket charity NoPowerPlay. He is a severe critic of T20 cricket. It is a format that he describes as a ‘young boy’s folly’. At a shareholders meeting in 2012, he opined that ‘Twenty20 Cricket will do for cricket what Benny Hill did for comedy - that is, trivialise it’. He went on to add that the format is ‘of no interest to me… or my daughter’. He remains, however, a supporter of electric bats, and is working with the ECB to allow their use in The Hundred.
The Matt Bat has been preserved by the National Sporting Museum of Australia.