Almost fifty: The Matthew Elliott we never knew
As he reaches his most significant half-century yet, the former Test batter dissects some of the major talking points of his career, and ponders the lessons he's learned in the years since
In his quiet moments of reflection, Matthew Elliott concedes there is one wrinkle in his cricket career he would like to iron out.
Forget his five-year selection soap opera. Ignore the mid-pitch collision that ruined his right knee. No, Elliott is talking numbers, and one in particular.
"It really irks me that I averaged 47 in first-class cricket. I mean, 50 is the benchmark isn't it. Who averages 47?" he asks cricket.com.au incredulously, a trace of laughter gathering in his voice.
"And Sam (his son) knows that, and so he'll niggle me about it.
"But I mean with the modern-day players, 40 is the new 50, isn't it. So I just go to him, 'If I played now, I wouldn't get dropped' – that's my one comeback.
"The modern players are probably thinking, 'Oh, this guy's a wanker', but yeah, that's the thing that irks me."
This is the Matthew Elliott we never knew existed. Tongue at least partly in cheek, bouncing banter and happily showing why some former teammates believe that, through his playing days, he was Australian cricket's most misunderstood character.
"I suppose he has a long face at the best of times," grins Matthew Mott, who opened the batting at Victoria with Elliott, a man who was often portrayed in the media as overly intense, or even surly and temperamental.
"I remember when I was with Queensland I thought: That bloke's an absolute flog.
"But then I played with him at Victoria and loved him as a bloke. Funny in a self-deprecating way. Very intelligent. A great team person.
"We were playing the Shield final in Brisbane, and even though he wasn't captain, he wasn't vice-captain, he wrote a personalised note to every single player and put it under their door the night before the game, highlighting their strengths and what they brought to the team, and wishing them good luck.
"There's just a lot more to him than people probably thought."
None of which is to say shades of the other side were pure fiction. Even Elliott acknowledges he was "hard work" at times along the journey. Reflecting on it today, he doesn't necessarily see an issue with that. Yes, chronic knee problems got him down. Sure, he was grumpy after being dropped.
"But like, who gets dropped and is happy?" he reasons. "And injuries over a long period, they do wear you down.
"You can be a bit hard work at times, but that's OK isn't it? Do you have to be absolutely perfect all the time? That's not life, is it?"
Elliott knows. As he ponders the past on his 50th birthday, there are lessons he wishes he'd learned earlier, and wisdom gained over time that he thinks might have been useful for his younger self.
He cites one example as his brief coaching stint with Cricket Australia (CA), and the way he has taken aspects of that experience and shared it with his three cricketing sons: Zac, Sam and Will.
"Not that they listen to me much anyway, but even just coaching the boys and being involved with the boys and what they do, the stuff that I learned (at CA) has helped me enormously," he explains.
"Just practical, hands-on stuff – like basically don't do it the way I've been doing it (laughs)!
"(As a player) I just sort of hacked away, then I over-thought it, and that was a bit of a recurring theme."
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If Matthew Elliott was a hack, there is very little hope for the rest of us. With a pull shot from the gods and a cover drive almost its equal, the Victorian left-hander was a wonderfully talented top-order batter who looked for all money a Test match regular when he made his international bow in the 1996-97 summer.
According to Steve Waugh, the first of Elliott's two hundreds in the 1997 Ashes "gave the indication that he'd be the man to play at least 50 Tests".
Elliott scored 556 runs on that tour – an aggregate bettered by only Steve Smith among Australians in series abroad in the past 30 years – and cricket writer Ken Piesse later called him "a newcomer of infinite potential".
He scored a third Test hundred at home against New Zealand in the summer that followed but two bad knees and – somewhat consequently – a run of bad form conspired against him thereafter, stalling his ascension before ultimately playing a significant role in halting it altogether.
There were others factors, too, and this is where it becomes a little more complicated, and a degree of subjectivity enters the conversation.
