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Wayne Phillips — a promising batsman who suffered from the unwanted burden of wicketkeeping

Wayne Phillips © Getty Images
Wayne Phillips played for Australia during the transition phase post the generation of the famous trio of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh © Getty Images

Wayne Phillips, born March 1, 1958, was a top order batsman of immense promise whose career suffered throughout due to the unwanted burden of wicketkeeping. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man whose dilemma with the bigger gloves even elicited comments from the Prime Minister.

Weighed down by big gloves

The burden of wicket-keeping weighed down the career of Wayne Phillips — in ways that went way beyond the cricket field.

It became a national issue, on which even the Prime Minister weighed in with his opinion.

It was said that his hand was so stifled from being confined in the big glove that it had signed on the dangerous dotted line promising a voyage to the forbidden land of South Africa during the dark days of apartheid.

It was also argued that if only his gloves had been restricted to the smaller ones used for batting, his hands would have held the bat handle characteristically at the two extremes, and with that peculiar grip the southpaw would have stroked his way to batting greatness.

Indeed, he was widely regarded the second best batsman of Australia of the mid-eighties, after Allan Border. He had stroked a pleasing 159 as an opening batsman on debut at Perth. If Tahir Naqqash and Azeem Hafeez had not  been the most demanding opposition attack, his 120 against the menacing West Indian bowling on a spicy Barbados wicket was hammered with four sixes, and laid to rest any doubt about his pedigree.

He was an emerging star of Australian cricket, a spot of bright hope after the retirements of Greg Chappell, Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee had left them vulnerable in all departments. With his penchant for scoring quickly and his pleasant good looks he was the darling of the television cameras. Being left-handed also added to the appeal.

Sadly, the two knocks mentioned above remained the only two hundreds of his Test career. His strokes dried up as the weight of wicketkeeping lay heavy on his hands, and ultimately his career petered out to a disappointing dead end, stacked with unfulfilled promises.

The early days

Phillips was born in Adelaide on March 1, 1958. He hailed from a sporting background, but not specifically cricket. Father Brian Phillips had played Australian Rules Football and was the chairman of selectors for the Sturt Football Club in the South Australian National Football League.

At school, Phillips did crouch behind the stumps as a wicketkeeper, but once he had graduated to the level of grade cricket, he became a specialist batsman. He did keep occasionally, especially when the regular stumpers were absent with injury or otherwise. But, generally he preferred being left with the joys brought forth by the willow. For the junior teams of Australia he did play as a reserve wicketkeeper, but soon grew out of the role and made heads turn as a batsman.

With the Kerry Packer funded World Series Cricket drawing regular players away, Phillips stepped into the glamour-stripped First-Class arena. He made his debut for South Australia in 1977-78, playing as a middle-order batsman. However, his appearances remained limited and his highest score was all of 22 in the few games he managed that season.

The next time Phillips was selected for South Australia was late in the 1980-81 season, in the final Sheffield Shield fixture against Victoria. The young batsman was asked to open the innings. He strode in to score 111 and 91.

In the following season, Phillips scored 857 runs at 47.61 and was one of the architects behind South Australia’s Sheffield Shield triumph. The runs included a mammoth 260 against Queensland. When he played the visiting Pakistan side for his state, he struck an impressive hundred. The impressions had been favourable. Phillips was chosen to tour Pakistan in 1982-83 as a batsman and reserve wicketkeeper to Rodney Marsh.

With Bruce Laird, John Dyson and Graeme Wood already in the side, Australia did not really require the services of Phillips as an opener in the Test matches in Pakistan. Yet, he did score 92 against a Pakistan Invitation XI and was awarded with a place in the One Day side for the final game of the series at Karachi. As luck would have it, riots broke out in the city and the game was cancelled after 12 overs.

Test cricket

The next season witnessed further complication for Phillips as far as his prospects as an Australian Test cricketer were concerned. He did score consistently in the domestic games. But, when Wood was omitted from the national side the vacant spot of the opener was grabbed by the South African recruit Kepler Wessels.

Phillips remained on the fringes of the team without quite making it to the first eleven. He performed the duties of the 12th man, and also toured Zimbabwe in 1983 as a part of a Young Australian team. However, although he scored 135 in a one day match in the tour, he was used as a wicketkeeper. His exact role was still fuzzy, and unfortunately that was how it would remain till the end of his career.

It was in 1983-84 that Australia heavily invested in youth. The series against Pakistan was scheduled to be the swansong for the great trinity of Chappell, Lillee and Marsh. There was no option but to pass the baton to the new talent. Phillips was selected for the first Test as an opener. He showed scarcely any sign of nerve as he went about compiling 159. Even as the three legends bid adieu at the end of the series, an exciting new talent had been unearthed. His total aggregate for the series was 362 at 60.33.

Yet, the encouraging progress of the career was rendered blurry by a rather unwanted sidelight. That southern summer, Phillips was made to keep wickets in a few One Day games for South Australia. Those were the first post-Marsh days of Australian cricket. The advent of One Day cricket had raised several path-breaking questions about the degrees of batting and keeping abilities required of a wicket keeper. There was an increasing number of voices that wanted Phillips to take on the wicket-keeping role.

