Bill Lawry, one of the most courageous opening batsmen ever, was born on February 11, 1937. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of a man who played cricket the hard way – both as a batsman and as a captain – whose career ended rather sadly as a punishment for being outspoken.
London, 1964. Neville Cardus and Jack Fingleton were returning from a dinner in Soho on an evening during a Test at The Oval. Their taxi got stopped in the theatre crowd. When an impatient pedestrian patted the taxi with his umbrella, the taxi-driver jumped out and punched the man.
To calm him down, Fingleton, somewhat circumspect of the outcome, went on to praise the driver’s action. The driver replied, “I’ve been watching that Lawry bat all day at The Oval. I’m in no mood to put up with any more bloody nonsense.”
In the Adelaide Test of 1970-71, England had set Australia a steep target of 471 in 500 minutes for a victory. Australia were trailing 0-1 in the series. Rodney Marsh mustered the courage to ask Lawry whether they should go for the chase. The conversation that followed went thus:
Lawry: There is no possible way that it could happen.
Marsh: Hey, hang on, what happens if we don’t lose a wicket and we’re 180 in the first session? There’s no way we’re going to be, but we might just be in a position at the start of the last session where we still need 200 runs but we’ve got nine wickets in hand. We could win it then with a big slog, couldn’t we?
Lawry: There’s no way we would even be thinking about the game from here, because we’ll lose it if we do.
Australia finished with 328 for 3. Lawry never played a Test again.
The two stories above somewhat sum up Lawry the cricketer. He hated to lose as a captain, and possibly hated getting out even more. Indeed, John Snow told about him that even if all his stumps were knocked over, he would still hang around, “looking for some excuse to continue”; when he realised that nothing could be done, he walked back very, very reluctantly as if some major catastrophe had occurred.
It may come as a surprise, but Lawry was an elegant strokeplayer in his early days. There was a youthful kid in him when he first began to play First-Class cricket for Victoria, his teammates nicknamed him “The Phantom” – because he was an avid reader of the comic strip.
Lawry was tall – about 6’2″ – and behind his long nose and sharp jaw was a man that showed pluck, determination and courage. Over after over the bowlers ran in relentlessly, but the southpaw, standing in his famously crouched stance, thwarted their attack with a dead bat, for hours, even days. And then, in between, when anything was aimed at his pads, Lawry immediately played it to the leg-side, capitalising on it. He played with a long stride to smother the spin, and despite his limited array of strokes, he somehow managed to score runs – mostly by wearing the bowler out and making him to bowl loose deliveries – and also by the clinical efficiency that he used to place his strokes.
John Snow wrote about Lawry that “he led the side like he approached an innings at the crease; full of caution in a low-key style and unwilling to take the slightest risk.”
Debut series and the “Battle of the Ridge”
Richie Benaud took Lawry as a part of the 1961 Ashes tour to England; as a left-handed opener he was supposed to be the successor to Arthur Morris. In his second Test at Lord’s there were talks about a ridge at the Nursery End. After the Test ended, the MCC called for an inspection, and several depressions were found on the pitch. The pitch was bouncy in general – the fast bowlers got plenty of bounce – but when the ball hit the ridge it really took off, making life really miserable for the batsmen.
After Alan Davidson bowled out England for 206, it was Lawry’s turn. With Fred Trueman and Brian Statham making the ball fly around in all possible ways, Lawry stood tall amidst the Australian wreckage in a Test that is usually referred to as “The Battle of the Ridge”. Still not converted to his dour, defensive mode, Lawry played strokes all around the park, scoring a gutsy 130 out of 237 scored during his tenure at the crease. Wisden described his innings as “an indomitable effort of sheer graft under severe pressure with the ball flying about.” Australia went on to win by 5 wickets.
That Test marked Lawry’s arrival. There was no doubt about his technique or temperament. He followed this superlative hundred with a 102 at Old Trafford, and finished the series with 420 runs at 52.50. During this series he also started opening batting with his would-be partner Bobby Simpson. He ended the tour with 2,019 runs in all matches at 61.18 with nine hundreds, and was subsequently named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year after only his first international tour.
The excitable young cricketer of the series vanished somewhere down the years. During his debut series he was so animated that Jack Fingleton had to tell him “Bill, it’s great to be enthusiastic, but you shouldn’t be appealing for lbw at deep midwicket.”
Ascent to the top
When Lawry played his next series – the home Ashes – the spectators found that he had brought drastic changes to his attitude. The strokeplayer had adjusted his play to curb his instincts. He was not popular: the crowd barracked and booed him, to the extent that when hit two consecutive boundaries, a spectator exclaimed “lightning does strike twice!” He did not do too well, but helped Victoria to the Sheffield Shield title, ending New South Wales’ run of nine victories.
