The latest in my deep dives into hypothetical Test XIs takes me to the notorious Ashes tour of 1985.
This isn’t one of the famous Ashes series – for instance, it’s always been outshone by 1981 and 1989 – but in many ways was one of the most fascinating, being full of drama and intrigue.
Australia lost it 3-1 and I’ve always wondered if there was anything we could have done differently selection-wise (I say ‘we’ in a purely proprietorial fan sense that has no basis in actual logic or reality).
For me, the problems with the Australian side for this series actually began in 1984 with two key events. No, not the retirement of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh (they couldn’t play forever) but insisting on Kim Hughes as permanent captain and picking Wayne Phillips as keeper.
Hughes wasn’t up to the top job, as had been frequently shown, but the board had too much invested in his success to back out now. Hughes led Australia to five defeats in a row, resigned the captaincy in tears, then failed over two more Tests and was dropped.
The mistake of making Wayne Phillips learn his wicketkeeping trade at international level was less obvious at the time, but would cost Australia even more Tests.
In March 1985 the squad to tour England was announced:
1. Allan Border (captain)
2. Andrew Hilditch (vice-captain)
3. Graeme Wood
4. Greg Ritchie
5. Kepler Wessels
6. David Boon
7. Dirk Wellham
8. Terry Alderman
9. Geoff Lawson
10. Craig McDermott
11. Rod McCurdy
12. Murray Bennett
13. Bob Holland
14. Greg Matthews
15. Simon O’Donnell
16. Wayne Phillips
17. Steve Rixon
Let’s look at that squad up close. Border and Wessels were locks. Hilditch had come back from a long Test absence to score a marvellous century against the West Indies, and was held in high regard as a leader. Ritchie and Boon were young up-and-comers (Boon had been voted Sheffield Shield player of the year). Wood was experienced.
Then there was Dirk Wellham. A very consistent batter, very successful captain of a strong New South Wales side, and the selectors wanted to give Border some captaincy back up. Wellham was picked over Kim Hughes, who apparently wasn’t in the running – Greg Chappell, by then a selector, has admitted he wanted Hughes to get his head together or something.
For the bowlers, Geoff Lawson was a lock and everyone was very excited about Craig McDermott, and the prospect of Terry Alderman returning to England. Rod McCurdy was a solid performer expected to do well in England.
Wayne Phillips was the established keeper, whose performances with the bat were (it was felt at the time) enough to compensate for his work behind the stumps. Steve Rixon, who should’ve been the established keeper, was a good back-up.
Bob Holland was Australia’s best leg spinner since Jim Higgs – he and Murray Bennett were architects of a recent victory over the Windies at the SCG and deserved their spots.
Greg Matthews was a lot more lucky but had, as they say, potential. The same could be said for Simon O’Donnell, who thrilled the hearts of cricket fans (and journos) with his handsome looks and all-rounder-ness. Both players were good but neither deserved to be picked.
They were the weaknesses in the squad. I would have taken two specialists: for a batsman, either Kim Hughes or Dean Jones, who had played Tests by then, and for a bowler Ken MacLeay, who would’ve done well in England.
Still, an attack of Alderman, Lawson, McDermott and Holland was potent.
Then came the bombshell – it turned out several players in that squad had signed to tour South Africa: Wood, Wellham, Alderman, McCurdy, Bennett, Phillips and Rixon. Hilditch had been in deep discussions with the South Africans but not actually signed.
Wood, Phillips and Wellham were offered financial inducements by Kerry Packer to change their minds, which they did. The remaining players objected to them going regardless but their wishes were overruled by the board and they went.
Bennett had changed his mind of his own accord and was allowed to go. McCurdy, Alderman and Rixon were not offered any Packer deal, stuck with the South Africans and were dropped, replaced by Carl Rackeman, John Maguire and Ray Phillips – all very good alternatives, by the way.
