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How Australia could have won the 1989 Ashes 6-0

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Roar Guru
1st November, 2021
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Despite Australia’s wonderful performance in crushing England 4-0 in 1989, there were actually three occasions when they approached the situation in an extremely negative manner.

These were the three occasions in the series where they batted in the third innings of the match.

In the first Test, both sides scoring heavily in their respective first innings. That saw Australia bat until past the halfway point of the final day, only reinserting England with about 40 minutes to go before lunch. This gave them very little chance of forcing a win, and that they were then able to do so was mainly down to one bowler, Terry Alderman.

Allan Border should have had a lot more faith in Alderman to start with, given that Alderman possessed priceless experience in English conditions to the tune of more than 40 wickets in a previous series there.

There was also a fully fit-again Geoff Lawson, who had actually spearheaded an Ashes triumph to the tune of 34 wickets six and a half years earlier in none other than Dennis Lillee’s almost complete absence from that 1982-83 series.

I am left wondering why Border felt he needed to get 400 in front with only 70 overs of playing time left in the match before he felt safe from defeat?

Allan Border

(Credit: Ben Radford/Allsport via Getty Images)

Australia’s second innings lasted 54.5 overs before the declaration, and the unbroken partnership of 101 between Border and Dean Jones came at a run a ball after the third wicket went down at 129 around the 39-over mark.

It appears as though Border was not even willing to allow his batsmen to play aggressively until the lead was past 300. This was excessive in a very negative way.

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With a first-innings lead of 171, why not go hell for leather for 25 overs and try and get to 150 in that time, even if it means losing five or six wickets?

Surely reaching 6-160 with a lead of 331, and leaving about seven overs at the Poms on the fourth evening, would have been better than 3-230 and only leaving a little over two sessions on the final day?

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It’s not like they could stuff it up in so few overs. In the previous two series when Australia had been hammered, their lowest bowled out total had been 129, and that score alone already has the lead at an even 300, which England would have been extremely unlikely to chase down.

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By mid-1989, Dean Jones had become the best one-day batsman in the world, and Geoff Marsh was probably the best one-day opener by then, so why not open with those two and approach it like the back end of a one-day innings?

Border and Steve Waugh could follow at three and four, and then even promote Ian Healy to five if things were going well. Hold David Boon and Mark Taylor back in reserve in case things go pear shaped and a little digging in and batting out some time was required.

Steve Waugh

(Credit: Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images)

In this scenario, lasting 35 overs already gets them safely to stumps on that fourth day and the lead will still already be in the 310-320 region in any case, and they then have a full day at the opposition.

I wonder how it might have affected the course of the series had England batted out the final day finishing seven or eight down and still barely within 100 runs of a such a lower target range?

It didn’t cost them in the first Test, nor did it cost them the series, obviously, but such a negative mindset in this specific type of match situation certainly cost them a genuine chance of winning 5-0 and even an outside chance of 6-0, despite the weather-marred nature of the third and sixth Tests.

Fast forward to the Oval, the series finale, and Australia lead by 270 as Boon and Taylor plod along to stumps on Day 4 at strike rates of 35 and 40 respectively.

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They were 1-87 at that point off 40 overs, and then scored 3-132 off a further 23 the following day, which although it took the lead beyond 400, it only left them 46 overs at England after a further 20 overs of playing time was lost on the final day.

For goodness sake, 4-0 up in the series and you can’t back your batsmen to make 150 or more off 30 overs to get more than 330 in front and give your bowlers seven or eight overs before stumps?

Again, if things went really well, they might reach 7-185 off 30 or less, and surely that would have been better than 4-219 batting until nearly lunch on the final day?

Given England finished 5-143 off the 46 overs they faced on the final day, it’s a fairly reasonable assumption Australia could have finished them off quite comfortably if they had had 75-80 overs at them with a buffer of close to or even beyond 350 to work with.

So now let’s flash back to the third Test, with Australia leading 2-0. I remember hearing the news reader say at the time: “Allan Border believes Australia can still win the third Test”.

This was between the fourth and fifth days and it all supposedly rested on cleaning up England for 224 or less and therefore being able to enforce the follow-on.

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Generic Ashes urn

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, England scraped past the follow-on target with their number ten and 11 together, and with still more time to be lost in the remainder of the fifth and final day, there could now only be one outcome.

That is, Australia batting out whatever time they got on the final day for a glorified centre wicket practice. But was there really no other option?

If I make a loose assumption that play was called off half an hour before the scheduled finish time on the final day, as was customary in this type of circumstances back in those days, then there were still – allowing for the changeover from third to fourth innings – around 70 overs of playing time left when Australia began their second innings. That’s even after subsequent time was lost.

If Australia throw the bat for 20 overs, they only have to reach 117 and England have to chase 300 off 50 overs. This was quite a few years before any team ever succeeded in chasing down 300 in a limited-overs match, and many years before it would become even a semi-regular event.

Could Australia have bowled England out in so few overs? Probably not, but they could have given it a damn good shake, and the only remote possibility of Australia losing that third Test would have been if they had declared their second innings at 0-0 without even padding up, as Geoff Lawson famously did in a Sheffield Shield match a few summers later.

All three of those occasions outlined involved Boon and Taylor plodding along for a sizeable portion of the third innings for strike rates of 53.6, 45.3, 40, 34.6, 34.5 and 19.6, occupying in total for the two of them across those three innings 694 balls – that’s some 115 overs or an average of nearly 40 overs each time!

Mark Taylor

(Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport/Getty Images)

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Not once did any of the top order drop down to allow stroke players like Jones and Steve Waugh to take control of the situation, and only once was the batting order altered at all – Ian Healy being allowed some batting practice at number four in the middle of those three occasions outlined, after Border and company had obviously decided the match had only one possible outcome from that point.

Australia still won 4-0 and this extremely negative approach in those three specific situations that 1989 series by Taylor and Boon in particular really came back to haunt Australia roughly four and a half years later against South Africa in Sydney.

On that occasion in January 1994, those two plodding along so slowly for so long kept South Africa interested in a miracle, when Australia should have been looking to close out the match by the close of play that penultimate evening.

Allan Border did some wonderful things for Australian cricket, as we know, but even after bagging his first series win in charge, a good three years after taking on the job, despite the rise and rise of our Test stocks from there on in, there were still some negatives here and there that cost us big on at least one occasion.

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