I’ve decided to do another deep dive into cricket nerd-dom with a series on – wait for it – Australian Test XIs we should have selected.
It’s a completely indulgent exercise just for fun, though I will try to give it some relevance for today. To kick off I thought I’d tackle one of my favourite series: Australia vs India in 1977-78, the official Tests during the first summer of World Series Cricket.
I have no personal memories of this summer, this is all purely based on stuff I’ve read, but to me, it was one of the greatest series of all time: sort of Lagaan meets The Replacements.
You had an Australian side gutted of its stars; an Indian team full of champions, determined to prove themselves on Australian shores; a crusty old veteran called out of retirement to lead a rag tag team of young blokes, a champion who’d rather be with his mates in World Series Cricket, and veterans who thought their chance had past them by having one last shot at glory; World Series Cricket and its millionaire backer sniping from the sidelines.
First, some backstory. During the 1977 Ashes it came out that the bulk of the Australian squad, and several more players at home (including the recently retired Ian Chappell), had signed to participate in a private cricket competition for Kerry Packer.
Big Kez then turned around and offered to make ‘his’ players available for official Tests provided the Australian Cricket Board gave Channel Nine the rights to broadcast cricket. In hindsight the Board should have caved in then and there (all they would have lost is some pride and second-rate ABC coverage), but just like General Hamilton ordering the troops to dig in at Gallipoli on Day 1, sometimes people find it easier to fight a pointless campaign they can’t win rather than just admit they’ve been outfoxed and save everyone a lot of trouble.
But who would be left to play for Australia? Only four players in the squad had been overlooked by Packer (i.e. Ian Chappell didn’t rate them): Gary Cosier, Kim Hughes, Geoff Dymock and Craig Serjeant (the latter was offered a contract but turned it down). So you had them, at least.
Then the establishment received two big breaks. First, Jeff Thomson, then the fastest bowler in the world, had to pull out of World Series Cricket due to his own financial difficulties and became available. Second, Bob Simpson agreed to come out of retirement and help captain the team. Simpson hadn’t played a Test since 1968 but was still active in grade cricket.
So you had six players now. Five to go.
If the selectors had gone off available Shield cricketers who had prior Test (or at least international) experience the team for the first could’ve looked like this:
1. Alan Turner (14 Tests, only recently dropped from the Test side, turned down a chance to join World Series Cricket out of loyalty to his employer Benson and Hedges)
2. Bob Simpson (captain) (retired legend, 52 Tests)
3. Kim Hughes (one Test)
4. Craig Serjeant (vice-captain) (three Tests)
5. John Inverarity (six Tests from 1968-72, WA captain)
6. Gary Cosier (nine Tests)
7. John Maclean (no Tests but he toured New Zealand with an Australian XI in 1970, only just pipped for national honours by Rod Marsh, Queensland captain) (wicketkeeper)
8. Jeff Thomson (current legend, 22 Tests)
9. Geoff Dymock (four Tests)
10. Alan Hurst (one Test)
11. Jim Higgs (no Tests but he toured with the Australian squad in England in 1975)
12. Graham Yallop (three Tests in 1975-76, not asked to join WSC)
Now that is a pretty good Test side. The batting is a little wobbly (Higgs and Hurst were notorious pure tail enders) but there’s a lot of experience. In addition to Simpson, Inverarity and Maclean had been around for a long time, and both were possible alternative captains to Simpson.
So who was picked for that first Test in Brisbane?
1. Paul Hibbert
2. Gary Cosier
3. David Ogilvie
4. Craig Serjeant (vice-captain)
5. Bob Simpson (captain)
6. Peter Toohey
7. Steve Rixon
8. Tony Mann
9. Jeff Thomson
10. Wayne Clark
11. Alan Hurst
12. Kim Hughes (12th man)
Why were these changes made?
Two players were certain picks: Simpson and Thommo.
Hurst’s selection wasn’t surprising. Geoff Dymock would’ve been upset that Wayne Clark pipped him at the post but Clark had been doing a very good job for Western Australia for a number of seasons; he’d also turned down a WSC contract, which impressed the Australian Cricket Board.
