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When Australia’s troupe of wandering cricketers left for England in the winter of 1989 it was mercilessly mocked as the worst Australian team to leave our shores.
That a team boasting – in addition to Alan Border – the likes of Mark Taylor, David Boon, Steve Waugh, Dean Jones, Ian Healy, Terry Alderman, Geoff Lawson and Merv Hughes would be described thus seems improbable now. But at the time, without the benefit perfect hindsight, there were nagging and niggling doubts over whether these guys had the goods.
In the five years since the Aussies defeated Pakistan in the home series of 1983-1984 the national team won only one Test series – against the Kiwis – and even then the series would have been squared had a gallantly defiant Mike Whitney not been able to survive six exacting balls from Richard Hadlee at the zenith of his unbridled brilliance to avoid a loss in the third Test.
In that five-year period leading up to 1989 – surely the bleakest of times – Australia lost three series to the Windies, two Ashes series to the Poms, one series to Pakistan and, most gut-wrenchingly galling of all, two series to the Kiwis. That we celebrated two drawn series against India – both home and away – is the saddest indictment on our performance during that era.
As the Aussies famously drank themselves silly on the flight to England they could look back, with blurred vision, across a five-year period when they had played 46 Tests and won just seven. During the same period the Aussies lost a staggering 18 times.
So when David Gower won the toss in the first Ashes Test at Headingly in early June 1989 and, with a cheeky grin spreading across his boyish face, sent the Aussies in to bat, Border’s men harboured no culture of winning, let alone an ethos of winning without counting the cost; many in the team had rarely even celebrated a Test victory.
And though many in the batting ranks might now smugly peruse their career stats with justifiable pride, their places in history were far from assured on that cold morning in Leeds.
Mark Taylor was playing only his third Test match. His career tally stood at 67 runs at an average of just 16.75.
Taylor’s opening partner, Geoff Marsh – father of Shaun and Mitchell – had been in the Test team since December 1985. Much like his sons, Marsh had promised much but delivered rarely. He had 1670 runs to show for his 49 visits to the batting crease at a middling average of 35.53.
At No.3 David Boon was a solid performer but not yet firmly established. His average was just 38.46, compared to his career-high of 46.83.
After Border – already a great of the game with almost 8000 runs and an average north of 53 – came Dean Jones. Despite his obvious talent, two epic double tons and an average of 45.47, Deano had been in and out of the Test team since 1984. Few other than himself foretold the legend of the man.
Then came Steve Waugh. It’s easy to forget how much Waugh struggled to perform in the murky dawn of his stellar career. Like Marsh, he made his debut in December 1985 but had scored only 1099 runs at a mere 30.52 per dismissal. Unlike the maligned Marsh, however, Waugh was yet to score a Test century.
And the bowling talent was just as questionable.
Though Terry Alderman had starred in the 1981 Ashes series, he had played only 24 Tests by 1989 and, at 32.16, his average was elevated.
Similarly, Geoff Lawson had been around the Aussie team since 1980. Yet he was about to enter only his 29th Test with an average of 30.52. He had played a mere two Tests in the past four years.
Then there was Big Merv. The first Ashes Test in 1989 was only his 12th. Like Marsh and Waugh, he debuted in December 1985. With a dismal average of 37.00, he was hardly a mainstay in the team.
That this team of assorted could-have-beens and might-have-beens dominated England four Tests to nil – and would almost certainly have won all six Tests had it not been for the partisan English rain – was simply extraordinary.
I remember staying up all night and watching in awed wonder as session after glorious session the Aussies steamrolled the Pommy batting and pulverised the Limey bowling. Not even the threat of my law school exams lurking in the imminent morning would stop me cheering the boys throughout the night.
Unlike the funereal vigils of 1981 and 1985, these were nights of passion and inspiration. For a devoted nation of cricket tragics, starved of success for so long, the turnaround was stunning. A heavy cloud of depression was lifted.
Suddenly our team was playing with zest and with verve, with poetry and with joy. It was a revelation, a sight to behold.
Captain Grump, taking the game to an opposition of mates to whom he refused to talk. Mark Taylor driving through the covers and clipping the ball off his pads through mid-wicket with a fluency and grace that mocked both his plodding step and his circumference. Steve Waugh crouching aggressively, like a pugnacious pugilist, before stepping deep into his crease and unleashing a square cut past gully to the boundary. Terry Alderman trotting into the crease, bowling wicket-to-wicket and trapping batsmen LBW again and again.
And it was the start of something. The Aussies would dominate world cricket for the next 15 to 20 years. And it all started – against all the odds – with a team described as the worst Australian side to tour England.
This week a fresh generation of maligned Aussies cricketers will face a new challenge. While the underlying causes of our malaise are different, it is time for those maligned to stand up and take their chance. Will they define the moment or will the moment define them?
Like 1989, this is a time for Aussie heroes.
Who will it be? Will Usman Khawaja repeat his heroics in Dubai? Will the Marsh brothers finally fulfil their promise? Will a new hero, like Marcus Harris, emerge to guide us home? Which of our bowlers will run in, upon tired feet, and deliver the decisive blow when the cause seems lost?
Who will step up and meet the challenge?
This is a time for Aussie heroes, and I’ll cheer them all the way.