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Duncan Fletcher’s heroics and Zimbabwe’s first win over Australia

Duncan Fletcher was the captain of Zimbabwe team which beat Australia in 1983 © Getty Images
Duncan Fletcher was the captain of Zimbabwe team which beat Australia in 1983 © Getty Images

June 9, 1983. In one of the biggest upsets in the history of World Cup cricket, Zimbabwe, playing their first ever match in the tournament, beat Australia by 13 runs. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day that saw the minnows script an epic win that would take 31 years to be repeated..

They were unknown. They were unheralded. They were there to make up the numbers. They had won the ICC Trophy a year earlier, but who cared? Least of all the proud Australians. After all, Test playing nations were a different order altogether. West Indies remained the giants of cricket, England and Australia still balanced the power axis. Pakistan could be considered a dark horse and no more. Even India and New Zealand were not taken seriously. So, how many surprises could a fledgling cricketing nation – nay, a fledgling nation at that – bring about?

But, therein lay an unnoticed caveat. Before gaining independence in 1980, Zimbabwe existed as Rhodesia, and it was in that guise they participated in the gruelling South African Currie Cup. There was an impressive nucleus of players who had been brought up to face the challenges of the Transvaal Mean Machine and all the other perils that were thrown up by perhaps the most demanding First-Class tournament of the world. And of course, there was skipper Duncan Fletcher. A jovial 34-year-old left handed all-rounder, he was a far cry from the unsmiling, jowly, taciturn coach of today.

The preparations

It had been Mike Procter who had metamorphosed Rhodesia in the 1970s. And now, Fletcher walked along those exemplary steps. The Zimbabweans were a set of decent First-Class cricketers who liked their semi-serious games both sandwiched and interspersed by some serious beer guzzling. Fletcher changed all that.

The preparation was hard and tough, and the surprise element was the recruitment of Ian Robertson, an ex-Springbok rugby international. Robertson put them through some of the most incredibly difficult drills. The training included weights and baseball. Fletcher got some baseball pitchers to throw balls to gear up for the extra pace. The fielding workouts were ahead of the time, exhausting and insane.

The cricketers, when they took the field in the World Cup, were fitter than even their rugby counterparts. They were the best fielding side by some distance. Some of the softer individuals had been discarded along the way. But the preparations had to involve far more than training. The money had to be raised. The players donated all their home Man of the Match prizes to the Cricket Union. Raffles were organised, ties and cufflinks were sold. Beer festivals were arranged and cakes were baked. The players also worked at a local casino as bouncers and the wages went into the funds for the tour. The team was united for a single cause with all these fantastic efforts. Sadly, the same could not be said about Australia.

It was a side riddled with problems. Captain Kim Hughes was not accepted by half the team. Great players like Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Rod Marsh were approaching the ends of their careers. Besides, the Australians had no idea about the Zimbabweans. Their attitude was to sort things out in the park. The park turned out to be not some small county ground but the great venue of Trent Bridge. And Fletcher’s side did their homework thoroughly.

Australian batting was heavy with left handers, six of the top seven. Graeme Wood, Kepler Wessels, David Hookes, Graham Yallop, Allan Border and Geoff Marsh. The strategies were fixed. Vince Hogg would swing the ball away from them in the air. And the crafty John Traicos, veteran of the South African squad of the 1970s, would spin it away from them. Opener Jack Heron had played against the Australians in league cricket in England. He pitched in with the minute details of the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents. As they reached the dressing room, they found Nottinghamshire captain Clive Rice waiting for them. This fount of wisdom and encouragement did not leave till the game was over.

The execution

The match started under a smiling sun and a sparse crowd. Hughes won the toss and put the rookies in to bat. Ali Shah and Grant Paterson walked out to open the innings. The bowling was started by not the aging duo of Lillee and Thomson, but the younger and faster Geoff Lawson and Rodney Hogg. The opening batsmen saw off the new ball even as Australians attacked with three slips and a gully. It was a long 60 over game and the tactics for One-day Internationals (ODIs) had not evolved at that time.

Lillee came charging in after a while, lacking pace but not aggression. Paterson hooked him to fine leg and ran a single, his eyes focused the ball. Lillee stood rooted in his way and the batsman brushed the great man’s arm. The moustache bristled and the kindly advise was given not to barge into him again unless Paterson wanted his arm broken.  It did not take the Zimbabwean opener long to brush Lille’s arm again. This time the batsman told the aging fast bowler to wind his neck in. The short pitched stuff that resulted was too innocuous to trouble the batters. At the other end, Thomson was wayward. His first ball went down the leg side for four wides.

It was Lillee who provided the breakthrough. Ali Shah fell trying to cut too fine, and had the famed caught Marsh bowled Lillee against his name. The openers had added a steady 55. Paterson departed at the same score, trying to loft Lillee over cover.

Jack Heron and Andy Pycroft put their heads down to rebuild the innings before Yallop was put on and accounted for the former. David Houghton, the talented wicketkeeper batsman, followed first ball, caught behind off Yallop. The circumstances were controversial, He snicked, Marsh threw it up in celebration almost before he had caught it, and spilled it as it came down. Houghton stood his ground, the umpire ruled in his favour. The Australians turned towards the man at the square leg and were rewarded with a raised finger. Was the square-leg umpire  asked for his opinion by his colleague? Nevertheless Houghton walked back.

