Kim Hughes (left) with the debutant Mike Whitney © Getty Images
Kim Hughes (left) with the debutant Mike Whitney at Old Trafford © Getty Images

Mike Whitney made his Test debut after playing just 7 First-Class matches on August 12, 1981. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the desperate measures obtained by the injury-stricken Australian Selection Panel in the high-profile Ashes of 1981.

The Australians were in dire straits before the fifth Test began. They were already down 1-2 in the Ashes after being 1-0 up; they had to win this one to stay alive in the rubber. However, they had a problem with injured fast bowlers.

It ran like this: Jeff Thomson had already returned home with an injury; Geoff Lawson, Carl Rackemann, and Rodney Hogg had broken down; and Len Pascoe had not yet recovered from his knee issues. Despite multiple replacements, Australia were left with two fit fast bowlers in Dennis Lillee and Terry Alderman.

The 22-year-old Mike Whitney, meanwhile, had just begun his tenure for Gloucestershire after just four matches for New South Wales. He had picked up nine wickets from his two matches against the Sri Lankans and Worcestershire, both at Bristol. In his third match of the season (and the seventh of his career), Gloucestershire won the toss and decided to bat against Hampshire at Cheltenham.

Shortly after Chris Broad and Andy Stovold had gone out to bat there was a call at the ground; it was for Whitney. Fred Bennett, the Australian manager, had asked him to report to Old Trafford immediately. Whitney pulled himself out and was replaced by Sadiq Mohammad for the rest of the match.

Whitney was probably aware that he was the only Australian back-up option available in England. He reached Old Trafford and reported to Bennett at the dressing-room. They were joined by the captain Kim Hughes shortly.

Hughes: Congratulations. I need you to bowl a good line and length tomorrow.
Whitney: What do you mean?
Hughes: Haven’t they told you? You’re playing in the Test tomorrow!

Whitney was shell-shocked. He possibly did not even believe what was going on till he learnt that Ray Bright had changed rooms so that Whitney could share his rooms with Lillee, no less. The next day he got his Test cap and jumper. Talk of being at the right time at the right place!

Whitney later wrote: “It was a great thrill to walk onto the ground in the company of Marsh, Lillee, and company. After Lillee and Alderman bowled about 15 overs, Kim Hughes said this was it. I did all the stretches and limbering up for the cameras. Waved to my mum in Australia.”

Whitney bowled his first ball in Test cricket; Chris Tavaré played the ball to square-leg and the skies poured, with the players having to come off. Peter Philpott came up to Whitney and told him “that was a great ball”.

What followed?

– Whitney did a good job on debut after play resumed; he removed David Gower and Tavaré in the first innings and Ian Botham and John Emburey in the second.

– England won the Test by 103 runs despite Australia’s fourth-innings score of 402 and clinched the Ashes. Whitney registered a pair, but his second-innings duck lasted 42 balls, where he hung around and let Allan Border add 24 runs for the final wicket.

– Whitney played in the sixth Test at The Oval as well, picking up a solitary wicket. He did not play another Test for over six years. He played 12 Tests in all, picking up 39 wickets at 33.97.

Brief scores:

England 231 (Chris Tavaré 69, Paul Allott 52*; Dennis Lillee 4 for 55, Terry Alderman 4 for 88) and 404 (Ian Botham 118, Chris Tavaré 78, Alan Knott 59, John Emburey 57; Terry Alderman 5 for 109) beat Australia 130 (Martin Kent 52; Bob Willis 4 for 63, Ian Botham 3 for 28) and 402 (Allan Border 123*, Graham Yallop 114, Rodney Marsh 47, Kim Hughes 43; Bob Willis 3 for 96) by 103 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)