Then Rackemann and Maguire admitted they’d signed to go to South Africa too, and were replaced by David Gilbert and Jeff Thomson – less impressive substitutes.
Ken Macleay doesn’t seem to have been in the running. Kim Hughes got annoyed and decided to tour South Africa as well. If he hadn’t, I reckon he would’ve been back in the national side for ’85-86, but Hughes was never very patient.
The team jetted off to England for what promised to be a tough series with third-string pace bowlers. But Lawson, McDermott and Holland were all match winners and the batting wasn’t bad.
The Australian side for the first match was:
7. W. Phillips
This was a foolishly chosen side. There was no spin option – Border got spooked after Holland was tonked in the one county game and decided to go for the ageing Thomson.
To compound things they picked O’Donnell as the fourth bowler on the basis of not his bowling, but a century he’d scored in a county game (he took 0-77 with the ball, incidentally). Australia had a batting-strong, bowling-weak squad and decided to… boost the batting and weaken the bowling.
The problem with the 1985 Ashes squad was there were only three bowlers who could win you games – Holland, Lawson and McDermott. This isn’t wisdom in hindsight, it’s what the press thought at the time.
These three needed to play in every Test. Then for the fourth bowler you needed either a specialist (they should’ve gone with Bennett) or played two all-rounders in tandem.
O’Donnell and Matthews shouldn’t have been picked in the squad, but if you wanted to play them, you needed to do it in tandem. And they needed a keeper who would take all his catches and stumping chances.
This is the side they should’ve played:
1. Wayne Phillips (as a batsman, he had a better record than Wood)
2. Hilditch (he hooked himself out of the game later in the series but we didn’t know that at the start)
6. O’Donnell or a specialist batsman like Wellham or Boon
7. Greg Matthews or a specialist bowler like Bennett or Gilbert
8. Ray Phillips (wicketkeeper)
That’s a decent side. It’s got three bowlers who can win games, a solid keeper, exciting batsmen, part timers who can support the strike bowlers (including Kepler Wessels).
Anyway, Australia lost the first Test.
Holland came into the side for the second Test in place of Thomson. Australia won this game by four wickets, due mostly to Allan Border’s scores of 196 and 41 not out, and five-wicket hauls to McDermott and Holland.
Australia kept the same side for the third Test, which ended in a heavy scoring draw.
Border realised Australia was struggling to dismiss England but instead of replacing the wicketkeeper or O’Donnell for a specialist like he should have, he swapped the injured Graeme Wood for all-rounder Greg Matthews – this is the one time Australia used the two all-rounders in tandem method I discussed earlier.
Australia managed to escape with a draw due to a second-innings century from Allan Border.
For the fifth Test Wood returned and Matthews was dropped. However Australia decided to boost the bowling by dropping Boon for Jeff Thomson. Australia lost the game by an innings.
Australia dropped O’Donnell for the sixth and final Test, bringing in Dirk Wellham, and replacing Holland with Murray Bennett and Jeff Thomson with Gilbert. Australia lost this game by an innings as well. England won the series 3-1.
Australia did have a lot of challenges in England in 1985. They lost the South African defectors (not an issue for the batting or spinners but definitely for the fast bowling) and had to face an English side with its South African rebels back in the side (that team we beat in 1982-83 was weakened by defections).
The frustrating thing was Australia had so much potential. Five batsmen who scored at least 350 runs for the series, one paceman who took 30 wickets (McDermott), and another who took 22 (Lawson). Those sort of figures mean you’re in with a chance.
But the next best bowler was Holland, who took six wickets at 77.5. If Holland had the support of a stronger keeper and bowling attack, who knows?
Australia made it harder for themselves by picking a non-specialist as keeper and a bits-and-pieces all-rounder as a specialist bowler. These are mistakes we must avoid at all costs. We eventually learned those lessons… but by then the Test careers of Wayne Phillips and Bob Holland were over and it’s a shame.