Thirty years ago, the Ashes Test at Melbourne saw the closest of finishes. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the match and the final few heart-stopping moments.
Boxing Day starts have evolved into many a memorable Test matches, but excitement reached the zenith during this fascinating encounter that came to its knuckle-cracking, nail-biting end exactly 30 years ago.
Up 2-0 in the series, Greg Chappell won the toss, thought that the wicket looked damp anddecided to field. His grandfather Vic Richardson swore by the adage, “Nine times out of ten when you win the toss you bat. The tenth time, you think for long and hard and then bat.” However, Chappell thought otherwise and finally a hair’s breadth stood between the advisability of the dictum of the older generation and the action of the younger.
The English innings, lasting exactly one day, was largely dominated by a 161-run fourth wicket partnership. Alan Lamb, biffed his way to 83 off 113 deliveries, and a surprisingly rollicking Chris Tavare, scored his 89 in 165 balls – a rate approaching the speed of light by his glacial standards.
Once these two had fallen within ten runs of each other, the rest of the batting did not amount to much. The innings quickly folded at 284.
Australia fared just three runs better.Half centuries by a patient Kim Hughes, chancy and fortunate David Hookes and the gutsy Rod Marsh took them the few measly inches ahead of the English total. Skipper Bob Willis, Ian Botham, Derek Pringle, Norman Cowans and Geoff Miller chipped away at the wickets.
Chappell was caught at deep square leg, hooking the very first ball he faced.This innings also ended with the second day.
Surprisingly, the third day saw yet another complete innings. England was in a hole at 45 for three, but opener Graeme Fowler top scored with 65 and Ian Botham struck a run-a-ball 46. A stubborn 61-run resistance between Pringle and Bob Taylor for the eighth-wicket ensured a score of 294, leaving the hosts 292 to win.Geoff Lawson picked up four wickets and an ageing Jeff Thomson, bowling second change in both innings, accounted for 3.
The odd ball was keeping low, but the target looked very achievable when play began on the fourth day. The pitch had not deteriorated, and the outfield, not been watered due to a serious and prolonged draught, was lightning fast.
But, Kepler Wessels was bowled off his pads at 37 and a brilliant, low catch by substitute Ian Gould sent back Greg Chappell cheaply. With the score on 71, John Dyson was taken superbly in the slips by Tavare off Botham.
Fortunes started to swing like a pendulum. Hughes and Hookes added 100, and for a moment Australia looked the favourites. When both of them fell within two runs of each other, the momentum was back with England. And when Marsh and Yardley departed at 190, both to Cowans, it looked almost over.
Allan Border battled at the other end, but the English bowlers stuck to their task. At 202, Lawson pulled Pringle down the throat of fine leg. Sixteen runs later Hogg trudged slowly back to the pavilion, trapped in front by Cowans. The score read 218 for nine. Seventy six were still required when Thomson walked out to join Border.
“When I went out to bat there was no pressure on me. Everyone expected me to play a stupid shot and get out. AB (Border) had not been having the best of times but I played with him for Queensland and we were good mates. I went up to him and said: ‘Let’s beat these fruits,’ ” Thomson recalled later.
Willis now adopted the much-criticised tactics of widespread fields for Border, strange considering that the batsman had managed just 245 from the last fifteen innings. Now, as the fielders disappeared to distant corners of the ground whenever he took strike, he pushed for runs and played himself back into confidence. Even during the last two overs of the fourth day, with rain halts having messed with the batsman’s concentration, fielders were not brought in close enough to harass him.
Australia ended the fourth day at 255 for nine.
The last morning
The following morning, although the match was liable to get over at any moment, 18,000 spectators were allowed in to the stadium free of charge. The new ball was taken, but it hardly made an impression and the tactics against Border remained the same. With Thomson slowly growing in confidence, occasionally piercing the offside field for invaluable runs, the hosts inched closer and closer.
Every run was now cheered, and the bowling was proving increasingly ineffective.
Finally, Australia was just a stroke away from victory when Botham began the 18th over of the morning. “Ian Botham came on. I was at first slip,” recalls Geoff Miller. “I said to Chris Tavaré, who was at second slip, that we had to move forward because it was a low-bouncing pitch. We moved up a couple of yards but we forgot about the new ball.”
The first ball was short and wide outside the off-stump with a bit of away swing. Thomson, who had shown splendid application since the previous evening, tried to push it for a single. If he had swung his bat at it with his characteristic spread-eagled legs, he might have got the winning boundary.
The edge flew to Tavare at second slip at an eminently catchable height. Having moved closer, he had minimum time to react. His left hand shot out and parried the ball. Miller, standing deep in the first slip, saw the ball dipping. He stumbled forward and clutched the shiny red cherry as if his life depended on it. The crowd let out a spontaneous groan. The home side lost by the wafer thin margin of three runs.
Ages later Thomson observed: “I could not talk about it for years. It was one of the all-time low moments in my life.”
England 284 (Chris Tavare 89, Allan Lamb 83; Rodney Hogg 4-69, Bruce Yardley 4-89) and 294 (Graeme Fowler 65, Ian Botham 46, Derek Pringle 42, Bob Taylor 37; Geoff Lawson 4-66, Rodeny Hogg 3-64, Jeff Thomson 3-74) bt Australia 287 (Kepler Wessels 47, Kim Hughes 66, David Hookes 53, Rodney Marsh 53; Bob Willis 3-38, Geoff Miller 3-44) and 288 (John Dyson 31, Kim Hughes 48, David Hookes 68, Allan Border 62 not out; Norman Cowans 6-77) by three runs.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)