The equations involving balancing the side also came into the picture. The natural successor of Marsh was identified as Roger Woolley. But, when the side to West Indies was chosen for the ill-fated tour of 1983-84, the selectors pumped for Phillips as the ’keeper. Their argument was that the batting would be strengthened and with Phillips in the side an extra opener in the form of Steve Smith could also be picked.

Wayne Phillips ended his Test career with 1485 runs from 27 Tests at 32.28 © Getty Images

Caribbean days

It was a series where the batting position of Phillips underwent crazy sinusoidal changes. He donned the big gloves for the first time in a Test match at Georgetown. He kept decently enough, and scored 76 in the second innings batting at No 7. In the second Test, Smith was out with illness and Phillips was asked to open. He failed in both innings, with a duck in the second.

Next was the Bridgetown Test, when he was pushed down the order to No 8. He batted even lower than the left arm spinner Tom Hogan. And he proceeded to essay the magic innings of his life, belting the fearsome Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding to score 120 with 14 fours and four sixes, adding 66 for the last wicket with Rodney Hogg.

This effort made the management play him in the next Test as an opening batsman, with Woolley taking up his place behind the stumps. Phillips failed in both the innings and Woolley’s keeping was shoddy. So the big gloves were handed back to our man again for the final Test. He was asked to open yet again and failed miserably in both the innings.

With the bat it had been a mixed tour, with one fascinating innings, one good one and a string of failures. His keeping had impressed the men who mattered. But, the tour had another rather murky sub-plot.

The Australian team was an unhappy unit, losing 3-0 in the Tests and 3-1 in the ODIs. The tour also saw them as a rudderless lot, with bowler Hogg throwing a punch at captain Kim Hughes over a disagreement about the field. And the trip touched an abysmal low during the match against Trinidad and Tobago at Point-a-Pierre.

Hughes had been infuriated by the unwillingness the Trinidad captain Rangy Nanan showed in declaring the innings and setting the Australians a sporting target. The move, when it came, left the visitors a rather steep target of 189 in 24 overs. It was not exactly impossible, but a furious Hughes did not have any intention of going for the runs. Promoting himself to open the innings with Greg Matthews, the Australian captain stonewalled relentlessly, refusing to score runs or take singles. At the other end Matthews played along with the strategy of the captain.

The skipper remained scoreless over an hour and opened his account in the 17th over — spectacularly, with a massive six. Matthews also took the sham to a new level by lowering his trousers and adjusting his thigh pads while the bowler ran in and bowled to Hughes.

When Matthews was dismissed, Phillips came in and continued the farce. As irregular bowlers jogged in to send down deliveries at the dead-batting Hughes, he lay down at the non-striker’s end. During the final over, as Hughes blocked the six balls, Phillips stood at the other end after having removed his pads.

Although Hughes remained the centre of the controversy, Phillips did not really endear himself to either the Trinidad players and public or to the Australian cricket authorities.

The South African temptation

The next international assignment of Australia was a series of ODIs in India and Phillips was selected as the first choice wicketkeeper. It was perhaps surprising, but the left-hander seemed to have accepted the situation. He was quoted in the papers as saying, “From the Australian point of view, I can become the all-rounder. I don’t bat and bowl but I bat and wicket-keep… Hopefully this tour will see the start of me becoming a specialist wicket-keeper. I realise I’m under enormous pressure, but I really believe I can prove I am as good as any specialist wicket-keeper in the country.”

The Indian crowds were rather surprised to see a wicketkeeper stand back to even the innocuous spin of Hogan and Wessels, but overall he did impress with his keeping. There were signs and symptoms that he was taking the role seriously.

However, in late 1984, it was revealed that Phillips had signed to go on the rebel tours to South Africa scheduled in 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons. Here too his burden of wicketkeeping was dragged into the murky picture. Former Australian batsman Bruce Francis was the organiser of the tour and the recruiter of the cricketers. According to him, “Phillips disliked keeping and would have preferred to play for Australia as a top-order batsman. By the time the tour was being put together, he had become fed up with the pressures of the modern game and was determined to make as much money as he could, as quickly as he could, and then retire. It was a revelation to me that such a fine player could be so unenthusiastic about the game.”

It was Packer who now stepped in. The scenario had changed drastically from 1977. Now, Packer had a lot of stake in official cricket with his Channel Nine holding the rights to telecast the Australian home season. Fat amounts of money were offered to Phillips, Dirk Welham and Wood and the potential rebels changed their minds.

The bizarre dismissal that clinched the Ashes

Phillips was named the ’keeper of choice for Australia’s tour of England for the 1985 Ashes.

It was a sad series for the Australian team in transition. The final result was a 3-1 defeat. But, Phillips was one of the very few who performed creditably.  He fought hard to score 91 at Leeds. At Lord’s he entered the scene at 65 for five in the second innings while chasing 127 for a win, and helped Australia to get home with a 32-ball 29.

