Not quite six years ago, Daniel Christian was in a Canberra hotel room about to represent the Prime Minister’s XI, and on the phone to his Redbacks teammate Shaun Tait while his laptop furnished updates of the Indian Premier League player auction in Bangalore. Presently his name flashed up — “D. Christian, South Australia, allrounder: reserve price $US50,000.” In minutes his life would change.
It turned out that three franchises were pursuing Christian on the basis of recommendations from their Australian coaches: Darren Lehmann at the Deccan Chargers, Greg Shipperd at the Delhi Daredevils and Geoff Lawson at Kochi Tuskers Kerala.
Christian and Tait began refreshing their screens every 30 seconds in an atmosphere of growing hilarity, and even now Christian can barely keep the laughter from his voice recalling it.
“It just kept going up,” he says. “It got to $400,000, then it stopped for a minute. And we’re both, like, what’s going on? Then it came back at $800,000.” He was finally knocked down for $900,000 a year for two years, with a third-year option. “It was literally like winning the lottery.”
At the time, Christian was 27. Despite slipping quietly into three T20 internationals, he had never seen much money from cricket, and was living in rental accommodation in Adelaide. Hectic raising of paddles on the other side of the world had now nudged him towards multi-millionairehood, although paradoxically it made him feel almost like an amateur.
“Something like that takes the pressure off,” says Christian. “It means you’re not playing for your next mortgage repayment. You can actually almost afford to play for the love.”
Of course, the Chargers weren’t looking for a gentleman visitor; they wanted a matchwinning allrounder. And when Christian contributed consistently without dominating, his price tag became something of a burden.
“If I’d got 70 off 30 balls and taken 3-15 every match, maybe I’d have justified it,” he recalls. “And because I didn’t really understand the expectations, I probably took them on a bit. I’d just got on Twitter, so I heard a lot about, ‘How’s this bloke worth $900,000?’ It did get to me a little.”
He’s grateful all the same for his two seasons at the Chargers and a third at Royal Challengers Bangalore: he bought a house, an investment property and shares recommended by an investment adviser.
It was also a reward for a player characterised by a willingness to back himself in any company. Christian is Australian cricket’s everywhere man, having been part of dressing rooms in every state bar Western Australia: three state teams (NSW, South Australia and Victoria) and two Big Bash League franchises (Brisbane Heat, Hobart Hurricanes). T20 has also provided a passport to four counties, plus his last representative honours, during Australia’s only win of the 2014 World T20. This year in England, Christian had his most consistent season yet, averaging over 40 and striking at almost 160 per 100 balls as captain of Nottinghamshire in the T20 Blast. “I wouldn’t say I stumbled on a formula, but it’s the first time I’ve really trusted that I could catch up,” he says. “Maybe the conditions help over there, the grounds being smaller. You say, ‘I’ll just knock it round here, wait for the spinner, and then I’ve only got to hit it 60m to the short boundary and I can get back to where the run rate needs to be’.
“I made a couple of little technical changes working with [twice-sacked England coach] Peter Moores, who was assistant coach. He’s fantastic to talk to about cricket. He was just flinging balls at me in the nets, and I started walking across my stumps to knock it into the leg side. He’d set me little scenarios like: ‘It’s the 13th over, you need eight an over, the field is here, you’re not allowed to hit it in the air’. That’s a really good game for me because my pressure reliever has always been try to hit a six, and now I wasn’t allowed to do that.
“So I started fiddling round with getting across and it kind of undid some of the rigidness in my technique that I might have slipped into in the last few years. Loosen the arms up, get the bat going back to gully rather than trying to straighten it, just hit the ball.”
A weirdly fascinating game, this T20. Australia, Christian notes, has been slow to assimilate the format. “I played in the first Big Bash. It was obviously going to be huge.” At the same time, he understands ambivalence about it. Although T20 has underwritten his financial wellbeing, he finds it vaguely unsatisfying, and continues preferring four-day cricket.
“Sheffield Shield cricket you’ve got 10 games,” he says. “You train for 12 months. There’s a big build-up. You can get into a Shield final and win it and it’s amazing, fantastic, the best experience.