The next series against South Africa is remembered for, among other battles, as the new-ball tussle between Peter Pollock and Lawry. Pollock ran in hard, trying to knock Lawry with the short ball, but Lawry battled on, falling to Pollock only thrice in ten innings. He ended the series with 496 runs at 55.11. Though the series was drawn 1-1, Lawry had established himself as one of the leading players of fast bowling.
He conquered the Indian spinners in their den, scoring 284 runs at 56.80. However, when Australia toured West Indies, Lawry found it difficult to handle the extreme pace of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith without sightscreens. And with Simpson also not coming good, Australia slipped to 0-2 after three Tests. In the fourth Test Simpson and Lawry set up a partnership of 382 – an Australian record. Lawry scored a career-best 210 while Simpson scored 201, and the inner demons were conquered.
Though Australia drew the home Ashes, Lawry dominated the English bowling the way he had always done: he scored three hundreds and two fifties, and piled up an incredible 592 runs at 84.57. The runs were the most in a series since Don Bradman in 1946-47 and the three hundreds, since Arthur Morris since 1948.
It was during this series that David Frith said that Lawry “always seemed to be batting”.
EW Swanton wrote, “when Australia batted, Lawry, their stumbling-block-extraordinary, took root, and in an interminable left-handed stand with [Bob] Cowper effectively doused English prospects.” He added: “There was a gayer side to Lawry as we had seen in Adelaide – but he did not let it obtrude too often. He just kept that long, sharp nose religiously over the ball, accumulating at his own deliberate gait, and in particular tucking everything.”
It was after this series that he was hailed as one of the best batsmen in contemporary cricket. Though he did not do well against his arch nemesis, the South Africans, he came back strongly against the Indians, scoring 369 runs at 52.71. Just before the series, Simpson had announced his retirement, and Lawry was declared the captain of Australia from the third Test.
Partnership with Simpson
Lawry had formed a formidable opening partnership with Simpson. Between them, they formed the backbone of the Australian batting line-up, and were among the top reasons for Australia’s success in the 1960s. Despite their contrasting approach to the game, they had an amazing understanding – responding to each other’s call at the slightest signal. Between them Simpson and Lawry scored 3,600 runs in 64 innings at 59.01, and had crossed the 100-mark nine times.
Lawry began his tenure well, converting Simpson’s 2-0 lead in the India series to a resounding 4-0. In his first full series as captain, he drew the Ashes in England: Lawry’s ultra-defensive tactics came under severe criticism from the English press and media. In the last Test at The Oval, with Australia leading 1-0, Lawry batted for seven and a half hours for his 135, but could not save the Test. It was during this series that Ian Woolridge called him “a corpse with pads on”.
The peak of Lawry’s career came in the Frank Worrell Trophy that followed at home. He scored 105 at Brisbane, 205 at Melbourne, 62 and 89 at Adelaide, and 151 at Sydney. Australia were already 2-1 up when they went into their final Test at Sydney. When they scored 619 and bowled out West Indies for 279, everyone was sure that Lawry would enforce the follow-on: but this being a six-day Test, Lawry decided to grind on, Doug Walters added 103 to his first-innings 242, and Australia batted West Indies out of the series, asking them to score 735 for a win. They lost by 382 runs. Lawry bettered his show in the 1965-66 Ashes, and scored 667 runs at 83.37.
Headed for India, Lawry and his team ran into a lot of controversies. In the second innings at Bombay, Srinivas Venkataraghavan was given out caught behind when he had clearly missed the ball. The crowd turned volatile, setting fire and throwing missiles at the Australian fielders. They threw a bottle at John Gleeson, and a chair at Lawry, who added fuel to the fire later in the Test when he threw his Baggy Green on the ground after the umpires had called for what he thought was an early lunch break.
Australia lost by seven wickets at Delhi, but Lawry stood tall, carrying his bat for a 195-minute 49 out of a team total of 107 in the second innings. He showed impeccable application and technique against the duo of Bishan Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna, who took five wickets apiece.
In Calcutta, the Australians landed into trouble again. Walters had been a part of the Australian army. The Communist Party of India protested against Walters playing at Calcutta, under false allegations that the batsman had fought against Vietnam. Around 10,000 people picketed outside the hotel; some of them managed to break through and caused property damage to the hotel. During the Test, when the Indian batting line-up collapsed, there was another riot in the stadium, and stones were thrown. Play was held up, during which Lawry ran into more controversies by pushing away a photographer who had run on to the ground with his bat; the photographer stumbled and fell. The crowd stoned the Australian bus, and the media started wearing black armbands in protest.
