1989 Ashes: Australia ignite era of dominance with victory at Old Trafford

The winning moment… The Australians in the team balcony celebrate after winning the Old Trafford Test and taking a 3-0 lead in the 1989 Ashes series © Getty Images

On August 1, 1989, Allan Border’s Australia completed a nine-wicket win over England in the fourth Test of The Ashes, which gave them an unassailable 3-0 lead in the six-match series, thereby regaining the coveted urn from their old rivals. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the events that led to a new chapter in history.

Everyone likes a good underdog story. Sport is replete with examples of David and Goliath battles, where the on-field avatar of a visibly weak youth manages to behead a mighty giant, against all odds. Goran Ivanisevic did it at Wimbledon in 2001 and became a folk hero; the Greece national football team shocked Europe and the world in Euro 2004 by clinching the title over teams much superior on paper. Coming to the world of cricket, possibly one of the greatest of underdog stories is the one of Allan Border‘s Australians, who arrived in England to play a six-match Ashes series in the English summer of 1989 with a media tag of being the “worst team ever to leave Australia”.

The Australians had won the World Cup in 1987, but in the Test arena they were going through rather dismal form. Australia had lost three out of the last four Ashes series prior to 1989, and had managed to just one series win in the five years since the simultaneous retirements of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh. England weren’t so well off themselves: they had won only one of their last 19 Test matches, but were considered good enough to retain the urn that had been in their possession since 1985. The confidence of the team, the local media and the public was soaring due to a variety of reasons: England’s excellent record against Australia through the eighties, beginning with Botham’s Ashes; the return of players such as Ian Botham himself and Mike Gatting; and the leadership of their charming and cherubic captain David Gower.

The Aussies were given no chance when they arrived in the Old Country. Not only did the English media beat around the bush about England’s superiority and dominance — Henry Blofeld wrote in the Cricketer that Australia would struggle to bowl England out in any of the six Tests — but even their own ex-players spoke lowly of the team, which looked inexperienced and incapable of putting up even a squeak. “It will be a close series , but I think England will win it 1-0,” said Lillee, optimistically, as quoted by ESPNcricinfo. “They are always hard to beat on their own dungheap.”

Jeff Thomson, meanwhile, quoted from a popular beer company slogan when he said, “I wouldn’t give you a XXXX (pronounced four-ex) for Australia’s chances of regaining the Ashes.”

Mark Taylor, just 24 at the time, had played just two Tests and averaged 16. Steve Waugh, also 24, had played 26 Tests since his debut in 1985 without hitting a century. “The insecurity and self-doubt I was carrying had accumulated to such an extent that getting a century wasn’t a target but a barrier,” Waugh wrote in his aptly titled autobiography Out of My Comfort Zone. However, the duo would combine and smash their first tons in Test cricket in the first Test at Headingley as Australia stunned the hosts and posted 601 for seven declared on the board. England did well to avoid follow-on and put on 430 in reply thanks to Allan Lamb’s century, but the veteran Terry Alderman’s five-wicket hauls in either innings was enough to win him the Man of the Match and Australia the match by 210 runs.

At Lord’s in the second Test, Waugh carried on and made an unbeaten 152 in the first innings, while Taylor and David Boon scored half centuries; Alderman took nine wickets in the match, including six in the second innings, as Australia pipped the hosts again by six wickets to go 2-0 up after two Tests — the first time they had managed such a feat in England since Don Bradman’s team in 1948. In Edgbaston for the third Test, Dean Jones came to the fore and scored 157 sublime runs as Australia posted 424 in the first innings, to which England could reply with only 242.  The hosts were saved from the embarrassment of surrendering the urn early by the rains which ensured that the match ended in a draw, to the visitor’s dismay. So, when the two teams stepped out at Old Trafford on 28 July for the fourth Test, the moods in the two camps had undergone an astonishing reversal. A win would ensure that the worst ever Australian side to tour England snatched back the urn and returned to their shores with the head of England’s Goliath. And that is exactly what happened.

Robin Smith’s century saved England the blushes and took them to a respectable 260 after they elected to bat first, with Geoff Lawson taking six wickets. In reply, Taylor, Border, Jones and Waugh all scored half centuries as Australia took a lead of 183 with their 447 all-out. In the second innings, it was Jack Russell (128) and John Emburey (64) who came to the hosts’ rescue as they mirrored their first-innings score and gave Australia a target of just 78. And when Boon tucked a ball through mid-wicket to get the winning runs on Day Five, August 1, the fairytale had been realised.

Australia’s win at Old Trafford gave them the series and made Border the first captain since WM Woodfull in 1934 to win back the trophy in England. The final result of the six-match series was 4-0 to the Australians after a win at Nottingham and a draw at The Oval. The mind-boggling one-sidedness of the series was perhaps best highlighted by the fact that Australia had used only 12 players for the entire series, while England constantly chopped and changed and utilised as many as 29.

