On August 29, 1985, Graham Gooch partnered his captain David Gower for a second-wicket partnership of 351 runs that totally blew the life out of the hapless Australians. Jaideep Vaidya revisits the opening day of the sixth, final and deciding Test of the Ashes.
The Oval Test. Traditionally the last of the English season, although it did host the first ever Test match in the country back in 1880 when the Australians came touring. The one-off Test, where 15 players made their Test debut, was dominated by the blades of WG Grace and Billy Murdoch. England won the match easily, but more importantly it kick-started the process of staging a biannual contest between the two teams that would go on to make the grandest rivalry in the sport — the Ashes.
Now, more than 100 years later, after several contests at the venue, the men from Down Under were back in south-east London to battle it out in the final Test of the 1985 Ashes. What spiced the contest up, not that it really needed it, was that it was the first time in 32 years that the destination of the Ashes urn was being decided in the final match. The last time it had happened was in 1953 when Len Hutton led England to an eight-wicket victory to clinch the series 1-0; this was also the first time England had won the Ashes since 1932-33, more famously known as the Bodyline series.
This time, England were playing the home season with memories of the previous summer still fresh in their minds, when the West Indies had ‘Blackwashed’ them 5-0. But a historic success in India had followed in the winter, and Australia’s own form was far from satisfactory. After the disaster that was the 1981 tour, or Botham’s Ashes as it came to be called, Australia had just about won the return rubber in the summer of 1982-83, before succumbing to two consecutive series defeats to the mighty Windies. Kim Hughes had tearfully resigned from captaincy following the Caribbean drubbing and the charge of the Australian team had been thrust upon Allan Border. Add to that, the controversy of the South African rebel tour followed the team wherever they went. The Australians were accused of bringing a “second eleven” to the English shores. The English press was harping over their team’s form and success; the Australian press were not too optimistic either. Not many expected Border and Co. to put up a fight.
However, Border was not one to wave the white flag without a fight to the death. He scored four back-to-back centuries in the warm-up games and led his side to a 2-1 triumph in the one-dayers; and, just like that, the media pressure switched its loyalties to England, more so on David Gower. But the 28-year-old English captain wasn’t willing to let his counterpart run away with anything. Anything you can do, I can do better, he said as he scored a century in the final one-dayer and carried forward his form into the Test series.
England won the first match at Headingley due to some poor bowling by the tourists. The second Test at Lord’s saw Border step up and score 196 in the first innings, overshadowing Gower’s 86, as Australia amassed 425 and won the match by six wickets. Australia held the aces for majority of the third Test at Nottingham, where Gower scored a supreme 166 only to be overshadowed by Graeme Wood’s 172, and had to settle for a draw after rain intervened. As the teams travelled to the north-west to Manchester for the fourth, Border and his Australians would have been quite pleased with their performance so far, given the odds that were stacked against them at the beginning of the tour. At Old Trafford, Border scored an unbeaten 146 to get his team a draw. Heading into the fifth Test at Edgbaston Birmingham, the series was tied at 1-1. Richard Ellison grabbed six for 77 to keep Australia to 335 after asking them to bat first. The English batsmen, royally led by Gower’s magnificent double century along with tons from Tim Robinson and Mike Gatting, then took the Australians to task. The hosts declared their innings on 595. In the second innings, Ellison was back in business with four for 27, as Australia were bowled out for 142. England won the game by an innings and 118 runs, and thereby took a 2-1 lead going into the final Test at The Oval.
England just needed to avoid defeat to regain the Ashes, whereas Australia had to win to retain the urn for another 16 months. The tourists decided to haul in the changes in a desperate attempt: Bob Holland, Simon O’Donnell and Jeff Thomson were omitted for Murray Bennett, Dirk Wellham and Dave Gilbert, who made his debut. England, on the other hand, were unchanged, although Botham, who had twisted his knee while fielding for Somerset two days earlier, was declared fit only on the morning of the match.
The home side were given a boost when Gower won his fourth toss in a row on a perfectly sunny day in London with a good Oval wicket to look forward to, loaded with runs on the first couple of days. Robinson fell early to Craig McDermott’s in-swinging yorker with the score on 20, which brought Gower to the crease along with Graham Gooch. The latter had recently made a return to the England squad after being banned for three years by the erstwhile Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB) for taking part in a rebel tour of South Africa. Back in England whites, he had just two half-centuries to show so far in the series and could do with a few runs. Gower, of course, was in imperious form.