Hughes and particularly Serjeant began the season very well – their selections were expected. Indeed, Sergeant was made vice-captain. Gary Cosier’s pre-season was solid. Queenslander David Ogilvie came out of nowhere to start smashing century after century on his way to a 1000-run season and he demanded selection.
Peter Toohey was a bit of a surprise packet. He had been doing pretty well in Shield, and was from NSW so had the backing of their press corps. I’m surprised the selectors went for him over Yallop in the 12, but Yallop had a slow start to the summer – something of a constant in his career.
It was also odd Toohey was picked over Hughes in the final XI. Most contemporary observers predicted the West Australian would play but Simpson was a big fan of Toohey, who reminded the captain of a young Doug Walters.
John Inverarity had been in England the previous summer and started the season slowly. He appears to have never been in the running for Test selection.
Paul Hibbert was a complete wild card – he’d only scored his debut first class century just before the first Test. The selectors wanted one specialist opener in the side. Simpson wanted to bat down the order and Alan Turner’s form was rotten – indeed, it was so bad Turner would retire from first class cricket by the end of the summer. Another player with Test experience, Ashley Woodcock, was not in good form either.
Tony Mann’s selection was also something of a surprise. He was generally acknowledged to be an inferior spinner to Jim Higgs but Mann was a superb fielder and useful batsman – both areas where Higgs was sorely lacking. This got Mann over the line. Sam Loxton, a selector at the time, also told me Don Bradman was an admired of Tony Mann’s. That couldn’t have hurt.
As for Rixon over Maclean… this was considered a big surprise at the time. Rixon was an excellent keeper but so was Maclean, and Maclean had considerably more experience. I can only put this down to the fact that Rixon was younger, and Simpson was more comfortable with a fellow New South Welshman. Perhaps Simpson also considered Maclean a threat to his authority – that’s just speculation, though.
The first Test against India, held in Brisbane, was a thriller. Simpson and Toohey stepped up with the bat, Mann grabbed useful wickets and made some handy runs, Clark had the game of his life, Thomson and Rixon played well and Australia eaked out a narrow victory.
Hibbert was booted from the team for the second Test in Perth, rather unfairly (I don’t think he deserved to be picked in the first place but once you are, you should get two goes). In his place came not Yallop, but another New South Welshman, John Dyson.
There were two replacements due to injury – Cosier was swapped for Hughes, which surprised no one, and Hurst by Sam Gannon, which surprised everyone: Gannon was a West Australian who had only just got back in the state side. Maybe the selectors wanted another bowler familiar with Perth conditions, but Geoff Dymock must have wondered what the hell he’d done.
Anyway, it was another classic Test. The Indian batsmen had the measure of Mann’s bowling but Thomson, Clark and Gannon did well, Simpson scored a magnificent 176 and Australia managed to chase down a big second innings total thanks to a century by… Tony Mann as nightwatchman. It was Cinderella stuff.
The next two Tests, in Melbourne and Sydney, were harder for the Australians: India won both handsomely. If a few catches and umpiring decisions had gone India’s way in Brisbane and Perth, the tourists could have been up 4-0.
Going into the fifth Test, the Australian selectors wielded the axe. Mann was replaced, not by Jim Higgs (overlooked again) but by another WA spinner who hit ‘em hard and caught ‘em well, Bruce Yardley. Gannon was dumped in favour of not Geoff Dymock (overlooked again), but Victorian paceman Ian Callen.
Dyson and Serjeant were discarded in favour of two specialist openers, Graeme Wood and Rick Darling, and Hughes was replaced with, finally, Yallop. Ogilvie had been dropped after the third Test for Hughes. Yallop replaced Serjeant as vice captain.
Australia won that game – all the batsmen scored runs, all the bowlers contributed (except Thomson who broke down). It was a magnificent effort; an exciting finale to a tremendous series.
So, it seems, the selectors did their jobs well. Simpson’s return was a triumph. Out-of-the-box selections like Tony Mann and Sam Gannon helped win some matches. Previously-little-known players like Toohey, Clark and Rixon had a great series. Maybe there’s something to be said for gut feel?
