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Test XIs we should have had: 1981 Ashes

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Roar Guru
25th July, 2021
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This article in my series of Test XIs I believe we should have had looks at the 1981 Ashes, aka every English cricket fan’s favourite series.

We all know the details, right? Australia lead 1-0 going into the third Test… where England are 7-135 in the second dig, rated 500-1 to win… Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh put money down… Ian Botham’s century, Bob Willis’ 8-43 as Australia becomes the second team in history to lose after enforcing the follow-on.

Then there’s Edgbaston where Botham takes 5-1 in a spell and we lose another game we should have won and then the fifth Test where…ugh. Even writing that summary makes me feel ill.

It’s a real effort to lose an Ashes series where two of your bowlers take more than 40 wickets each, but somehow Australia managed it in 1981.

Did we take the right team? I know, I know, Greg Chappell didn’t go, and he would’ve made the difference, but even without him, was there anything we could’ve done?

I think so, absolutely – and I’m trying (honest) not to be too wise in hindsight here.

Let’s look at the squad chosen. There were eight batsmen, two spinners, two keepers, and four pace bowlers:

1) Kim Hughes (c)
2) Allan Border
3) John Dyson
4) Graeme Wood
5) Graham Yallop
6) Martin Kent
7) Dirk Wellham
8) Trevor Chappell
9) Ray Bright
10) Graeme Beard
11) Rod Marsh
12) Steve Rixon
13) Dennis Lillee
14) Terry Alderman
15) Geoff Lawson
16) Rodney Hogg

First, the non-controversial selections. Hughes, Border, Dyson, Wood, Marsh, Lillee and Hogg had all been regulars in the national side during the 80-81 summer.

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Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson together in England

Dennis Lillee (left) and Jeff Thomson. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Many thought that Marsh should’ve been captain over Hughes, and they were right, but there was too much anti-wicketkeeper-as-captain bias at the time.

Steve Rixon was an excellent keeper with Test experience, and his selection as Marsh’s back up was no surprise (though Kevin Wright had his fans).

Len Pascoe, another Test regular who’d had a superb summer, would have gone but was ruled out of the squad due to injury.

However, Australia has traditionally been blessed with abundant pacemen and the selectors could draw on two exciting new talents: Geoff Lawson and Terry Alderman. Alderman had never played a Test but it was felt his style of bowling would prosper in England – few predictions have turned out so well.

There was some minor controversy over Lawson being preferred to Jeff Thomson, who only a few years earlier had been the most feared fast bowler in the world; what’s more, that summer he had taken 46 first class wickets at 25, which was pretty good.

However, Thomson had toured England three times previously (75, 77 and 80) without ever replicating what he could do in Australia, and I think the selectors wanted to go with someone younger.

Thomson accepted an offer to play County cricket for Middlesex in 1981, with the hope that he might be called upon to help out Australia if someone got injured.

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It wasn’t a bad idea, especially with only four pacemen being taken, and indeed they did run out of fit bowlers, leading to Mike Whitney’s unlikely selection… but by that stage Thommo was injured himself.

I would say that it was silly for Australia to take only four pace bowlers for a six-Test series. That’s a lot of bowling, especially for a country that doesn’t like to play two spinners; they should have increased the squad to 17, in which case they may as well have taken Thomson.

The selection of Hughes, Border, Dyson and Wood, and the non-availability of Chappell, meant there were four spots going for batsmen. Here’s where things got a little more complicated.

Australia’s regular No.6 that summer had been Doug Walters, back in the national team after a number of years’ absence. Walters played extremely well against New Zealand and India and his non-selection for the tour surprised many.

He was 35 years old by then, it’s true, but with no Chappell that shouldn’t have been fatal; what hurt Walters more was the fact he’d toured England in ’68, ’72, ’75 and ’77 without ever doing too well. That is a fairly good sample size.

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I love Doug Walters – who didn’t love Doug Walters? – but I get why he was overlooked. If – and here’s the rub – there were decent replacements.

Graham Yallop occupies an odd space in Australian cricketing lore, “unlucky, uncelebrated, unmissed” as Christian Ryan so memorably put it.

He was a class batsman, with Test experience; he hadn’t played for Australia at home that summer but he deserved his spot.

Martin Kent’s selection was a cause for much celebration in Queensland, for whom he’d performed so well over the years.

Kent was a frustrating cricketer in many ways, with plenty of admirers (Ian Chappell recruited him for World Series Cricket over Hughes and Yallop) but he had never quite ‘broken through’ the way he always seemed about to (as a first class career average of 36 would ultimately attest).

However, in 1980-81, he scored 941 first class runs and finally seemed set for a long international career (and it might have happened too, but for a back injury that – spoilers – led to his premature retirement in 1981-82).

Kent could be a back-up opener for Wood and Dyson but I think the original plan was for him to replace Chappell and Yallop to replace Walters.

Because – and here’s where things get weird – I don’t think anyone expected the other two batsmen to appear in the Tests.

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They were Dirk Wellham and Trevor Chappell.

Trevor Chappell

Trevor Chappell (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Wellham had only played five first class games. He’d done very well, scoring 408 runs at 68 and was clearly a player for the future, but still… that’s not a lot of top grade cricket. It helped, of course, that he was from New South Wales.

Also from the Harbour Views State was Trevor Chappell, although he had originally played for South Australia, then WA. Trevor was, of course, the younger brother of Ian and Greg, forever in their shadow, but a fine cricketer in his own right.

He had been playing Shield cricket since 1972-73, a solid performer rather than a superstar; he got a World Series contract over better players (I’m guessing Ian didn’t want things to be awkward around the table at Christmastime) but did surprisingly well in those two summers against some of the best bowlers in the world.