Thus, the two batsmen got off to quite uncharacteristic starts, both switching their usual roles with Gower being the aggressor and Gooch providing anchor. The England captain looked uncomfortable against the short ball early on; on 31, he slashed Geoff Lawson straight to gully, but Andrew Hilditch failed to latch on. The extra life somewhat provided Gower with the confidence to impose himself on the bowlers as he went after Lawson and McDermott. He even inside-edged Lawson whiskers away from his off-stump, but once he settled in there was no stopping his flow.
Finally, after just 123 balls, Gower brought up his third century of the series, fifth against Australia and 12th in 76 Tests. He “played as well as I had done for a long, long time,” Gower would go on to write in his book Ashes Match of My Life. “In truth, it was probably the best innings I have ever played. I could be modest and brush over it, but it was a knock when everything came together both technically and mentally. Time and time again, I kept hitting the ball sweetly and finding the gaps. There was one shot when I hit David Gilbert on the up through cover, which was as sweet as it gets. I will play that shot in my mind for the rest of my life.”
Gooch, meanwhile, was following a pragmatic approach. For the majority of the day, he lagged behind Gooch’s scoring rate and was content doing so. He brought up his century — his first against Australia after 22 Tests — in 194 deliveries and over four hours, to the delight of the home crowd who gave him a standing ovation. The duo attacked ruthlessly after lunch, even as Gooch decided to pick up his rate and catch up with his skipper. Gower cut, pulled and glanced elegantly while Gooch, towards the latter part of the day, started essaying his powerful and accurately placed drives. Their 200-partnership came up in just the 46th over, with the Australians having no reply whatsoever to the onslaught. A brief respite was provided by trail of pigeons marching in a line across the pitch, before umpire Dickie Bird intervened and hushed them away with a flutter of his cap. “The bird in the white cap has fixed all that,” remarked Richie Benaud wittily in the commentary box. At 3.30 pm, Border himself decided to roll is arm over, not with hope of breaking though, but more to give his flogged bowlers a breather. Mike Coward, in the Sydney Morning Herald, passed the verdict the next day: “Border’s decision to drastically change personnel and policy was an utter failure…”
Finally, in the third session, Gower sliced McDermott straight into the hands of Bennett at gully. Gower was gone for 157, his third score of 150 and above in his last four Tests. It had come off 216 balls and included 20 boundaries, and ended his partnership with Gooch at 351 which even usurped Gower and Robinson’s 331 at Edgbaston in the third Test. It was the sixth-highest stand for any wicket by England and appeared even more emphatic due to the scoring rate: 351 runs in just 75 overs. “As I made my way from the field, we were 371 for two and I just knew we would now win this Test,” wrote Gower. England lost one more wicket before the end of the day’s play after Mike Gatting fell cheaply. But with the score on 376 for three at stumps, and Gooch still batting on 179, Gower would have been a content captain.
“Gooch and Gower lock up the Ashes,” declared the Sydney Morning Herald the following day. “The Ashes are safely back with England,” concurred Scyld Berry in The Glasgow Herald. “The partnership of 351 between Graham Gooch and David Gower, which provoked Border’s throwing-in of the towel, was the greatest scene in these islands since the last Test at Edgbaston, when Robinson and Gower ran amok in the seventh-highest stand in England’s history.”
From what appeared like a definite total of 600 and above, England collapsed to 464 all-out on Day Two, with Gooch falling four runs short of a double century. His 196 took him 310 balls at 63.22, a marked improvement from the rate of 52 with which he crossed into three figures. Except for one shot — a mis-timed sweep that landed just over deep square leg —it was a chanceless innings. Not that it would have mattered or affected the outcome of the match, since he was already on 171 by then. Goochie was back.
In reply, Australia managed just 241 in their first essay and, after being asked to follow on, batted even miserably to be bowled out for 129, with Ellison getting another fifer. England won the match by an innings and 94 runs and regained the urn. Gooch rightly got the Man of the Match award for his comeback effort; whereas Gower, with 732 runs in six matches at 81.33, was declared Man of the Series.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)