During the 1980s, Test cricket in the southern hemisphere was confined to the trans-Tasman neighbours.
But the neighbours faced contrasting fortunes for the most part of the decade.
Australia, the big brother, started the decade full of optimism with the return of the Packer rebels, but things wouldn’t go according to plan for them. The retirement of key players plus the exodus of more rebels to South Africa meant that a big vacuum appeared in Aussie cricket in the mid-80s.
The second half of the decade was mostly spent rebuilding the team under the guidance of Allan Border. Players like Geoff Marsh, the Waugh twins, Merv Hughes, Bruce Reid, Ian Healy and Mark Taylor all made their international debut during this era.
In contrast, for NZ, the 1980s saw continuous growth in their reputation. While their historic 1-0 series victory against the West Indies in 1980 was marred by controversial umpiring, no one could deny their supremacy against Australia in the 1985 series when Sir Richard Hadlee inspired them to a 2-1 series win.
Two years earlier they had recorded their first ever Test win in England, beating the hosts at Headingley. Ironically, in perfect seam and swing bowling conditions, Hadlee – the champion medium fast bowler – went wicketless.
So it’s a surprise that Australia went into the one-off Test against the Kiwis at the WACA in November 1989 as the firm favourites. Firstly because Australia thumped England 4-0 in the Ashes that winter. And secondly because NZ were missing two important members of their side – number three bat Andrew Jones and Sir Richard Hadlee, for so long the nemesis of the Aussie batsmen.
With the match being at WACA, both the sides picked four fast bowlers each, with Dipak Patel providing off-spin option for the Kiwis. No one felt sure that the five Kiwi bowlers together would provide the same threat to the Aussie batting that Hadlee alone would have ensured.
NZ captain John Wright won the toss and took the bold decision to bowl first. He showed a lot of faith in his inexperienced attack. Long before the end of the day’s play, the Kiwi captain was ruing his decision.
With local boy Geoff Marsh not available, David Boon accompanied Mark Taylor opening the batting. In England, Taylor had impressed, taking full advantage of some wayward English new-ball bowling. Here, it was Boon who took the centre stage.
The young NZ new-ball bowlers Danny Morrison and Chris Cairns – the latter making his Test debut – got carried away with the extra pace and bounce of the wicket. While they were quick, they bowled too short and too wide. Boon, always a strong player square of the wicket, took full advantage. The first day finished with the Aussies at 2/296, with Boon on 169 not out.
Boon completed his double hundred the next day, scoring exactly 200, but Dean Jones was unlucky getting out on 99. The day ended with NZ on 25 for no loss after the declaration at 9/521.
Obviously, there was no chance of a Kiwi victory. But their fans felt that in good batting conditions, their batsmen would be able to save the match. Indeed, around the mid-afternoon of Day 3, they looked fairly comfortable at 2/173. Left-handed Mark Greatbatch – the makeshift number three in the absence of Jones – was batting well, and Martin Crowe had a proven track record against Australia.
The match, however, took a big swing at this stage, as big Merv Hughes ran through the NZ middle order. He had Greatbatch caught behind and soon dismissed all-rounder Patel for a duck.
Hughes was a great favourite of the WACA crowd, having taken 13 wickets against the mighty West Indies there the previous season. Urged on by the vocal crowd, he picked up two more wickets before stumps. And with Crowe falling to Terry Alderman for 62, the Kiwis finished the day on 8/218. The Aussies quickly cleaned up the tail early on the fourth morning to bowl the opposition out for just 231.
It was a poor effort from the tourists. And when they were asked to follow on, a defeat looked inevitable with almost two full days to go.
Under pressure, the Kiwi openers both failed to reach double figures. Again, NZ depended heavily on the Greatbatch-Crowe partnership. For a period, Crowe looked in control. A stylish stroke-maker, he was understandably cautious due to the situation of the match. But after carefully negotiating the quickies, he fell to the part-time medium pacer Tom Moody to give the WA all-rounder his first Test wicket. Patel failed for the second time in the match and NZ finished the day 4/168, Mark Greatbatch still unbeaten on 69.
The fifth day crowd gathered expecting to see a routine victory for the home side. After all, they had outplayed their opponents in all departments of the game until then. Instead, they saw a great rearguard effort from the Kiwis, with Greatbatch in the forefront.
