Everything ever written about the South African cricket team of 1969-70 that beat Australia 4-0 refers to it as “great” team that was invincible.
In the words of many writers including Mark Nicholas prominently and repeatedly and George Dobell recently, the side would have matched and thrashed the West Indies sides of 1980s.
However, very little though has been given to the background circumstances of the Australians that toured South Africa.
The Australians were a tired and ageing team who’d been touring the heat and dust of Sri Lanka and India for three and a half months staying in poor quality hotels. At the time many of the leading players from England would routinely refuse to tour India and Pakistan due to poor quality hotels, travelling, dead pitches and umpiring.
The start of the tour was in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon and not having Test status) on 15 October 1960 and the last Test against South Africa ended on 10 March 1970.
Riots and demonstrations on the India part of the tour were commonplace with players under regular threats from demonstrating crowds and general political unrest.
In neighbouring Pakistan, England were forced to abandon their tour in somewhat similar circumstances six months earlier. The Australians were not battle hardened but weary men.
As the captain Bill Lawry said at the time “we dropped 16 catches in four Tests and that was due to mental and physical fatigue”.
Lawry retired soon afterwards. The main Australian batsman Ian Chappell lost form just at the wrong time.
The Australian bowling attack in South Africa was shocking. Graham McKenzie was at the end of his career like Lawry and had played all the test in India.
Apart from being tired he was also unwell throughout. Of the other pace bowlers Allan Connolly played only one more test and retired while Eric Freeman and Laurie Mayne never played Test cricket again.
Of the spinners Ashley Mallet had a successful India tour but only played one test while “mystery spinner” John Gleeson was thrashed and soon disappeared from cricket.
It is fair to say that the only mystery about Gleeson was that he managed to play so many tests simply around the hype surrounding him rather ability.
He was never threatening and, much like John Embrey and Roger Harper, played because there was no one better and at the time any spinner was seen to be “balancing” an attack.
Neither of the touring wicketkeepers ever played for Australia again.
There were issues too about pay and other matters with Australian cricket authorities
New legends of Australian cricket Rod Marsh, Greg Chappell and Dennis Lille were introduced just six months later against England and the likes of Bob Massie, Ross Edwards introduced within 12 months.
Meanwhile the South Africans hadn’t played a test match for three years and were hungry and raring to go on their home patch.
They were a good team too with the Pollock brothers, Barry Richards and Mike Proctor. No doubt they played on green pitches to suit their fast bowlers and the South African umpires would have given the benefit of the doubts to South Africa.
Above all the South Africans would have made sure that the Australians enjoyed themselves as much as possible on the party scene after three months in India.
South Africa were a very good side but no where near the class of the West Indies, perhaps they might have become a great side in time.
Greatness isn’t and should be measured over such a short period. They would certainly have been stronger with Basil D’Oliveira playing for them instead of HR “Tiger” Lance but for the apartheid quota system in place that required everyone to be white.
The South African success should be balanced against the ageing, tired Australians who had been playing and travelling in difficult conditions away from home for the best part of six months.
The Australian bowling was one the most impotent attacks ever to take the field for Australia so little wonder that South Africa put up huge scores in every test.
For the Australians it really was a tour that started in 60s and ended in the 70s.