Kevin Roberts and the Cricket Australia Board would be counting their luck right about now.
Like the other works, it was only traumatic if you were an Australian fan. The English remember this time with considerable fondness – in part because there would be so few good memories for them to have over the next 20 years.
But for Aussies… ugh.
Australian cricket of the mid-80s was constantly looking for its rock-bottom point.
When Kim Hughes resigned in tears, that was meant to be rock bottom.
Then we lost 16 players to South Africa. That was supposed to be rock bottom, too.
Then after we lost the Ashes in England.
And to New Zealand at home.
And to New Zealand in New Zealand, a series where Kiwi fans threw a toilet at Greg Matthews on the field and Allan Border threatened to quit the captaincy mid-press conference.
That felt pretty rock bottom.
By the start of the 1986-87 summer we were meant to have turned the corner. Australia had just enjoyed a relatively non-disastrous tour of India in 1986, famous for its tied Test, the source of many legendary stories – Deano vomiting while Border sledged him, Ray Bright fainting, players almost dying. I mean, Australia did manage to not win a game where they scored 574 in the first innings but at least we didn’t lose it.
And our team seemed to be on the improve – the batting order was the most stable in years (David Boon, Geoff Marsh, Dean Jones, Allan Border, Greg Ritchie). We had, finally, a specialist keeper (Tim Zoehrer) and a balanced side with not one but two all-rounders (Steve Waugh, Greg Matthews). There were some decent bowlers (Craig McDermott, Bruce Reid) and a coach who was doing wonders with the team’s fitness and fielding (Bob Simpson).
So Australia had every reason to feel confident they would do well in the the 1986-87 Ashes series – especially against an English side that had been thumped 5-0 by the West Indies. I mean, we’d lost to the Windies too but not 5-0. We’d also drawn against India 0-0. So bring on the Poms! Let the Battle of the wooden spoon commence!
Well, they came and steamrolled us. It was a terrible summer.
Not as bad as previous years – no one resigned in tears, no one threw toilets at Greg Matthews – but still pretty bad.
England won the Test series 2-1 and the one-day competition, and this other random ODI tournament they held that summer named the World Championship of Cricket. To make it even more random, Glenn Bishop played two ODIs for Australia in that tournament.
Sure, we won the fifth Test… but it was a dead rubber, and on the spin-friendly wicket at the SCG. Australia hadn’t won a Test at any other ground since 1983-84.
My overwhelming memory of that summer is watching England’s batsman pile on heaps of runs under particularly bright blue skies. Chris Broad, Ian Botham, Bill Athey, Allan Lamb, David Gower. Ugh. They just kept coming.
I also remember lots of pictures in the paper of Elton John hanging out with the English team. Do pop stars still hang out with cricket stars? I miss those days.
There were a few bright spots for Australia.
Geoff Marsh and especially Dean Jone established themselves as Test quality batsmen.
Steve Waugh had a strong all-round series – the fact he didn’t score a century until 1989 is forever brought up, implying that he was some incomplete player until then, but in this series he regularly scored runs and took wickets. His batting was far more consistent than David Boon, who lost form, and Greg Ritchie, who regularly got starts but couldn’t get past 50.
Bruce Reid bowled well. Tim Zoehrer was a solid keeper. Greg Matthews suffered a surprising drop in form but this was compensated for by a rather charming Test recall for Peter Sleep. New bowlers Merv Hughes and Chris Matthews showed promise.
Most of all there was the fairytale Test debut for spinner Peter Taylor, plucked from obscurity to help bowl Australia to victory in that fifth Test – the one game from this summer that everyone remembers. The one over everyone remembers is that ODI where Allan Lamb scored 18 runs off Bruce Reid to win the match.
Reciting all this and you wonder why Australia lost so badly in 1986-87. England’s bowling wasn’t exactly a powerhouse – Phil DeFreitas, Phil Edmonds, John Emburey, Graham Dilley, Gladstone Small, fat era Ian Botham.
But England’s players stepped up when it counted. Chris Broad scored three Test centuries. John Emburey and Phil Edmonds teamed magnificently. Pundits whine about how hard it is for foreign spinners in Australia, but some of them do just fine.
Botham scored a momentum-changing century on the second day of the first Test. At the Boxing Day Test we were destroyed by Gladstone Small.
It was a great summer to be English in Australia – Vic Marks didn’t play any Tests but he helped bowl WA to a Sheffield Shield title.
Were there any things we could have done differently to change this?
