On this day 32 years ago, Greg Chappell instructed brother Trevor to bowl an underarm delivery as the New Zealanders needed six runs for a tie off the final delivery. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the infamous event that took place at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and its far reaching repercussions.
The match was close, but apart from that it was just another run-of-the-mill, eminently forgettable One-Day International (ODI). And then the last ball ensured that it would forever be smeared in the annals of sporting history in ugly smudges.
It was the third of the five finals of the Benson Hedges World Series Cup, 1980-81. New Zealand had won at Sydney, and the previous day, Australia had drawn level at Melbourne.
Playing the second ODI on consecutive days, ultimately four finals in six days, was a part of the big picture that loomed as the backdrop of what ultimately took place. In the last two months Australia had played six Tests and fourteen ODIs. Minds and bodies were knackered. There was a simmering argument about the playing calendar that had been going on for several days between Australian captain Greg Chappell and the Australian Cricket Board.
How’s your underarm bowling?
Now, as New Zealand needed seven off the last two balls, Trevor Chappell, bowling his cleverly varied medium-pacers, rattled the stumps of the hard hitting Kiwi wicketkeeper Ian Smith. With the score on 229 for eight with one ball to go, No 10 batsman Brian McKechnie walked in. A double international who had represented New Zealand in 26 rugby games apart from 14 ODIs, he was to face the last ball. Never a big hitter, it was highly unlikley to imagine him striking a six to tie the game.
From behind the stumps, Rod Marsh advised Trevor Chappell to keep bowling the way he had done so far. According to Trevor Chappell’s interview published in Sydney Morning Herald five years later, as he was walking back to the bowling mark, the youngest Chappell brother was thinking of bowling well short of length. He had discovered a spot where the ball was keeping low. “That would make it difficult to hit straight and the batsman could offer a catch trying to hit across the line.”
Greg Chappell was sitting down at mid-on. His hat was pulled well over his eyes, his knees folded up near his face. Unusually for a captain, he had spent a long time fielding deep down at long-off. Earlier that day, during his innings of 90, he had been caught by Martin Snedden low down in deep mid-wicket when he was on 52, but had refused to take the fielder’s word for it and walk. He had been allowed to continue his innings. Greg Chappell, with innumerable matches in the season and constant bickering with the board, was feeling the pressure. Later, in his autobiography Fierce Focus, he admitted that he was not quite in the best frame of mind.
As Trevor Chappell turned from his bowling mark, he saw his elder brother and captain walking towards him.
“How’s your underarm bowling?” Greg asked.
When Trevor responded that he had no idea, Greg remarked, “Well, you’re about to find out.”
Surprised initially, Trevor Chappell admitted thinking that it was not a bad idea. The captain walked up to umpire Don Weser and informed him that an underarm delivery was on its way. A visibly surprised Weser walked to the square-leg to inform his colleague Peter Cronin.
Trevor Chappell later recalled that he did not think of refusing: “It would probably have started a family argument in the middle of MCG.”
Marsh was asked to go back, and becoming aware of the plans, he shouted, “Don’t do it.” A helpless Trevor Chappell shrugged and pointed at his captain.
On air, eldest of the Chappell brothers, Ian, shouted in disbelief, “No, Greg, no. You can’t do that!”
But, it was being done. There was no law to stop it. Trevor Chappell ran four steps, made sure that he was behind the crease, and rolled the ball towards McKechnie’s leg stump. The bemused batsman patted it and tossed away his willow in frustration.
The New Zealand captain Geoff Howarth ran into the field to protest. He mistakenly believed that underarm deliveries were illegal. Unfortunately for him and everyone around, the laws had loopholes that were supposed to be plugged by that sustaining force that is thought to flow through the veins of cricket – spirit. In the May edition of Wisden Cricket Monthly, David Frith noted, “The lesson, it must be accepted, however reluctantly, is that nothing can any longer be left to ‘the spirit of the law’. We live in an age when the sharper individuals in our midst are devoted to the exploitation of loopholes for financial gain.”
The players rushed back soon enough, and Greg Chappell was made to realise the enormity of what he had done when a little girl ran alongside him, tugged his sleeve and informed, “You cheated.”
Ian Chappell was scathing in his criticism the following day, writing: “Fair dinkum, Greg, how much pride do you sacrifice to win $35,000? Because, brother, you sacrificed a lot in front of a huge TV audience and 52,825 people.”
Keith Miller observed, “One Day cricket died yesterday. Greg Chappell should be buried with it.”
Criticism was hurled even from the highest levels. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, said that it was “the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket … an act of true cowardice and I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow”.
The Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was not far behind either, voicing that it was “contrary to the traditions of the game”.
However, according to the interview given by McKechnie to The Age on the 25th anniversary of the incident, the New Zealander players were “pissed off” but attached no more importance to Greg Chappell was roundly booed when he went into bat in the next match, but that could not stop him from securing the championship for Australia with an excellent 87.
The ICC soon amended the Laws of Cricket to make underarm deliveries illegal in One-Day cricket.
The following year, the Australians went on tour to New Zealand. A noisy crowd of 43,000 assembled at Eden Park, Auckland, for the first ODI. As Greg Chappell came out to bat, a crown green bowls wood was rolled from the crowd on to the outfield. Chappell responded by hitting a hundred that day.
In a broader context
Today, Greg Chappell thoroughly regrets the action. And the stigma of the incident follows him around, tarnishing the deeds of a great batsman and dignified cricketer. Yet, there were quite a few liberties taken, within the laws and well outside the spirit of the game, in those early days of One Day cricket.
Mike Brearley once placed all nine fielders and his wicketkeeper on the boundary when West Indies needed four from the last ball. And twenty months before this deplorable incident, in an infamous Benson Hedges Cup encounter, Somerset captain Brian Rose closed his side’s innings at one for no loss in order to go through on run rate. This last incident had led David Firth to write prophetically in Wisden Cricket Monthly: “I have been waiting, with trepidation, for the moment when, with six runs needed off the final ball and a lot of money at stake, the bowler informs the umpire of a change of action and rolls the ball along the ground.”
Three decades later Tony Greig still used to lash out – but surprisingly at McKechnie rather than Chappell. According to him, it was atrocious that he did not try and hit the ball for six. There were different options – like running down and letting the ball pop up on hitting the boot.
The incident inspired an Instant Kiwi commercial, in which the match has an alternative ending. In the ad, Brian McKechnie places his box in the way of the rolling ball, and as the ball rises on hitting the piece of equipment, the batsman slogs it for six.
(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)