In the match against South Zone, the Australians were facing defeat; Lawry was at the crease, and there were allegations that he and Gleeson wasted time. Things got even worse when Lawry pulled away as a woman in a colourful saree walked behind the sightscreen; ridiculous allegations of Lawry insulting Indian women were brought up, and the crowd stoned the Australians yet again.
After this match, Lawry wrote to ACB, asking them to call the series off. The cricketers were coaxed and asked to continue; they won the last Test, winning the series 3-1. This was the last victory for the Australians on Indian soil till Ricky Ponting’s men emulated the feat in 2004.
The South Africa series that followed was a disaster. The Australians were blown away in all the four Tests by Ali Bacher’s men. Even the fielding – a department in which the Australians have usually excelled, went wrong: 16 catches were dropped in the four Tests, and 60 on the entire tour. They were beaten by a convincing 4-0 margin, and the smallest margin of defeat was 170 runs.
The tussle with the Board
However, during the series, the South African and Australian boards wanted the players to play an extra Test, offering each Australian player $200 for the match. The players, already worn out – especially emotionally – after the demanding tours of India and South Africa, asked for $500 and when ACB did not agree, the players refused in a move that was, in Lawry’s words, “typical of the board”. Infuriated by the incident, Lawry wrote a rather strong captain’s report to ACB. The letter was, according to Ian Chappell, “the end of Lawry as captain of Australia.”
According to Lawry himself, “We told them what the situation was. The answer was very simple. They said ‘if you don’t play for us, who do you play for? We walked out and that was the end of discussion. That was their attitude. In 1976-77 they paid the price.” Indeed.
During the home Ashes in 1970-71 (a series that was extended to a seventh Test for a washout that resulted in the first ever ODI, where Lawry led Australia) Lawry was criticised heavily for his laid-back attitude and defensive leadership throughout the series. The Australian batting, led by Lawry, was typically defensive. He scored a 317-ball 84 at Melbourne. Then, in the fourth Test, Australia were beaten by 299 runs, Lawry carrying his bat for the second time in his career with 60 (out of a team score of 99).
Though Australia trailed by 0-1, Lawry led from the front. In the fifth Test, Lawry scored a 191-ball 56 in the first innings on a featherbed, for which he took a lot of flak. In the sixth Test he refused to go for the chase (the incident has been mentioned above).
The selectors, Bradman, Neil Harvey, and Sam Loxton, sacked (and dropped) Lawry for the seventh Test – despite having a career record of 5,234 runs at 47.15 with 13 hundreds and a series tally of 324 at 40.50. He was the first Australian captain to be dropped in the middle of a series. Australia, under their new captain, lost the last Test by 62 runs – a Test that was marred by the crowd manhandling Snow.
The eminent cricket writer Alan Sheill visited a hotel room shared by Lawry’s Victorian colleagues Keith Stackpole and Ian Redpath, and broke the news to them. As Stackpole tried to break the news, Lawry asked: “What? Have I been dropped?” And without losing composure, he added: “Well, I thought I might have been. The selectors usually come over for a word after the Test and last night they didn’t.”
Ian Chappell was announced captain for the seventh Test. The decision came so suddenly that even Chappell was shocked. He thought that ACB’s move was “unbelievable”, despite his tussle with Lawry, he mentioned that “I feel sorry for Bill… he’s been a good captain”; and told his wife that the selectors “won’t get me the way they got Bill”. He had kept his word.
Wisden wrote “he was negatively unimaginative but to drop him from the side for the vital last match was generous to England.”
Paul Sheahan, generally a firm critic of Lawry’s leadership, was annoyed at ACB’s way of handling things: “The fact that no one had the courage to tell him that he was to lose his job as Australian captain was disgraceful”.
Lawry himself retained all dignity when he went on press about the incident: “I’ve no anger at all about being dropped. I hadn’t been playing well that series, and I had no compassion when I was dropping players as a selector. I was disappointed that I’d been with the selectors in the dressing-room most of the previous day.”
Lawry assumed the commentator’s role in the seventh Test of the series – after which he was dropped – and became a regular member of the team since then. The volatile tone and the characteristic “got him!”, “clean as a whistle“, and “it’s all happening!” – made him build up an image that was a complete antithesis of his batting and captaincy. He still continues on the Channel 9 team.
Unlike many other commentators, Lawry is incredible passionate about the game. “I watch every ball when I am at the cricket”, he mentions. His friendly but fervent banters with Tony Greig have been one of the USPs of Channel 9 over the years. Despite the on-air arguments the two were great friends, and Lawry was crestfallen when he heard of Greig’s recent demise.
He was inducted in the Australian Hall of Fame in 2010.
However, the greatest tribute is possibly that in Australia, bottle openers – to this date – are often referred to as “Bill Lawry”. He was an opener, you see.