Are there any lessons that can be learned that apply today? I came up with five.
1. Pick a balanced side
Generally the Australian selectors did this well… five batsmen, two all-rounders, three bowlers and a specialist keeper.
The one time they departed from this formula was in the fourth Test and it ended in disaster.
Australia had to win it – we were down 1-0 and England held the Ashes – and the selectors were worried about our bowling so they panicked and picked four batsmen and three all-rounders (Matthews, Waugh, Peter Sleep) hoping that would be enough. England romped home by an innings.
Allan Border had wanted five batsman and was overruled. Considering that extra batsman was Greg “I get puffed when I reach 40” Ritchie, maybe Australia would have lost anyway… but surely not as badly?
Remember kids – if five bowlers can’t do the job, then it’s not likely six will either.
2. Be careful blooding too many inexperienced players at the one time
That summer Australia were unable to draw on the services of the South African rebel tourists.
This particularly weakened our fast bowling stocks and caused the selectors to get a little silly. Greg Chappell was on the panel.
Their fast bowlers for the first Test were Bruce Reid, Chris Matthews and Merv Hughes, with Geoff Lawson 12th man and Craig McDermott omitted.
In hindsight this was a mistake. Actually, at the time, people said it was a mistake.
Matthews and Hughes both had excellent Shield seasons and deserved national selection at some stage but it was an error to blood them at the same time – Hughes had only played one Test, and it was Matthews’ debut – especially as Bruce Reid had only played eight Tests. The all-rounders, Greg Matthews and Steve Waugh, were relatively green too.
Australia should have played Lawson and/or McDermott in every Test – they needed their experience. Lawson’s back did plague him throughout the summer and ruled him out of action after the second Test.
I’m not sure what McDermott did to annoy the selectors. He took 58 first-class wickets that summer at 22 but only played the one Test. Maybe they were trying to teach him a lesson or something. But it was a mistake to use him so little.
3. Are fairytales worth it?
Peter Taylor’s fairytale Test debut was a wonderful thing… but Taylor’s subsequent Test career was underwhelming, although he proved to be a supberb ODI bowler.
I often wonder if Australia wouldn’t have done just as well picking Tim May, who had a stronger first-class record (43 wickets that summer).
Peter Sleep’s wickets were just as vital in the fifth Test but no one remembers them because there was no fairytale element in his recall. Poor old Sound-a. Good cricketer.
4. Captaincy matters
Allan Border deservedly became a legend but that doesn’t change the fact his captaincy that summer was notoriously uninspired. He was consistently on the defensive, particularly whenever Ian Botham became involved in the game. This was especially notable in the first Test, when not only did Border send England in to bat, but when Botham came to the crease, Australia went on the defensive. Botham wound up smashing a century, giving the momentum to England, which they never relinquished.
Things got so bad that Dirk Wellham returned for the fifth Test, a one-off selection (he did play some ODIs), partly because of his batting but mostly to give Border help with the captaincy.
Border would get better as a leader. But it took time. Mike Gatting had it all over him that summer.
5. A defeat isn’t the worst thing in the world if you don’t panic
Now for a walk on the sunny side.
In hindsight, the 1986-87 summer was a turning point in the way the previous summers weren’t. Looking back, this truly was when Australia bottomed out.
Traditionally when Australia lose the Ashes at home it makes the powers-that-be go into a panic, and do things like hire Pat Howard (after 2010-11), beg Kerry Packer for forgiveness (1978-79) or sack the captain (1970-71).
To their credit, in 1986-87 they did not do this. They kept faith in Border (probably due to lack of alternatives as much as anything else) and the key core of the team. And in 1987, Border led the side to an unexpected win at the World Cup, beating a Gatting-led England in the final.
This kicked off a comeback for Australian cricket – shaky at first (narrowly beating New Zealand in 1987-88, losing to the West Indies and Pakistan in 1988-89) but improving steadily, leading to the 1989 Ashes triumph, which featured many players from 86-87 (Boon, Marsh, Border, Jones, Waugh, Lawson, Hughes).
Gatting’s England team, so dominant in Australia, went in the opposite direction – they were unable to beat Pakistan, New Zealand or the West Indies, leading to Gatting getting the boot as captain. He then led many of his 1986-87 squad on a 1990 rebel tour to South Africa, contributing to the basket case that was English cricket in the 1990s.
So the 1986-87 Ashes weren’t as bad for Australia as it seemed at the time – or as good for England.
It was still pretty traumatic to watch if you weren’t English, mind.