In fact, it was the dismissal of Phillips in bizarre circumstances that decided the Ashes. In the fifth Test at Edgbaston, with the series tied 1-1, Australia needed to play out time to escape with a draw. Overnight 37 for five, they were aided by a steady drizzle and then a determined association between Phillips and Greg Ritchie.

The score had been extended to 113 for five when some 80 minutes remained in the match. Phillips faced Phil Edmonds with a posse of close in fielders standing in a ring around him. The ball was short and he unleashed a fierce cut. Allan Lamb at silly-point took evasive action, and the ball struck his instep and ballooned up. David Gower, a yard away from Lamb, swivelled around and caught it. Umpire David Shepherd was unsighted, but his colleague David Constant vouched that the ball had not bounced. Phillips was sent on his way. Australia lost the last five wickets for 29 runs.

It was perhaps the right decision, but the Aussies felt there was enough doubt to rule in favour of Phillips. The match was lost, and soon the Ashes were surrendered.

End of Test career

At the beginning of the 1985-86 season, noted journalist Mike Coward rose over voices that still doubted the wicketkeeping role of Phillips by observing, “there cannot be any question about Wayne Phillips being named wicketkeeper. After all, arguably, he is the second-best batsman in the Australian team.”

As the Australians struggled against Richard Hadlee, it was Phillips whose second innings 63 gave them victory at Sydney. But, throughout the summer, he struggled with his keeping. With the Australian wickets of that period increasingly taking spin, Phillips had a tough time. When India visited, he missed two stumping chances in the second Test. Border had to publicly defend him after the performance.

However, the issue was gradually becoming a serious one. Even Prime Minister Bob Hawke voiced his opinion, “We’ve got to have a specialist wicketkeeper and I don’t mean that as any reflection on Wayne Phillips. I think an unfair burden has been placed on him. What we need to see is Australia’s best keeper chosen and I think we’ll see Phillips in there as a batsman and we’ll get much more value from his batting when he’s been relieved of that burden.”

When Australia toured New Zealand in 1986, Phillips was replaced behind the stumps by Tim Zoehrer in the Tests. In the ODIs, he was persisted with and carried on both his roles. By now, however, the struggles behind the stumps had affected his performance in front as well. With David Boon and Geoffrey Marsh occupying the opening slots by now, Phillips batted at number three and managed just one fifty in the Test series. It came in the third and final Test, a disastrous defeat, which was also the last ever Test Phillips played.

After the tour he was not selected for Australia again.

However, he did have a glorious moment in the third ODI. Australia chased 230 and were in more than a spot of bother at 142 for five. Young Steve Waugh was at the other end as Phillips came in. According to Waugh’s Out of My Comfort Zone the rookie batsman asked the keeper what to do. Phillips responded, “Simple, young fella. With my talent and your youth, we’ll get these with an over to spare.”

Phillips scored 53 off 32 balls, adding 86 with Waugh. Australia won by 3 wickets. There was no doubt that Phillips had the ability to turn a match on its head, but by then the question was how frequently could he do that? The selectors no longer believed that he was a worthy investment.

Zoehrer was chosen for the tour or India in 1986-87, and Greg Dyer travelled as his under-study. Phillips never played for Australia again either as wicketkeeper or specialist batsman.

Phillips ended his Test career with 1485 runs from 27 Tests at 32.28 and 52 catches. The figures may be ordinary, but we get greater insight into his career if we look separately at his performances as wicketkeeper and as a specialist batsman.

He played just nine Tests as a batsman and scored 524 runs at 40.30. When he doubled up as a keeper, however, his 18 Tests brought him 961 runs at 29.12. The numbers, as always, tell an eloquent story. He had all the potential to be one of the top batsmen of the 1980s. However, the second job was an overload that stifled his career and ended it prematurely.

Decent when keeping to pace, he was rather ordinary when standing up to spin. His 43 catches and 18 Tests are both records for a keeper who never affected a stumping.

Beyond the boundary

In March 1987 at Adelaide, two Test discards, Phillips and David Hookes, set an Australian record by putting on 462 against Tasmania for the fourth wicket. The runs came in a deluge, in just 299 minutes, in only 84.3 overs, with Phillips scoring 213 not out. It bettered the 63 year old record of Bill Ponsford and Edgar Mayne for Victoria against Queensland. Phillips continued to score consistently for South Australia till his eventual retirement in 1991.

After retirement, Phillips became performed various coaching roles. He was in charge of the Southern Redbacks from 2003 to 2007 and was engaged as coach at the Australian Cricket Academy in Adelaide. He was also an occasional commentator. In 2007, he became the chief fundraiser for the South Australian branch of the Liberal Party.

During his playing days, Phillips was a merry, light-hearted character, if somewhat macabre whenever his hands gripped a steering. However, one wonders about the amount of strain he had to suffer under the unwanted yoke of wicketkeeping. Some believe he was prone to frequent bouts of self-doubt.

According to Steve Waugh, “’Flipper’ was always upbeat and great fun to be around – except when he was driving the team bus, in a style that on occasions bordered on maniacal and broke most of the known road rules – but I could never quite work out whether his casual, laid-back attitude was genuine or a disguise for uncertainty.”

(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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