Warning: this article is going to be nerdy. Extremely nerdy. Even for this website.
I want to reminisce about the West Indies’ tour of Australia in 1984-85. But I will give it relevance to today, I promise.
I was lucky to be born into a loving family in a safe part of the world so my early years were relatively free of trauma.
This might be why I found the summer of 1984-85 so difficult – it’s blazed into my memory like a red-hot poker.
I’d been a cricket fan for a number of years before then. The early ’80s was a good time to fall in love with cricket. It was an era full of personalities and glamour: one day internationals, day-night matches, Channel Nine at its peak, the ABC Cricket Book, Scanlens trading cards. I still have a lot of residual affection for Benson and Hedges.
I followed the game enough to realise how badly Australia performed overseas – every time the team got on a plane, disaster followed: 1981 in England, 1982 in Pakistan, then 1983 in England again.
But all those things happened outside the country.
At home Australia were kings. Well, mostly. We beat Pakistan (twice), India, New Zealand, England. We even drew 1-1 against the best team in the world, the West Indies, in 1981-82.
Defeat was something that happened, sure, but in other countries.
Until the summer of 1984-85.
The West Indies were coming out. One of the all-time great sides at their peak.
Even now just the thought of that team slightly scares me.
Imagine having to bowl against them. If you got through Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, then you had to deal with Viv Richards, then Larry Gomes, then Richie Richardson, then Clive Lloyd, and then Jeff Dujon would come in and rescue them, and even the tail-enders were handy.
Then came the bowlers – relentless, terrifying, never ending. Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Courtney Walsh…
And then they were backed by unbelievable fielding.
They weren’t as versatile as the great Australian sides of the ’90s and 2000s – there was no quality spinner or medium-pacer – but they were far scarier. Steve Waugh’s men mentally disintegrated their opponents; Clive Lloyd’s looked as though they wanted to put them in hospital.
To make a cricket fan even more apprehensive, Australia was now without three champions. Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee, the backbone of that 1981-82 effort, had retired at the end of the previous summer.
They would be missed. Marsh’s batting had fallen away but he was still a great keeper. Lillee had compensated for a drop in pace with increased cunning and was still a major threat with the ball. And Chappell never stopped being a batting genius.
To prove the point, Australia had just lost 3-0 against the West Indies in the Caribbean. They were lucky it wasn’t 5-0. And some scheduling genius had ensured we were going to play five more Tests against the same team. Uninterrupted. Yay.
Still, Australia had some reason for cautious optimism. Allan Border had played magnificently in the West Indies. Kim Hughes hadn’t but he was a different proposition at home. And Graham Yallop – who’d scored over 1000 runs for two summers straight, and hadn’t toured – was available. Our pace bowling stocks were strong, including Geoff Lawson, Rodney Hogg and Carl Rackemann. There were exciting new players coming through like David Boon and Greg Matthews.
And Hughes was (seemingly) finally settled as Australia’s captain after a (very, very, very) long apprenticeship – he’d led Australia to a 3-0 victory in an ODI series in India.
So home wickets and fresh blood… fingers crossed, you never know.
It was a rout.
Within a few weeks, Hughes had resigned from the captaincy in tears and played his last Test. The Australian Test team was devastated. Then 16 players signed to go to on a rebel tour of South Africa. We were a second-rate Test nation until the end of the decade.
Was it avoidable?
Could anything have been done differently?
Actually, yes – a few things. This is judgement in hindsight, but that’s how you learn to improve in the future.
Australia still would have lost that series, and still lost the players to South Africa ($200,000 tax-free, which is what they got, was too much money) and thus struggled, but the next few years needn’t have been so traumatic.
We could have done three things in particular.
1. Fixed the captaincy
Kim Hughes was never up to the job. This was evident from his work on the 1979 India tour but people kept giving him special consideration.
“Oh, he’s learning”, “he’s got a young side”, “it wasn’t easy with Marsh and Lillee undermining him”, “it’s not fair he gets the overseas tours while Chappell captains at home” – all true. But those things didn’t mean he was actually suited for captaincy.
Close observers knew this. The board had been warned. Rod Marsh should have had the job. But Marsh didn’t help his cause by behaving like a sulky child. And Ian Chappell went after Hughes with such venom it created sympathy for the young batsman.
The Australian Cricket Board as it was then known had a lot invested in Hughes’ success. No one likes to realise they’ve made a mistake. It’s hard.
But the thing is, Hughes gave them a face-saving chance to correct their choice. On the 1984 tour of the West Indies, he threw a sook playing against Trinidad, ordering the team to bat slowly. It was childish, pointless and immature – and justifiable grounds to sack Hughes.
In hindsight, the ACB should have brought back Marsh for this summer. He would’ve done it too. Then Marsh could’ve led Australia against the West Indies at home and then against England, provided his knees had held up.
Maybe Hughes could’ve taken over then. Or he could have settled into a senior player role with someone else taking over.
I get they had a vision for Hughes. But sometimes visions don’t mesh with reality, as in the case of Kim Hughes as captain.
2. Backed a proper wicketkeeper
Another disastrous decision of the 1984 Windies tour was to make Wayne Phillips Australia’s keeper. I can understand the rationale at the time – Steve Smith was in good form, they weren’t happy with Roger Woolley, Phillips had done some keeping… hey presto, you could play Smith and Phillips, and have a keeper who was a great batsman. And when Phillips scored a century in a Test match, it seemed all was fine.