Elliott's profile on Cricinfo reads: "... the touring treadmill grated and he is rumoured to have had trouble fitting in with the dressing-room culture".
While he has acknowledged the spates of moodiness, there is a broader truth at play here: Elliott was never completely at ease in the spotlight, never sure he possessed the personality type required to withstand the pressure-filled world of international sport.
"I felt like in our era, the challenge going from first-class to Test cricket wasn't necessarily the standard," he says. "It was, could you deal with the external attention? Could you deal with the commentary around the way you played?
"When you play for Australia, you're under a lot more scrutiny from the media and people who watch and follow it. To me, that was real, and it was different. You couldn't hide in the background and just be a state player.
"People would be like, 'You're shit – you're not good enough'. And they'd openly say it in certain environments.
"When you're not used to that attention, sometimes you're like, 'What's going on here?'
"Depending on how you're wired, that can make you question your own ability and whether you're good enough to play at that level.
"Other guys are wired differently – they need the stage – so the transition is easier for them, in my opinion."
But 'the stage' was never Elliott's comfort zone. A deep thinker by nature, as a batter he was introspective almost to the point of self-sabotage.
He puts it more succinctly: "I'm a bit of a stress-head."
Speaking with him today, that trait remains evident: each of his points is qualified with the counter-point; sentences are revisited and revised; and insightful thoughts are accompanied by caveats like "that might sound a bit wanky, but ..." as if he is uncomfortable revealing the extent of his intelligence for fear it might betray his knockabout persona. Both appear genuine elements of his personality, and his sharp wit – which reveals itself regularly – seems a product of their union.
It was sheer batting talent that kept dragging Elliott back into the national cricket conversation. After he scored five hundreds in seven matches in the 1998-99 Sheffield Shield season, he was selected for the West Indies tour that followed. Long-term captain and opener Mark Taylor had just retired, and in the maiden series of the Steve Waugh era, Elliott was given first crack opening alongside Michael Slater.
In the first Test in Trinidad, he scored 44 "off a million balls on a stinking wicket", but ducks in his next two innings followed. When he then made 16, 9 and 0, he was axed for the fourth Test, and didn't wear the Baggy Green again for five years.
"This is the only 'woe is me' (comment) right, but I felt like I was one bad game away from getting dropped," he reflects. "As soon as I got a low score in the second innings in Port of Spain, I felt, Oh I'm under the pump here, and the next game I got two low scores. And then bang, you're gone."
It was through this series that Australia's new captain's opinion of Elliott clearly shifted. Years later, in his autobiography, Out of my comfort zone, Waugh described him as "technically gifted but temperamentally flawed", to which he added: "Matty was prone to serious bouts of self-doubt and a tendency to let injuries rule his thought processes".
"I think that's accurate," Elliott says. "That's an accurate reflection, but ... it's hard ... if you're a bit more wired that way, you are prone to that, you shouldn't have to apologise for that.
"Yeah OK, that's why I probably played 21 (Tests) and not more. I mean, that's just what it is. I don't need to come back and do a character assessment of Steve. I do think that's a reasonable assessment based on what he saw. But you can't be something you're not, either, can you?
"Some (players) get more opportunities, some get less – that's just life. But I felt like I was always in the less (category).
"So I know what (Waugh is) saying, but sometimes there (could have been) an element of understanding and empathy there where he might have been in the same boat as a player, and he might he have put himself into a position where his weight of performances pushed him past that.
"But I felt like it was a bit of a thing. And I felt (Waugh's assessment was) an easy thing to say when you're not (in a situation where) every game you feel like you're playing for your position. And that's what it felt like."
Across the next two-and-a-half years, eight batters would jostle for positions in Australia's top six, as Waugh searched for his ideal opening pair. Ultimately, Greg Blewett and Michael Slater fell by the wayside, and Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer blossomed.
