Cricket’s unexpected, pleasant surprises linger longest
The refreshing turnaround of the Australian cricket team from the disaster of just 12 months ago has captured the imagination of cricket lovers and reinvigorated interest in the test team.
A year ago Ryan Harris had broken down, Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle seemed incapable of taking wickets, while Mitchell Johnson was a mental basketcase.
Incredibly, so much has changed in so short a timeframe. Johnson is off the scene injured, yet the other three warhorses – Harris, Hilfenhaus and Siddle – have returned rejuvenated.
Add to this the refreshing introduction of three new quicks into the system – Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc – has suddenly given new captain Michael Clarke the heavy artillery his predecessor Ricky Ponting sorely missed.
Unexpected pleasant surprises linger longest. The remarkable turnaround this year had me thinking back to another time when Australia approached the Ashes summer of 1974-75, uncertain how their team would respond to the coming challenge.
The England of circa 1974-75 was very good, without being great. Combative all-rounder Tony Greig was their best player, followed by the effusive keeper-batsman Alan Knott.
The team to Australia was without its best batsman – Geoff Boycott, and best fast bowler, John Snow – but was still formidable.
The batting would be underpinned by Dennis Amiss and John Edrich, while the bowling attack had paceman Bob Willis and spinner Derek Underwood leading the pack.
For Australia, there were concerns over who would replace retired opener Keith Stackpole and whether the middle order was settled.
More worrying was who might comprise the pace attack under the forceful captaincy of Ian Chappell.
The previous season Gary Gilmour, Geoff Dymock andamp; Alan Hurst had made their test debuts alongside Max Walker. All were very fine bowlers without necessarily being earth-shattering.
It was known Dennis Lillee would be returning to first class cricket in 1974-75, following back surgery. What was unknown was whether he would still be as good a fast bowler as before his injury.
There was another guy called Jeff Thomson, who was a bit of a mystery man. ‘Thommo’ had played a single test in 1972-73 against Pakistan with a broken bone in his foot.
Clearly inconvenienced by pain, he returned the unflattering figures of 0-110 from two innings.
During the 1973-74 season, New South Wales ignored him until the last Sheffield Shield match against Queensland.
Thommo took seven first innings wickets with blistering speed and backed up with two more in the second innings.
So impressed was Queensland with Thommo’s speed, they signed him for the remainder of his career to a lucrative contract brokered by legendary Roar writer David Lord.
Lillee and Thomson were duly selected for the 1st test at the Gabba in Brisbane. A storm was about to break over the summer, but only a few people could say with any certainty they were sure they saw it coming.
Wicketkeeper Rod Marsh says the balls from Thommo’s first first over thundered into his gloves with such force, it hurt him considerably. He then added with a grin that it was the best pain he had ever experienced.
Thommo took three wickets in the first dig, and a further six in the second. He finished the summer with 33 wickets from five tests at around 17 runs apiece.
Old-timers reckoned only the Englishman of the 1950s – Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson – might match him for pace.
With Thomson causing sheer havoc and hell at one end Lillee was able to ease back into Test cricket at the other.
Lillee’s haul from the first five tests might interest a statistician: two and two in each other first four tests, and four and four in the fifth.
In that final test, Lillee took an early wicket before quitting the remainder of the test with a bruised heel injury. He finished with 25 wickets from six tests at around 23 apiece.
Unlike the current series, England made the Aussies earn their 4-1 series win, pushing them all the way.
When Australia went 3-0 up after the 4th test, it gave birth to one of the finest pieces of cricketing literature – ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if Lillee don’t get ya, then Thommo must’.
What made the summer so memorable, especially for Aussies, apart from the handsome series win, is that very few people saw it coming – the arrival of the great pace bowling pair of Lillee and Thomson.
I used to think I was a pretty good rugby lock, but now realise I was deluded. My nickname is a truncation of my surname, so I'm not Arabic - phew! However, sometimes I imagine myself as a Beau Geste in the French Foreign Legion, fighting evil, righting wrongs, promoting good and rescuing damsels in distress.