Well, yes. But also, no.
Because the 1977-78 summer was the peak of establishment cricket during World Series Cricket. The official team would then tour the West Indies, losing 3-1 (to be fair, if not for a riot it would’ve been 3-2). At home they lost 5-1 to England and drew 1-1 with Pakistan (blowing a great chance to make it won 2-0), before going overseas again where they were bundled early out of the 1979 World Cup in England and lost 2-0 to India. Then the WSC wars ended and the teams were united.
In hindsight, the selectors of the 1977-78 made a number of decisions that seemed to initially pay off but had poor long term consequences. They kept chopping and changing the team, constantly making ‘brave calls’. They got away with it again India, but it caught up with them in the end.
I know it’s easy to look back and go ‘you did that wrong’ and sometimes their picks were absolutely spot on (for example Wood and Yardley) but surely even at the time it was clear the Australian team of 1977-78 was far too inexperienced for its own good.
The selectors got swept up in the romance of playing a team of kids, which sounds sexy, but having too many newbies at the one time is rarely a good idea, and so it proved with the establishment Australian team. Bob Simpson held them together for a while but started to implode on the ’78 West Indies tour before everything collapsed in a heap during the ’78-79 Ashes.
You can’t blame the selectors for picking Serjeant and Ogilvie, and Tony Mann was actually a reasonable enough choice considering they wanted a spinner who could catch and field (which ruled out Jim Higgs and David Hourn, who had a great summer with the ball). I feel for Geoff Dymock, but Clark, Hurst and Callen all deserved their chances.
Picking Hibbert, Dyson and Gannon, however, was just silly; all were fine players, great servants for their states, and Dyson had some magnificent moments at Test level later on, but none of them deserved Test selection that summer.
And the selectors went really wrong in not picking Inverarity, Yallop and Maclean for that first Test.
Look, on one hand I understand Inverarity’s omission – he hadn’t exactly been in among the runs – but he had a long, steady track record as a batsmen, fielder, and useful bowler, not to mention being one of the best cricket leaders of the 20th century… and inexperienced sides like that Australian Test side needed leaders such as him.
John MacLean could have helped that too. I always admired Steve Rixon, he played well that summer and it was shocking he wasn’t chosen as Rod Marsh’s successor in 1984, but in 1977 the team needed Maclean’s wisdom.
Yallop wasn’t a dynamic leader, as the world would see in ’78-79, but even Ian Chappell admitted he was the best player of spin in Australia, and Yallop had Test experience. Sometimes if you don’t have any specialist openers in form you’ve got to bite the bullet and use a number three.
So the team we should’ve picked that summer for the first Test – and I’ll try not to be too wise in hindsight here…
4. Inverarity (vice-captain)
6. Simpson (captain)
Now that is a longish tail but the bowling of Hurst and Higgs compensates for their batting. When Hurst got injured I would’ve bought in Clark, and when Serjeant and Ogilvie lost form I would’ve bought in Hughes and then Toohey.
Maybe this team wouldn’t have beaten India, but with four strike bowlers and two superb batsmen against spin (Yallop and Simpson) they had a damn good chance. And with Maclean and Inverarity around the side you didn’t have the immaturity vacuum that plagued the team against the West Indies, England, Pakistan and India, not to mention the World Cup.
Which brings me to my point that drags this article out of the realms of pure historical cricket nerditry and into the realm of something actually relevant to for today…
From studying history such as 1977-78, every Test side should try to have, in addition to the captain, at least two senior players who are strong captaincy alternatives – by which I mean sensible, level-headed players who have the respect of their teammates, not flighty emotional types who inspire divisive reactions. When Australia doesn’t have these, the team tends to get in trouble (Homework-gate and Sandpaper-gate).
I’m not sure that point justifies the amount I’ve written here but there you go.
Oh, and one extra thing. Several players I’ve mentioned in this article – Yardley, Mann, Hibbert, Gannon – have passed on. Also gone are two Indian players from that series, Chetan Chauhan and Ashok Mankad. Time is promised to no one. Hug your oldies next time you see them.
Anyway, 1977-78 – one of the great series of all time.