The day started badly for the tourists. Jeff Crowe fell LBW to Hughes for a well made 49 and NZ were 5/198. Ian Smith came to the crease. As NZ enjoyed their most successful era in international cricket until then, veteran Smith was something of an unsung hero. As a batsman, he was unorthodox but effective. Later in the summer in Auckland, he would smash a hapless Indian attack to the all corners of Eden Park to score 173 from just 136 deliveries. It was Adam Gilchrist-like batting, a decade earlier. Here, at the WACA, his contribution was a first-ball duck thanks to big Merv.
Chris Cairns came to the wicket with NZ staring at an innings defeat despite the heroics of Greatbatch. Just 19, Cairns enjoyed a big reputation as a promising all-rounder. He of course came from a cricketing family. His father Lance played 43 Tests for NZ. The last was at WACA four years earlier when he shared the new ball with Hadlee.
Cairns went wicketless in his last match, but he had played a big part in NZ’s historic win at Headingley in 1983 and in the series-winning victory against India in Wellington in 1981. He was immensely popular among the Kiwi fans not only for his bowling but also for his hard-hitting batting.
He didn’t score many runs, but he scored them pretty quickly. Indeed, he finished with an ODI strike rate of almost 105 despite playing mostly in its early days. Lance’s approach to batting was unorthodox and care-free. Chris showed a more measured approach. He too could hit the ball hard – but while his father normally eyed the leg side boundaries, he generally preferred to play in the V.
At the WACA, big hitting wasn’t in Cairns’ mind when he came out to bat. His main duty was to stay with Greatbatch as long as possible. He succeeded for an hour and a half before he was trapped LBW by Hughes. Veteran Martin Snedden came to the wicket.
Earlier in the year, I had followed the Ashes series with keen interest. There I was supporting Allan Border’s men as they gave the Poms a big bash. Here, though, I was supporting the Kiwi team.
I was a freshman at Dhaka University at the time. On the final day, I returned home and turned on the radio with a bit of apprehension. I thought that it might be over already. I was delighted to see the Greatbatch-Cairns partnership leading a fight.
This partnership started the fight. The next completed it. For the next 200 minutes, the pair frustrated the Aussie bowlers. Snedden didn’t have any great reputation as a batsman, but here he frustrated the opposition by just dropping everything in front of his feet. He scored only 33 not out from 142 deliveries, but runs were never important in this situation.
As for Greatbatch, he finished 146 not out, batting for almost 11 hours. Words cannot describe the value of his effort. In the second innings, none of the top-order men managed to stay with him long enough. It was only the tail-enders who gave him the proper support.
Early in 1988, Greatbatch had made a successful debut at Auckland, scoring 107 not out against England in the second innings. But this was the high point of his career. Sadly, it went mostly downhill from here.
His overall Test average of 30.62 does scant justice to his talent. His only other Test hundred came for a losing cause against Pakistan in Hamilton in early 1993. In the first innings he scored a courageous 133 in a team total of 264, opening the innings against Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.
Many at the time felt that the Hamilton ton would be the turning point of his Test career. They were wrong. He had a miserable time in the three-Test series in Australia later in the year. He scored just 67 runs in six innings and his return to the WACA was a disappointing experience. He scored 18 and 0. His only contribution in the Test – and in the whole series – was to become the first of Glenn McGrath’s 563 Test victims. Ian Healy took the catch.
He may have failed in the Test arena, but during the 1992 World Cup, he gave ODI batting a new dimension. His care-free hitting while opening the innings surprised even the likes of Allan Donald and Wasim Akram. And the crowd got great value for their money. The idea was to hit hard and high, taking advantage of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs.
Krishnamachari Srikkanth of India tried similar tactics in the 1980s. Greatbatch added more finesse to it before the Sri Lankan openers perfected the art in the 1996 World Cup. Interestingly, Greatbatch wasn’t even in the XI that won the first match of the World Cup against Australia. It was the injury to opener John Wright that gave him his chance in the next match against South Africa.
As for the disappointed Aussies, they figured out that the absence of a front-line spinner was the main cause of their failure on the final day. Skipper Border badly under-bowled himself. Both Peter Taylor and Peter Sleep would get recalls to the Aussie Test team later in the summer.
Then, in two years’ time, a young Victorian would emerge to take Australia’s spin bowling responsibility for the next two decades.