No. Not fine.
You shouldn’t judge a keeper mostly by the runs they score.
Wicketkeeping is hard. Super hard. You’ve got to be prepared to catch every single ball that comes through. You’re the head fielder. You’re a key adviser to the captain.
To expect someone to be a top-six quality batsman on top of doing that is unfair.
If they couldn’t get Marsh back they should have given Steve Rixon the job, which to be fair they did when Phillips was injured for a few Tests over the summer. But it was only ever a temporary gig – Rixon understandably got jack and signed to go to South Africa.
Australia played so badly over the next 12 months, and Phillips did make the odd handy score with the bat, it gave an artificial impression of how well the keeper Phillips experiment was going.
The penny dropped over the 1985-86 summer by which time Phillips’ confidence was at an all-time low and Australia’s bowlers had missed out on countless wickets due to him behind the stumps.
Always pick a keeper as a keeper first, batsman second – and don’t expect them to learn their trade at international level.
But we then made this mistake again with Matthew Wade and look to be about to make it with Alex Carey.
3. Think of how to win
In the 1984-85 Australian summer, it seemed our main tactic was to survive and hope for the best. The concept of actually winning seemed so foreign.
We needed to be constantly thinking of how to win.
And there were two main ways we could have done it.
A. Have an attack that can get teams out
In the first Test Australia did try to fight fire with fire and picked an all pace attack. That’s rarely a good idea unless you’re the West Indies and Australia ended up losing by an innings. To be fair, this was more to do with our batting and dropped catches than the bowlers.
After the first Test, New South Wales surprised the cricketing world by defeating the West Indies in a tour game, chiefly off the back of the spin attack of Bob Holland and Murray Bennett. I went to that game and can still remember the astonishing sight of this incredible West Indies batting line-up being bamboozled by spin. The fact Imran Khan opened the bowling was also pretty helpful.
We’d found a fault in the Death Star’s design: spin bowling!
The West Indies’ weakness against spin had been noted for a while. Bill O’Reilly, former Test great turned cranky Don Bradman-bashing columnist at the Sydney Morning Herald – was forever propagating for leg spin. He was a massive fan of Bob Holland, the prematurely grey-haired leg spinner who had been so consistently successful for NSW over the past few seasons.
Holland had been too grey-haired for the Australian selection panel, who following the retirement of Bruce Yardley, had gone for Tom Hogan, Murray Bennett and Greg Matthews to little impact. Holland really should have gone on the West Indies tour (leg spinners do well over there) but his hair counted him out.
In fairness, there was a feeling he only worked at the SCG, which was partly true. He struggled in Perth and Brisbane but did well in Adelaide and Melbourne, and later got a five-wicket haul at Lord’s. His haul for NSW could not be ignored, though, and so he was in the side for the second Test.
The West Indies were not great players of spin, and did not have decent spinners.
Now if Australia had been on the ball they would have prepared spinning tracks that summer. But this is a country of pace – we’ve traditionally regarded spin bowling as unmanly, unless the bowler pretty much acts like a fast bowler like Bruce Yardley, Shane Warne, or Bill O’Reilly. It didn’t help that leg spinners need a sympathetic captain and Hughes was fairly inexperienced when it came to handling spinners.
Holland made little impact over two Tests, was dropped for the fourth, then came back for the fifth where he and Murray Bennett bowled Australia to a stunning, still-gives-me-goosebumps-when-I-think-about-it victory at the SCG.
Holland should have been picked for all the Tests in the West Indies and at home, and been used as a strike bowler. Even if he got tonked he should have been persevered with – he was a potential match-winner in a team that badly needed them, and you had Kepler Wessels as a (curiously underused) option to give the specialists a rest.
B. Have a batting order that can take the game to the opposition
Australia needed to be more aggressive with its batting order.
We have a bad history of over-aggression in this country, a particular problem under the regime of Darren Lehmann. But the 1984-85 batting line-up had too many stone-wallers – and you can’t stone-wall against a champion side, you have to take the fight to them.
Australia had three stone-wallers, and they were all great – Wessels, Border and Graeme Wood – but the selectors kept adding more – like Andrew Hilditch, John Dyson and David Boon.
I am completely sympathetic to the selectors in this case – all these batsmen were in form and good players. There were no silly gut picks.
But against a top side, your top six should have at least two aggressive batsmen – not bash merchants, but batsmen really capable of taking the fight to the opposition. Wayne Phillips was one, but he was shoved at seven, and had to deal with keeping as well. Hughes was another but they needed more like Dean Jones or David Hookes – both played in the West Indies but were overlooked – or Greg Ritchie, who was picked eventually. Attack through defence and defence through attack.
So my best Australian XI for that summer would have been
Kepler Wessels, Wayne Phillips, Graeme Wood, Kim Hughes, Allan Border, Dean Jones/Greg Ritchie/David Hookes, Rod Marsh (c), Geoff Lawson, Rodney Hogg/Craig McDermott, Carl Rackemann/Murray Bennett, and Bob Holland.
Again, I acknowledge this is an incredibly nerdy article.
To give it some relevance, the main things we can learn from this season are to pick a strong captain, a proper keeper, an attack than can win games, and a batting line-up that can attack as well as defend. And don’t be afraid of admitting you made a mistake.
Those lessons can still be applied today.