In the hand-wringing that has (quite appropriately) followed the Ashes series, one snippet is worth noting – discounting the Perth match (which starts to look such an aberration now that if Pakistan had been involved an awful lot of questions would be being asked), England went through the series losing precisely one second innings wicket.
I can only think of one similar series involving Australia in reasonably recent times – when Australia toured the West Indies in 1984, and the Windies lost not one single second innings wicket across a five Test series they won three-zip.
For an Australian, there are some unpleasant similarities between the two series – and you hope the next few years are better for the current Australian team than they were for their 1984 counterparts.
Back in 1984, as in the first Ashes Test, Australia actually looked pretty good for a while – batting first at the traditionally spin-friendly Georgetown, after much of the first day’s play was lost, they got 279 against a WI attack that wasn’t as awe-inspiring as some they fielded (but still had Garner and Daniel). Garner got a six for, and Roger Harper picked up the other four. The Australian batting list was a bit of a mixture – Wessels, Steve Smith, Ritchie, Hughes, Border, Hookes and Wayne Phillips (keeping wicket). None of them were bad players, but rather like the recent series, the captain, Kim Hughes, had a shocker and that perhaps affected the others. Apart from Border (and Graeme Wood, who only played one game), none of them could average out of the 20’s in this series – so they actually did worse than the 2010/11 Australians.
Anyway, Australia then bowled the Windies (Greenidge, Haynes, Richardson, Richards, Gomes, Lloyd, Dujon – one of the great batting lineups) out for 230. The Australian pace attack was a good one (when fit and firing anyway) – Lawson, Alderman and Hogg – but it was Tom Hogan who took the honours with a four for. All well and good so far. A second innings of 9-273 setting 323, which would be the highest innings of the match, looked a good position, until Greenidge and Haynes racked up 0-250 before time ran out.
That must have been almost as deflating as the England second innings at the Gabba last year.
Things didn’t get much better from there, although the 1984 Australians avoided a debacle of Adelaide proportions in the second Test at Port of Spain. Dean Jones came in on debut for Steve Smith, with Wayne Phillips getting to open as well as keep. Malcolm Marshall came into the WI side, and Joel Garner took another six for as Australia subsided for 255 (Border 98no). The Windies (Logie, in for Lloyd, notching 97, Dujon at seven carting 130) helped themselves to 8-468. Behind by 213, Australia was 9-238 with about two hours still to play when Terry Alderman joined Border, playing another lone hand. Everyone talks about the Border/Jeff Thomson last wicket stand that almost won an Ashes Test – this one deserves to be remembered at least as much. Somehow, they stayed together for 105 minutes, putting on 68, and play ended when Border got to 100, with Alderman on 21 (not quite his highest Test innings, but surely far and away his best – and the Windies perhaps ruing that the spin bowling had to be handled by Richards and Gomes, with Harper not playing).
So would this great escape be a momentum killer for the Windies and turn it all around for Australia? Nope. Instead, after a good start, it began to look more like Australia had shot its bolt. For the third Test at Bridgetown, Steve Smith came back in, and everyone (but him) contributed (Wayne Phillips back at seven notching 120) as Australia scored 429, which you would usually think represented a strong position. Big hundreds from Haynes and Richardson saw the Windies to 509, but it was now a long way into day four – surely a draw was the likely result. Did I mention Michael Holding was in for Daniel, so the Windies attack was Garner, Marshall and Holding (plus Harper and Baptiste)? Mentioning Harper and Baptiste actually would have been pretty redundant – Marshall five for, Holding four for, Australia all out 97 (did I hear a score like that in the Ashes series at some point?) in no time and the Windies cruised to a 10-wicket win.
From there, the floodgates opened. At St Johns, Australia dropped Smith again, bringing in Roger Woolley to keep and putting Phillips back up to open. John Maguire and Carl Rackemann came in for Hogg and Alderman (who, if not injured, must at least have been worn out). Border got another 98, but 262 must have looked ominously light on. Given that Richardson got 154 and Richards 178, Australia might almost have thought they did okay to keep the Windies to 498 (so long as they didn’t do the sums on the deficit). An even 200 in the second innings, with no-one getting past 29, and it was an innings victory and a two-up with one to play series win.
On to Kingston, Smith back in for Woolley (presumably there was some sort of plan in dropping and then recalling Smith from Test to Test), Phillips opening and keeping again (just because it had always failed before didn’t necessarily mean it would fail again – although it did) and Greg Matthews in for Jones (four bowlers plainly had not been working so you could actually see some sense there – Matthews also got to open in the second innings after injury to Smith. That must have been fun). A total of 199 probably seemed scant reward for all that deckchair shifting. Again, keeping the Windies to 305 (Maguire four for) would have seemed creditable, except that no-one could stay with Border and Australia whimpered off for 160, for another 10 wicket win/romp and three-nil to the Windies (with Australia lucky to get nil as they say).
So what do we make of all this? One thing that might raise some hackles is that, while you can certainly argue both that the 1984 Windies was one of the great sides, and that the Australian bowling lineup of 2010/11 was not up to the standard of the 1984 side, on paper at least – if we’re being fair, you have to acknowledge that but for its slip up at Perth the English side was every bit as dominant as the Windies were (and away from home as well), which might justify a re-rating of their quality as a side.
The other thing to reflect on is that in the next couple of years after 1984 Australian cricket slipped to its lowest point, with Kim Hughes imploding and rebel tours taking away a lot of good players. It wasn’t until the 1987 World Cup, the advent of Bobby Simpson and Alan Border growing into the captaincy that things turned around. That has to be a worry given the parallels between 1984 and now.
Australia after 1984 lost its captain, who should have been its best batsman, an experienced batsman in Hookes and its first choice openers. It had a batsman (Ritchie) and an all-rounder (Matthews) it had already invested a bit of time into, and neither of them ever really made it as test players. The batsmen/keepers they tried couldn’t do both jobs. The first choice bowlers were one of aging, injury prone or not so good in all conditions, and the back-ups never really made it. And don’t hold your breath for a wicket taking spinner. If we fast forward to today, you could substitute the names and leave the comments pretty much as they are (and the only ones that would be rough on would be Watson and Haddin). That must make you worry that there may well need to be a similar sort of time go by (and new players emerge) before there is any corresponding improvement.
About the only thing the current Australians have going for them compared to 1984 is that Rebel tours are a thing of the past – unless you think the IPL fills that role nowadays!