As Australia went on a world record run of 16 Test wins, Elliott, like several of his contemporaries, had to be content with assuming the role of domestic run machine. Between being dropped in the Caribbean and the conclusion of the 2003-04 home summer, playing in Australia and England, he piled on 5,855 first-class runs at 54.72 in 66 matches, with 18 hundreds.
But his chances had come and gone.
Reflecting now, and given the mental battles that seemed to plague him, it begs another question: did he truly believe he should have been there?
"Probably not," Elliott concedes. "I always thought, I'm not quite at that level (although contrary to this, he did say in a 2002 interview: "I think I'm as good a player as Justin Langer, if not a better player. What's wrong with saying that?").
"You see yourself back from that (level) a little bit, maybe. You know, I thought Hayden was a stronger player than me. I just thought he was better across lots of different conditions. I thought he was a fantastic, wonderful player. And Langer as well, I'm not trying to cut him short either. Strong players.
"And they never got injured. I'm sitting there thinking, Surely they can bust a leg (laughs), and you might hear they're injured and you're like, 'Come on', and then nup, they're playing, and you're just like, 'Ah shit'.
"And here I was bumbling around on a couple of dodgy knees."
Twenty years on, two pervading schools of thought remain: either Elliott's cards were marked by Waugh on that Caribbean tour; or his rival top-order batters simply better took their opportunities.
Or perhaps elements of both. That's the conclusion Elliott has drawn; as a captain, Waugh needed to make calls on certain players, and to help him do that he assessed their characters as well as their batting records and picked accordingly.
"He saw certain traits in other players and I reckon (consequently) those other players probably got given a little bit more opportunity," he says. "But they made the most of them and they flourished.
"So I think it's fair to say that the captain (Waugh), the coach and the selectors, they made the right call, because they had a lot of success as a team."
He makes one final point to close out the conversation.
"I agree with some of the things (Waugh) said," he adds. "I don't really have a gripe with him. Yeah, we're not best friends, but I don't really have a gripe with him. And I would have done some of the things that he did."
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Elliott's contact with cricket nowadays is through his three sons, yet he clearly keeps a keen eye on the sport more broadly, and at least some of his views are notably different from the mainstream.
He sees an increasingly risk-averse society around him and feels it is having an indirect influence on our cricketers, be it via an unpreparedness to work through physical or mental discomfort, or the unwillingness of a batter or bowler to improvise or gamble in high-pressure situations.
He sees cricket as entertainment and wonders if the many rigidities now that hem in its players are limiting the theatre once created by the game's high points of tension and competitiveness.
There were those at Cricket Australia who were excited about the potential for tapping into Elliott's brain in a coaching capacity, and for a while, that looked like coming to fruition. After he relocated to Brisbane in 2017 to work as a high performance coach at the National Cricket Centre, he was highly regarded among his contemporaries and a promising future in that world awaited him.
But Elliott soon saw it differently, just as the reality of daily coaching life – and life away from his family, who had stayed in Melbourne – was not as he had anticipated.
"Because I had to move to Brisbane, I initially rejected the position when it was offered to me," he says. "And then (former head of CA coaching) Troy Cooley reached out and said, 'Look, it'll be good, you'll enjoy it'.
"And then, you know, it was exciting. I thought, This is going to be great. And I just probably never really considered how viable it was to shift everything up to Queensland ... and then the reality of always being away hits you.
"And the reality of, if you take another position, you might have to (move to) another state or another country ... I should have considered all that much more.
"The other bit that hit me as well was this constant sense of performing; I didn't really think about the fact that you're always up in front of people, always presenting and having to put your ideas and thoughts out there.
"I felt quite drained at times by that. Your one-on-ones with the players, setting sessions up – all that sort of stuff was fine. But then, this element of always being up in front of the group and speaking, I didn't really think about."
Elliott insists he has no interest in returning to the coaching game, and he is satisfied having scratched that particular itch both for the aspects of the job he enjoyed, and for the professional development it provided.
He has since returned to his previous employer, a civil contractor in Melbourne. It is a job he finds enjoyment in daily and one that also serves to regularly remind him of a philosophy he might have found valuable in his previous life.