Russell, one of the two permanent members in the XI throughout the series, apart from Gower, told the Independent: “It was chaos, you just had no idea who you would be playing with in the following Test match. If you had a couple of bad games you were history, you were gone forever. I had only played one Test before, but I’m convinced that if I hadn’t scored runs in the second Test at Lord’s I would never have played for England again.” England’s humiliation was best summed up by Fred Trueman and Don Mosey commentating on air for the BBC‘s ‘Test Match Special’. As Australia hit the winnings runs in Manchester, Mosey said, “It really is embarrassing watching England this summer,” to which Trueman added, “With a capital E.”

England’s defeat was made even bitter with a number of players, on the final day of the Manchester Test, announcing their intention to take part in a rebel tour of apartheid-ridden South Africa that winter. Wisden reported: “News of the tour was not unexpected. Indeed, some major cricket correspondents abandoned the Fourth Test in search of information about it which could be used to pre-empt the formal announcement from South Africa at a slightly later date. It was certainly a subject of dressing-room conversation, and very much a topic of press (and broadcasting) discussion of a less guarded nature than that in the pavilion.”

The decision left a sour taste in the mouths of many associated with England cricket, including Russell, the centurion at Old Trafford. “In the background all the negotiations were going on [for] the rebel tour and I felt really sick about that, I was disgusted. I felt betrayed,” he said. “At the time we were trying to fight for our country — no wonder we didn’t win the series. That hundred should have been the highlight of my career but I was just sat in the Old Trafford changing room feeling completely empty.”

But that takes nothing away from Australia’s performance, which took many of their own team members by surprise. Waugh was baffled, as he revealed in his autobiography: “How did it all turn around? I don’t really have an answer; perhaps it was just meant to be.” The series marked the coming of age of Taylor and Waugh, who along with Border, Boon, Jones and Alderman sparked the renaissance that would take Australia to the top of the world for years to come. What started in Manchester in 1989 would be defined as the beginning of the era of Australian dominance in world cricket, which would go on for 16 long years until, in a remarkable coincidence, Ricky Ponting’s men bookended it by celebrating a hard-fought, nail-biting draw at the very venue in 2005, in a series where they eventually surrendered the urn back to England.

Even with the batting prowess of Australia’s young stars, Alderman was the real hero with 41 wickets in six Tests, including a whopping 19 leg-before-wicket dismissals. Such was the impact of his rapping the Englishmen on the pads that he soon found his name and exploits on a politically inspired graffiti in England. ‘THATCHER OUT’ it said on a wall, referring to the growing protest against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the late eighties, to which an England cricket fan wittily added underneath: ‘LBW B ALDERMAN’.

A lot of credit for Australia’s revival would be given to Border’s leadership, who had been deeply hurt when his team were beaten by Gower’s men in 1985, after which Border vowed to “show the bastards” on their next tour. Ian Healy wrote of his captain’s emotions at Old Trafford and what it meant to him in Hands and Heals: The Autobiography: “Before the celebrations could really get into gear, we had to wait for our captain to return from talking to the media. When he did, he gave a brief, very emotional, unrehearsed speech during which his composure nearly cracked more than once. ‘This means a lot to me…’ he said quietly. ‘I want to thank you…you blokes deserve all the accolades you get…’ I’m sure there was a tear in his eye but, within seconds of him finishing, any tears would have been washed away by the flood of grog that was sprayed like an exploding fire hydrant in his direction. We chanted ‘Border…Border…Border’ as everything and everyone in the room was deluged. That was the first big Australian ‘beer celebration’ and it started something of a tradition, something the team still cops criticism for today.”

Border was to reveal that Ian Chappell advised him to not get all friendly and pally with his opponents, and there was a marked difference in the way he interacted with the England team in ’89. He was no more Mr Nice Guy. “They [the Australians] didn’t speak to us until they had won the Ashes,” said Russell. “My old mate Terry Alderman, who I had played with at Gloucestershire the season before, said hello to me walking down the steps at Lord’s. But he said it under his breath, he couldn’t let anyone hear he was talking to me. They were that disciplined. Normally after a Test you would go into their changing room for a beer but that didn’t happen until they had sewn up the series at Old Trafford. Then they invited us to join their party.”

Perhaps the best example that sums up Border’s transformation is an incident during the series when one of England’s few performers with the bat, Robin Smith, asked the Australian captain if he might have a glass of water. “No you f***ing can’t, what do you think this is — a f***ing tea party?” came the prompt reply.

Brief scores:

England 260 (Robin Smith 143; Geoff Lawson 6 for 72, Trevor Hons 3 for 59) and 264 (Jack Russell 128*, John Emburey 64; Terry Alderman 5 for 66) lost to Australia 447 (Mark Taylor 85, Geoff Marsh 45, Allan Border 80, Dean Jones 69, Steve Waugh 92; Angus Fraser 3 for 95) and 81 for 1 (Mark Taylor 37*, Geoff Marsh 31) by 9 wickets.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)