Chappell became an integral part of a very successful Blues team in the early ’80s, scoring useful runs, taking the odd wicket, and fielding brilliantly.

He had made the Australian ODI team in 1980-81 and held his own. The underarm delivery incident that summer overshadows everything Trevor Chappell did but his bowling and fielding actually made him super handy in one-day cricket.

That summer he scored 550 first class runs at 39 and took eight wickets at 25, which isn’t too bad at all.

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The selectors thought he had Test potential; it’s often forgotten Chappell was selected 12th man for a Test over the 1980-81 summer (Shaun Graf was picked as 12th man for two Tests – we were that desperate for an all-rounder).

But Trevor Chappell’s career batting average at the time was 31. And he’d been playing since 1972.

Trevor Chappell in your ODI or state side? Absolutely.

In your Test team? No. His form didn’t warrant it and it never had previously.

Why was this decision made? I think the main reason is the selectors liked the romance of it – you know, three brothers being picked for Australia, all that – and maybe they felt sorry about the underarm.

But it was a mistake. Wellham was a mistake too. He was an excellent cricketer and captain who should’ve played more Tests, but being picked after five games is too soon.

And there were other options available.

Kim Hughes once told me he felt the biggest mistake on that tour was not taking Bruce Laird.

Kim Hughes

Kim Hughes (Photo by Murrell/Allsport/Getty Images)

Laird is great, but he had a poor domestic summer.

However, Rick McCosker, an opener with stacks of experience (including two tours of England, one very successful) had scored 571 runs at 41; McCosker was older, I know, but he was so damn consistent throughout his career he would’ve been worth his weight in gold in England.

I also liked Victoria’s super consistent batsman Jeff Moss, who made 666 first class runs that summer at 42. If they wanted someone younger, they could have gone for Greg Shipperd, 646 runs at 38, who at least was in his second full season of first class cricket.

The choice of spinners were also surprising.

Australia’s best performing ones that summer had been Bruce Yardley (47 first class wickets) and Jim Higgs (38).

Both had recently played Tests. Both had long, consistent track records. Both were overlooked in favour of Ray Bright (22 wickets at 40) and Graeme Beard (29 wickets at 25).

Higgs was notorious for his inept batting and fielding but was easily the best leg spinner in Australia. Yardley was an excellent off spinner, solid bat and useful fielder – his record was far superior to that of Beard and Bright and it’s really weird he wasn’t picked.

I think the main reason is that Yardley suffered from ‘whispers’ about his bowling action (he was called for throwing in the West Indies in 1978) and Australia and England, I have heard, had a gentleman’s agreement to not pick suspect players for Ashes Tests.

This is all conspiracy theory stuff, I have no hard proof, and Yardley did play England a few times at home, but he was overlooked for tours to England in 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1983, so something was going on.

Anyway, I guess I’d better summarise what happened on that tour. Sigh…

Australia’s batsmen generally performed badly in the lead up to the first Test, none more so than Martin Kent, who couldn’t seem to buy a run.

Trevor Chappell at least got a few decent scores, which led to him making his Test debut at Nottingham alongside Terry Alderman. Australia won a low-scoring game, mostly thanks to superb bowling from an all-pace attack; Trevor Chappell was one of our best batsmen!

For the second Test, Ray Bright came in for Rodney Hogg. People get stuck into Ian Botham’s captaincy but Australia almost lost this game thanks to a second innings collapse – Trevor Chappell’s score of 5 off 69 balls was actually crucial in helping us save the game.

Then the third Test and we all know (and have tried to forget) what happened. I’ll only point out that in that English second innings, where they recovered from 7-135 to make 356, Kim Hughes only asked Ray Bright to bowl four overs. Four.

Baggy green

(Photo by Daniel Pockett – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images )

And Trevor Chappell wasn’t used as a bowling option at all. I also feel obliged to say that Chappell put a higher price on his wicket in the second innings than Hughes, Border, Yallop or Marsh.

The fourth Test saw Hogg in for Lawson and Martin Kent for Chappell. Kent did well but the game was another legendary disaster for Australia, with our batters unable to chase down 151.

For the fifth Test, Lawson was replaced by… Mike Whitney, who was playing English County cricket. Injuries meant Australia were out of pace bowlers by this stage and we didn’t want to play two spinners.

Australia collapsed in the first innings this time, and were set 506 to win… and ended up scoring 402 of them – which isn’t bad.

The sixth Test saw Wellham in for John Dyson. Wellham scored a century in a game that Australia almost won, but England held on for a draw.

Australia’s bowling ensured we were in with a chance of winning five of the six Tests; instead, we lost 3-1. What a shocker.

Anyway, the squad I think we should have taken to England in 1981 is this:

1) Kim Hughes
2) Allan Border
3) John Dyson
4) Graeme Wood
5) Graham Yallop
6) Martin Kent
7) Rick McCosker
8) Greg Shipperd or Jeff Moss
9) Bruce Yardley
10) Jim Higgs
11) Rod Marsh (c)
12) Steve Rixon
13) Dennis Lillee
14) Terry Alderman
15) Geoff Lawson
16) Rodney Hogg
17) Jeff Thomson

Ray Bright played really well, Trevor Chappell did better than anyone remembered, Graeme Beard never got a fair shake, and Wellham’s Test century was marvellous. I still think none of them should have been taken.

I think the three crucial mistakes we made were:
a)Only taking four pace bowlers as part of the squad
b)Having Hughes as captain over Marsh, and
c)Not taking Rick McCosker.

I think there’s general agreement among cricket fans for (b), some for (a) and possibly I’m the only person in the world who thinks (c), but anyway, there you go.

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