"I'm not saying it to be a bit wanky and stuff like that, but you've got to have other interests and passions (outside cricket)," he says. "And you've got to move away from the idea of, 'If I spend more time at this, I will get better'.
"It just does not work like that. I couldn't disagree more with the 10,000 hours (theory), and with some of those notions about just hacking away, more time on task, doing more of it.
"By and large, the quality of what you do is much, much more important than the quantity of what you do.
"I think someone in a modern (sporting) program who has the courage to give up more hours of (their players just) 'being at the club' will get enormous benefits by sending their athletes out to do other things."
Given he has now seen it from the perspectives of both player and coach, Elliott is well qualified to comment. He knows now he would have been better served switching off mentally from the game more regularly, but paradoxically, it took retirement and distance to comprehend that.
"You think state cricket's massive when you're in it," he adds. "Like it's important, and if it's your passion you should pursue it, (but) when you step out of it ... it's not as big as what you think it is when you're in it.
"And you can only get that perspective when you move in other spheres, and be exposed to other things.
"The hard bit is, it makes you love it more when you're doing it that little bit less, and you are pursuing other things.
"Once it becomes a job, and you're just grinding away, it starts to have that real job mentality.
"And cricket's a hard enough game already, because you're spending so much time actually playing the game."
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Elliott found cricket hard for other reasons, too. While the selection drama he experienced in the earlier part of his career was more case specific, it was years later that he took issue with the process more broadly.
By that point he was 32, and his 2003-04 Sheffield Shield campaign was about to become the most prolific in the competition's history. Australia had a Sri Lanka tour on the horizon, and Elliott remembers he and fellow Victorian Brad Hodge were hopeful of being selected, or perhaps seeing their 25-year-old state teammate David Hussey called up after his match-winning 212no in Newcastle a month earlier had famously caught the eye of Steve Waugh.
Instead, national selectors gambled on Queenslander Andrew Symonds, who'd enjoyed a breakout World Cup a year earlier and presented an attractive all-round package with his batting, medium-pace and off-spin bowling, and superb fielding.
"We were playing a Shield game at the 'G and (selector) David Boon came to both 'Hodgey' and I beforehand, and said, 'Look, you're not going to get picked, but all you can do is keep performing, keep putting pressure on'.
"Then we had a game down in Tassie not long afterwards, and I saw Boonie and I thought, Right, I'm going to speak to him. Now my discussion with him wasn't, 'Oh sour grapes, you should've picked me and not Andrew Symonds' at all, because there was an element of that where you go, 'I can understand why he would get picked'.
"I actually thought David Hussey should have been picked, because the timing was perfect.
"Anyway, I said to Boonie: 'I can't compete with potential'.
"I thought with Andrew's selection, it was what potentially he could do, and not what he had done, and I wanted to try and convey the message that potential can be whatever you want it to be.
"So in Andrew, they saw that potential, as you do – bat, bowl, field, whatever – but he hadn't put a consistent body of work together to say that averaging 35 was a bit of an aberration, he was going to be better than that, and he was going to push up into those 45-50s you had to average to get picked.
"So I said to David, 'There's no way I can compete with that, because you're picking on potential, and that can be anything you perceive it to be. There's no limit to the top end of that whereas with me, all you're seeing is the downside: He's not that good in the field, he's a bit older, we've picked him before and he hasn't done that well'.
"But I was averaging 50 so it was like, why isn't that enough?
"And I get they've got to take into consideration team balance. And don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have picked me either, so I think what they did was fair, in the sense that I would have made the same decision.
"But what I wanted to try and say was: 'Be careful picking on potential, because it can be whatever you want it to be'.
"And I think history has proven we went down a path where philosophically we moved away from the fundamental of: Have they demanded to be picked?"