Another irregular bowler struck just before lunch. Yes, lunch and tea were taken in the old fashioned way till this World Cup. Allan Border turned one a long way from outside leg stump to hit off. Pycroft, who had survived two hat-trick balls that morning, was bowled by this freak delivery. It was 94 for five as Zimbabwe went into the break.

The minnows were clearly nervous. Most of them were friendly talkative folks, and the lunch was taken in absolute silence interrupted by some edgy queries about the conditions from Duncan Fletcher.

The captain was visibly shaky as he went in and was lucky to be given a life immediately after the break. However, with the seasoned Kevin Curran settling in, the skipper grew in confidence. The runs were taken with relative ease as the overs wore on. The recovery work was executed to perfection. 70 good runs came in 15 overs before Curran fell to another doubtful decision. The Zimbabweans believed that his steer off Hogg had gone to Hookes at gully on the bounce, but the fielder claimed the catch. It took Fletcher’s intervention to ensure that the all-rounder walked back as the Australians celebrated.

That brought in Iain Butchart, another extremely useful lower order batsman. Later he confessed that he was ‘absolutely petrified’ as he took guard. Hogg was quite vocal about what he thought of him. Fletcher walked up to the new man and asked him to stick around. Butchart did so and with some style. He faced 38 balls and remained unbeaten on 34, including a hit straight back over the head of Thomson. At the same time, the captain was flaying the bowling around the ground, picking up as many as possible. The last 13 overs brought 75 runs. The final total read 239 for six, a huge improvement from 94 for five. The Australians had dropped five catches along the way. Fletcher remained unbeaten on 69 off 84 balls with five boundaries.

The execution – part two

The asking rate was just four, but 240 required some getting in those days when limited overs were a lot more limited. Wessels and Wood began slowly, and the required rate climbed with time.  The two left-handers added 61, but the Zimbabwe bowlers stuck to a tidy line, not allowing any liberty. The fielders, fresh from their rigorous training schedules, threw themselves at everything coming their way and beyond. This was in spite of Vince Hogg pulling a back muscle and retiring after figures of 6-2-15-0. The man who replaced him on the field, Gerald Peck over, was perhaps the best of the brilliant Zimbabwean fielders.

It was Fletcher again who drew first blood, getting Wood caught smartly at the wicket by Houghton. The very next over from the left-armer saw captain bowling to captain and Hughes flicking to backward square leg. Ali Shah flung himself forward to come up with the catch. It was 63 for two and the asking rate was over five.

The runs dried up. Wessels struggled. The southpaw heavy line up was given little width to free their arms. All the bowlers kept it tight, Traicos sending down 12 overs for just 27, beating Hookes ball after ball. And Fletcher kept chipping in with the wickets. At 114, he got Hookes brilliantly caught by Traicos in the covers. At 133, after a prolonged run-less period, Yallop was snared. Pycroft, placed strategically on the leg boundary for the uppish flick, came in a bit too much, but held  superb one-handed catch by reaching high above his head. By this time the asking rate had climbed to imposing levels.

It was a sense of frustration that made Border play wide of Heron at point and take off. Wessels, who had just managed to beat a Heron throw by inches a few balls earlier, hesitated. He had to run when Border did not stop, and tried his best to make up for the late start, but by then the only stump that the fielder could see was bent back with an arrow like throw. It was 138 for five and Australia’s only set batsman walked back for 76. At 168, the final crucial blow was dealt as Border fell to Curran trying to force the pace. The hit looked likely to sail for six before Pycroft was in action again, deep on the fence, reaching out and plucking it out of thin air. At 176 Lawson was castled by Butchart. Marsh was carrying on gamely at one end, but there was a long tail that he had to steer along.

He hit out lustily, slamming one six. In the last over, bowled by Peter Rawson, he dispatched another into the crowd. However, most deliveries were pitched up in the blockhole and difficult to hit. By then the only ones who seemed unaware that the match was in Zimbabwe’s grasp were the Zimbabweans themselves. It slowly sunk in when the final balls were bowled. Australia ended at 226 for seven. The minnows had triumphed by 13 runs.

Celebrations broke out. The crowd, especially the few Zimbabweans among them, rushed into the ground. One bloke had made a killing, betting £100 on the rookies at 200-1. Drinks were on him. Even Hughes, Lillee and Wessels were gracious in offering their congratulations. Wood and Border came into the dressing room to join the celebrations. Fletcher expectedly won the Man of the Match award.

The only discordant note was struck when Ali Shah was asked by a few men about the chances in the next match. The opening batsman replied in a rush of euphoria that if they played as well they could beat the Indians. Unfortunately these men were journalists. The next day’s papers announced that Shah had predicted a hiding for India. He was fined and the team was soon put under gag orders.

What followed

The honeymoon period did not last. The inexperienced side lost the five remaining matches. The most telling blow was dealt by Kapil Dev’s 175 after they had India by the scruff of the neck at 17 for five. Australia managed to beat them in their return match at Southampton, but by just 32 runs and not before David Houghton had provided another scare with a spectacular 84. It would, however, be 31 years, before Zimbabwe beat Australia again.

Brief scores:

Zimbabwe 239 for 6 in 60 overs (Duncan Fletcher 69*, Iain Butchart 34*) beat Australia 226 for 7 in 60 overs (Graeme Wood 31, Kepler Wessels 76, Rd Marsh 50*; Duncan Fletcher 4 for 42) by 13 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)

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