Graham Yallop's knock of 121 went in vain as Australia were thrashed by nine wickets at Sydney, during The Ashes 1978-79 © Getty Images
Graham Yallop’s knock of 121 went in vain as Australia were thrashed by 9 wickets at SCG, during The Ashes 1978-79 © Getty Images

On February 10, 1979, Graham Yallop thwacked 121 in Australia’s first innings total of 198, accounting for over 60 per cent of the team’s runs at Sydney. The Test is also remembered for Yallop’s strange request, eventually backed by the umpires, to open the bowling with a used ball. Karthik Parimal revisits that eventful sixth match of the Ashes of 1978-79.

Graham Yallop’s knock at Sydney was one of endurance. With his cavalry crumbling around him and the urn already out of reach, it was a defiant innings that underlined his class against a formidable English attack. Although there weren’t many highlights, understandably, from a series that turned out to be as lop-sided as the Ashes of 1978-79, Yallop’s innings in that last Test gets a mention in almost every autobiography of players from both sides of that era, for it was etched gracefully under pressure. His technical prowess, especially on the front-foot, was in full display at the SCG on the day.

The lead-up

With many of Australia’s first-rate players having defected to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, Yallop was named the captain of a largely inexperienced team. Nonetheless, he boisterously claimed that his side would whitewash England in the six-match series. Despite the presence of fast bowler Rodney Hogg, the proclamation was far-fetched. In accordance with the expectations of the pundits, the Australians were pummelled at Brisbane, Perth, Sydney and Adelaide, with the third Test at Melbourne being the only exception. The two teams returned to Sydney for the final fixture, where the final nail would be driven into Australia’s coffin.

With 40 scalps at an average of below 12, Hogg was the highest wicket-taker, way ahead of Alan Hurst (22 wickets), the next in the list. Despite his heroics, the team’s efforts to eke out a win rendered futile. Moreover, the crevices in the Australian squad were evident right from the outset. Gary Cosier was miffed for not being placed at the helm. “I was actually a bit disappointed when they announced the captaincy because I thought I could have been a better captain than Graham Yallop,” he assertively stated. Hogg wasn’t on talking terms with Yallop, too.

Owing to what transpired on and off the field, it didn’t come as a surprise to many that the Australians were down 1-4 before the commencement of the final Test at SCG.

A gem amongst the rubble

Yallop was seldom in the good books of all his team-mates. Yet, he never once flinched when asked to bat in unfamiliar positions. His willingness held him in good stead when Australia’s best chose World Series Cricket, for in their absence, he was appointed the captain by the powers that be. Needless to say, his inexperience meant his moves as a leader were insipid and tactically flawed. Clearly, he’d failed to earn his colleagues’ respect. But on this fine morning in Sydney, that notion changed, albeit temporarily.

Australia’s openers Graeme Wood and Andrew Hilditch were dismissed within half-hour on the first morning when Yallop strode to the crease. Realising his susceptibility against pace bowling, Mike Brearley, the English skipper, gave the trio of Bob Willis, Mike Hendrick and Ian Botham an extended spell. Although the three could skittle out batsmen at the other end, Yallop looked impregnable. Once the spinners were roped in, he cut loose and accumulated runs in his characteristic, attractive style of play.

The batsmen who followed Kim Hughes looked as though they’d rather be anywhere else but SCG. They trudged painstakingly, hardly managing to extract runs, whereas Yallop, on the other hand, didn’t mind shielding his troops, while simultaneously picking gaps and expertly manoeuvring the ball on that lush green but vast outfield; like he were playing on a different surface altogether.

He smashed 121 in four-and-a-half hours, inclusive of 13 hits to the fence. Appallingly, the rest of his team-mates could only muster 77 between them, and five of those were extras. “It was a fine, bold innings, full of aggression blended with canny judgment, and all the more admirable for its isolation among so much failure,” noted David Frith, the founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. It indeed was, for his knock, in a total of 198, accounted for 61.11 per cent of the team runs and, as observed by Abhishek Mukherjee, ranks 10th on the all-time list.

A request unheard of

Despite Yallop’s brilliance, a first innings score of 198 wasn’t going to test the English line-up. Hogg was safely dealt with, although Hurst proved difficult to get away with in his initial spell. Jim Higgs, the leg-spinner, chipped in with 4 wickets, and riding on Graham Gooch’s 74 and David Gower’s 65, England’s total was propped up to 308. Higgs’ feat was indication of the fact that the turf was increasingly taking spin, and as a reason, England’s John Emburey and Geoff Miller bowled 51.1 of Australia’s 61.1 overs — taking 9 wickets between them — in the second innings to bundle them out for a paltry 143.

Needing just 34 runs to win, English openers Geoffrey Boycott and Brearley (also the skipper) rushed to the dressing-room to don their pads and ready themselves for the final few minutes of the Test, when Yallop and umpires Tony Crafter and Don Weser knocked and let themselves in. Holding a used ball in his hand, Crafter asked Brearley if he objected to Australia opening their bowling with it, to which Brearley said he certainly did, for it would give Yallop’s spinners an undue advantage. The umpires were unimpressed and asked Yallop if he still wanted to use the old ball, and the Australian did not relent. In the end, the umpires told Brearley that there was nothing in the laws that could prevent Yallop from going ahead with a used ball. Bruce Yardley, the off-break bowler, and Higgs, the leg-spinner, duly opened the bowling.

The target was not gargantuan, but Brearley was clearly not amused. “I was certain that there was [a law to prevent opening with a used ball], but could not quote the chapter and verse. I also said that if Yallop could use a newish ball, what was to stop fielding captain turning a Test in fiasco by using a rank, old, soft ball with the string hanging out? This argument made equally little impact on the umpires. I did not want to get too worked up immediately before batting, so I shrugged and carried on,” writes Brearley in his book The Art of Captaincy. The 34 runs were knocked off, however, with the loss of Boycott’s wicket. As unearthed by then English manager, Doug Insole, during the course of the run chase, there indeed was a law that called for use of a new ball at the start of an innings. He nonetheless refrained from raking up the issue.

What followed?

The Australians were humiliated 5-1, the worst losing margin in an Ashes series that they had ever endured. The ‘Packer players’ returned and Yallop lost not just his captaincy, but also his place in the side. It was a norm that would define his cricketing career in the years to come.

Brief scores:

Australia 198 (Graham Yallop 121; Ian Botham 4 for 57) and 143 (Bruce Yardley 61*; Geoff Miller 5 for 44, John Emburey 4 for 52) lost to England 308 (Graham Gooch 74, David Gower 65; Jim Higgs 4 for 69, Alan Hurst 3 for 58) and 35 for 1 (Mike Brearley 20*) by 9 wickets.

Man of the Match:  Graham Yallop.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)