In that regard, Elliott's point checks out. Australia's next four Test debutants after Symonds were aged 22 or 23, with limited first-class experience. Among them, only the exceptional Michael Clarke hit the ground running; Shaun Tait, Nathan Hauritz and even Shane Watson all appeared briefly before returning to the domestic ranks to hone their crafts.
Selectors about-faced thereafter, with the next four debutants in Baggy Green all boasting considerable first-class experience: Mike Hussey, Hodge, Phil Jaques, and Stuart Clark.
By then, however, Elliott was in his mid-thirties, and his best years were behind him.
Four months after the Sri Lanka tour that never was for Elliott, and having taken Victoria to a Shield title with scores of 155 and 55no in the decider, he did in fact earn that long-awaited recall.
It came more than five years after he had been dropped, and just six months after the close of Steve Waugh's reign as skipper.
Having flown home from a stint with Glamorgan to be present for the birth of Will, Elliott was then hurried onto a flight to Darwin as a replacement for Ricky Ponting, who was a late withdrawal. Just like in the recurring dreams he used to have about not being able to find his batting gear, the Test began with Australia batting and Elliott without his spikes.
He was out for one and zero, faced 11 balls for the match, and was back in the UK a short time later to end a whirlwind fortnight.
It was a last hurrah in the Test side for the Victorian who, despite his double failure, reflects on that match – and what it meant – with satisfaction.
"I was actually happier to play that additional game and still do shit than if I hadn't played, because like, I did get picked – I did actually fight my way back into the team," he says.
"I'd performed well enough to get picked, and it might have been only for that game – Ricky was always going to come back – but at least in that instance, I felt like, 'Well, now if I don't get picked I can feel a lot more satisfied than if I'd been stuck on 20 games'.
"I thought there was a period of time there where I probably warranted being picked based on performance."
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Nowadays, anonymity is one benefit to come out of Elliott's limited Test career. He is seldom recognised but when it happens, he tries to politely laugh off the enquiries.
"It's generally, 'Where do I know you from?' And I'm usually like, 'Oh dunno, maybe the long face'," he grins.
"The one time I said, 'Oh yeah, I used to play a bit of cricket', they were like, 'No, it's not from that'.
"I don't even know why I said it, but I swore I would never say it again."
In April, he watched his son Sam make his List A debut for Victoria, racing from an important work meeting at Melbourne Airport to Junction Oval in St Kilda in time to see him bowl. It was a memorable family moment, and the onset of COVID-19 and the many ensuing Melbourne lockdowns have provided Elliott with perspective on this front.
From father to son 🤝 Congratulations One Day cap #213, Sam Elliot. #vicsdoitbetter pic.twitter.com/cEJxU2K6gT— Victorian Cricket Team (@VicStateCricket) April 8, 2021
"One of the great privileges you have is to go and watch your kids play sport," he says. "Just to watch them pursue the things they're doing ... and I'm sure that resonates with everyone, that idea of just going and watching the kids. It's great.
"So when the opportunity is not there, or it's taken away, it's a bit of a bummer.
"But at the same time, it's also (a reminder) to be grateful for what we've got. (We want our kids to) be grateful for the opportunities that are there.
"You sit here and you moan, 'Oh bloody COVID – (premier Daniel) Andrews has extended (lockdown for) another two weeks, this is ridiculous'.
"Then you watch the news and see people in Afghanistan running to try and jump on planes, and you think, you know, we still live in a great country, we're still pretty lucky."
He knows he was fortunate in his cricket career too. When he winds the clock right back to the start of his grade days at Collingwood, and really considers matters more deeply, he sees the chances that were handed to him before he was truly ready.
He was talented and hungry. And he was picked on potential.
"There were amazing people there who gave me heaps of opportunities," he remembers.
"And you know, here's me bemoaning Andrew Symonds getting picked ... but I reckon I got (chances) at Collingwood when I probably didn't really deserve them. But they saw something in me, and then they kept giving me opportunities even though I probably didn't demand to be picked.
"So you've just got to be careful sometimes, don't you, always seeing it from your own perspective."