Bill Athey (left) and Merv Hughes © Getty Images
Bill Athey (left) and Merv Hughes © Getty Images

Few men ever gave it back to Merv Hughes when he sledged.However, as Abhishek Mukherjee narrates, Bill Athey adopted a completely different approach on November 14, 1986 at The Gabba.

Cricketers have sledged, but few with the relentlessness of Merv Hughes. Some of the lines were tongue-in-cheek, some aggressive, some sarcastic, some insulting, and some simply funny. Add to that his no-holds-barred bowling action and a moustache matched by none in the history of the sport, and you get the complete picture.

Indeed, Hughes was one of a kind. He was loved by all despite his tremendous ability to get under the batsman’s skin. So pesky was he that he earned the nickname ‘fruit-fly’.

That was not his only foray into the realm of animal nomenclature. When asked about his favourite animal, Steve Waugh had no hesitation in naming Hughes. You cannot blame Waugh: how many bowlers, after getting clobbered, walks up to the batsman, passes wind, and challenges the batsman to hit the fart for a six? Hughes did that to Hansie Cronje…

There are numerous stories worth a re-tell, but Arunabha Sengupta has already compiled most of them. Hughes was also an excellent bowler (212 Test wickets don’t come easily). Allan Border led Hughes in every single of the latter’s 53 Tests — but then, who else could have controlled Hughes?

Our story involves a very young Merv Hughes (yes, yes, I know), playing only his second Test. He had failed on debut, against India the previous summer, but he was recalled for the first Test at The Gabba when England came around for The Ashes.

Bruce Reid got Chris Broad early, but captain Mike Gatting settled down with Bill Athey. The spectacle was one to die for: two fast bowlers, one burly, one lanky, bowling at two men — one burly, one lanky.

Hughes kept unleashing his usual dose of verbal barrage at the English batsmen. Gatting managed to remain unperturbed, but Athey kept touching his own head and talking back (albeit almost inaudibly), something that worried Gatting to no end.

However, Gatting also could not help but notice that the entire exchange was affecting Hughes and not Athey.Gatting got curious, and rightly so. He felt he had to find out exactly what was going on.And when he finally did, it was probably not he had expected.

Athey, “touching his forelock rather like a country yokel talking to a local squire,” kept apologising (“sorry Sir, sorry Sir”) to Hughes every time the snarling fast bowler dished out a volley of words.

More puzzled than anything, poor Hughes lost focus, and Athey and Gatting made merry. Eventually Athey got 76, his career-best at that point, though Hughes more than made up for it by taking 5 out of 13 English wickets to fall. Oh, and England won the Test — and the series, their last till 2005.

Brief scores:

England 456 (Bill Athey 76, Mike Gatting 61, David Gower 51, Ian Botham 138; Merv Hughes 3 for 134, Chris Matthews 3 for 95, Steve Waugh 3 for 76) and 77 for 3 beat Australia 248 (Geoff Marsh 56, Greg Matthews 56*; Graham Dilley 5 for 68) and 282 (Geoff Marsh 110; John Emburey 5 for 80, Phil DeFreitas 3 for 62) by 7 wickets.

Man of the Match: Ian Botham.