“The Big Bash League, you get together on December 10 for the first time, spend a week together doing some planning, have a couple of nights out getting to know your teammates, then by the January 20 you’re finished. And it’s such a momentum game. Last season at the Hurricanes we started well, playing decent cricket. Then within a week we’d lost three, and everyone was meant to be out of form even though it was only a week. Just gone like that, in a week.”
The matches, he finds, are also curiously indistinguishable and perishable. “There’s always another game,” Christian says. “We’ve lost? No worries, another game coming up. Because it’s news today, fish and chip paper tomorrow.”
If Christian sounds like an old salt, that’s because he is, and in good company. Victoria are defending the Sheffield Shield robustly this season because of what he sees as a bodyguard of experience (White, Siddle, Quiney, Hastings) around a nucleus of emerging talent (Wade, Handscomb, Stoinis, Boland) and youth (Dean, Harris, Tremain). Victoria’s famously clannish dressing room is the most enjoyable of the many Christian has been part of.
“Nothing is off limits,” he says. “There’s no dancing around. Everything is out there. We take the piss out of each other a lot and about anything at all — you can’t get offended, you can’t get upset, everyone takes it. But there’s a real mutual respect, of ability, of what you bring.”
Since joining the Bushrangers from the Redbacks in 2012, Christian has filled a utility role fitting his temperament: only one player in the competition has hit more sixes, while he has given up only 3.25 runs an over.
“I’ve never played sport for personal success or gratification,” he says. “I always played team sports — rugby league, cricket — where it’s been about winning as a group. I love the role I play in Victoria: come in at seven, hopefully push on when the guys at the top have done the job; bowl second change in the middle when it starts reversing. It’s probably not a role that’s going to take you to the next level. But it’s what the team needs, and that suits me.”
On the field this summer, the Bushrangers have been merciless, men against boys when they recently clobbered Queensland. “We bullied them, pretty much bullied them,” says Christian. “That’s something we’re good at. We get a bit of a sniff of vulnerability and away we go. You never used to be able to do that with Queensland. I haven’t beaten them like that for a long, long time. James Hopes was part of the reason. He’d counter-attack, or block an end and get a quick three-for. Harts [Chris Hartley] is still one of the hardest blokes around to get out. They’ll improve as they get older.”
Not surprisingly, Christian is unimpressed by the recent atmosphere of experimentation in domestic cricket. “We’re guinea pigs,” he says. “It’s first-class cricket. Last season we had a game where Chris Tremain bowled like the wind in the first innings, then we subbed in James Pattinson in the second innings who did the same. This season we’re using four different kinds of balls. When they’re trying to get blokes ready for Test cricket and talking about them banging out 1000-run years, it’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.”
Nor does this apply only in first-class cricket. Christian is another voice critical of the Cricket Australia XI in the Matador Cup. “They’re not trying to win the Matador Cup. They’re trying to do well for themselves,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a good concept at all. If players are good enough they’re going to be in the state teams anyway. They might win one every so often if someone has a day out. Otherwise they’ll get flogged every game.”
He sees a contradiction in a wealthy sport accenting youth when factors that used to be held against older cricketers no longer apply. “These days if you need something, there’s someone. There’s no reason for being a poor fielder when there’s a fielding coach. There’s no excuse for not being fit when there’s a fitness bloke. You shouldn’t be overweight because there’s a nutritionist. So there’s no reason now why age should matter. If you’re playing well and you’re fit, who cares how old you are? Why can’t the [Australian] top order be all 30-year-olds who know their trade, who’ve all made 5000 runs?”
Funnily enough, that puts Christian on the same page as his erstwhile state and national coach Darren Lehmann, who in his new book Coach calls “33 or 34 a team’s ideal age profile” where “players know their games inside out, have been around the block and know how to cope with pressure” — although apparently out of kilter with the reconstituted national selection panel, of which Lehmann is a member, recently mandated by Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland to “invest in youth”.
Yet the irony of Christian’s overnight IPL riches is he feels a better cricketer than he did then.
“I know my game better. You play when you’re young, you don’t quite cut the mustard and you’re on the scrapheap quickly while they look at the next bloke. Cam White and I were talking about this a few months ago, how it would be great to play [international cricket] again because we know so much more. Everyone who’s played would say the same.”
Argue if you like, but Christian has played with more of them than most.