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Test touring sides we should have picked: Australia versus India 1979-80

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Roar Guru
15th November, 2021
26

Australia’s 1979 tour of India is a fascinating one for many reasons.

The first time India beat Australia in a series. The last series the official Australian team played without World Series Cricket players. The true dawn of the international careers of Allan Border and Kim Hughes.

The first time in 11 years India had played without one of their three legendary spinners: BS Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi and EAS Prasanna.

It’s a series not hugely well remembered in Australia – there were no equivalents of, say, the second tied Test, or the Doug Walters-inspired riot – and press coverage was limited.

But it’s not entirely forgotten either. I remember being well aware of it growing up, mainly via statistical reasons (there were a lot of big partnerships involving Graham Yallop, Kim Hughes and Allan Border).

I assume Indian cricket fans recall it with fondness – they won 2-0 and that might’ve been 4-0 if not for rain. It was the dawn of a new era for them as well, though this piece will be very Australian-focused. (For an Indian point of view, this article is highly recommended).

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Some background. A World Series Cricket-free Australia had beaten India at home 3-2 over the 1977-78 summer. However that was at home, with local pitches and umpires, and under the captaincy of Bob Simpson who had since retired (again).

After that series, the Australians had found things tougher – they’d lost to the West Indies 3-1 and England 5-1, drew 1-1 against Pakistan, and had a disastrous 1979 World Cup.

The squad selected to tour India was as follows:

Batters
1. Kim Hughes (captain)
2. Andrew Hilditch (vice-captain)
3. Graeme Wood
4. Rick Darling
5. Allan Border
6. Graham Yallop
7. Dav Whatmore

Wicketkeeper
8. Kevin Wright (with Yallop as the reserve)

Fast bowlers
9. Rodney Hogg
10. Alan Hurst
11. Geoff Dymock
12. Graeme Porter

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Spinners
13. Bruce Yardley
14. Peter Sleep
15. Jim Higgs

It was a very inexperienced squad. Half had never toured with the national side before, none had been to India. (To be fair, Australia hadn’t been to India for ten years.)

Was this the best team that could have been taken (taking the WSC players out of the equation)?

Let’s first look at the locks and/or the unsurprising selections.

Graham Yallop

(S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

India wasn’t known as a fast bowler’s paradise but Hogg and Hurst both had superb summers in 1978-79, Hogg particularly. Geoff Dymock had also done well and had been super consistent over the years – he deserved his nod.

Bruce Yardley and Jim Higgs were established, solid spinners who had been picked with regularity over the last 12 months. Higgs was the better bowler but poor in the field and with the bat, areas where Yardley was strong. They counter balanced each other nicely.

Graham Yallop had been dropped as Australia’s captain but was probably the best batsman in the side. Kim Hughes had started and ended the summer well. Border had only just made his international debut that summer but had done well and offered a useful part-time spin bowling option.

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Now for the more borderline cases.

Rick Darling and Graeme Wood had been erratic, earning a reputation as the Kamikaze kids for running each other out and Wood had been dropped for the series against Pakistan, replaced by Hilditch.

Baggy green

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

However Australia’s victories that summer tended to come when either of Darling and/or Wood did well and I think the selectors wanted an extra specialist opener.

Andrew Hilditch was greener than even Border but had played some handy innings following his debut and was the one batsman to do okay at the ’79 World Cup.

His sensible nature and leadership qualities were so highly regarded he was appointed vice captain over Yallop. (Hilditch, Yallop and Hughes would be the three selectors on tour.)

Dav Whatmore had been a very consistent part of a hugely successful Victorian side. He was a smart operator too. Many attributed Victoria’s Shield wins in ’78-79 and ’79-80 more to the leadership of Whatmore than the actual captain, Graham Yallop (that may be unfair, but I have read it, and the post-playing career of both men tends to support that).

He got the nod over others who had played Test cricket that summer including Jeff Moss, Trevor Laughlin, Gary Cosier, Peter Toohey and Phil Carlson. Of these the drop in form of Toohey and Cosier was the hardest to bear, as both had done so well in the past.

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Generic cricket balls.

(Credit: Swamibu/CC BY-NC 2.0)

I really like Whatmore but I actually would’ve shown faith in Toohey, if only because he had done so well in the past against spin and had more experience.

I really like Cosier too, who offered a part time bowling option, but he’d been in decline for a few years now and one senses he would’ve struggled in India (Cosier played on for a few more years but never recaptured the form that earned him international selection; Toohey did).

Jeff Moss was unlucky, having enjoyed a great Shield season and playing a Test but ’78-79 was his first really good season. Laughlin and Carlson were bits-and-pieces all-rounders whose selection had been disastrous; no one seemed too upset when they were omitted (for Tests that is – I think both were under-used as potential ODI players).

Overall, I can’t criticise the selectors too much for the choices they made when it became to batters. With one exception.

I would’ve taken an extra batter. Seven was too few for a six-Test series, especially for such an inexperienced line-up.

And that extra one should’ve been John Inverarity, who should’ve been captain over Hughes, and who was still playing, and in good form, and could bowl.

They should’ve made Inverarity vice-captain to Simpson in ’77-78, and as captain over first Yallop and then Hughes in ’78-79 (the selectors had two opportunities to rectify that mistake). It was the key mistake of the tour.

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John Inverarity (left) and Darren Lehmann.

John Inverarity (left) is perhaps better known for his period as a selector. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

As for the non-batters…

Kevin Wright was a decent keeper. He had replaced John Maclean, who had been vice-captain. Maclean’s experience would’ve been invaluable in India but he’d been dropped during the Ashes after a drop in form following a nasty injury, and he ended up retiring from first-class cricket at the end of the ’78-79 summer.

The third spinner, Peter Sleep, had just been voted Sheffield Shield player of the year, with 47 first-class wickets at 27 and 657 runs at 33 over the summer, and had already played one Test. It would’ve been hard not to pick him.

They must’ve considered taking Dave Hourn, who had 42 first-class wickets at 32 that season (and 49 the season before). But Hourn was a poor fielder and batter; Sleep was very strong in both those areas. I can’t blame them for picking Sleep.

Porter was a random selection – it even surprised Porter. They should’ve gone with Wayne Clark, who had played Tests, and took 35 wickets that summer. Medium pacers do well over there.

This is the squad I would have taken, trying not to be too wise in hindsight:
1. John Inverarity (captain)
2. Andrew Hilditch
3. Rick Darling
4. Graham Yallop
5. Allan Border
6. Kim Hughes
7. Peter Toohey
8. Graeme Wood
9. Kevin Wright
10. Rodney Hogg
11. Alan Hurst
12. Geoff Dymock
13. Wayne Clark
14. Bruce Yardley
15. Jim Higgs
16. Peter Sleep

Kim Hughes

(Photo by Murrell/Allsport/Getty Images)

So what happened on the tour?

Australia’s first Test side was as follows:
1. Hilditch
2. Wood
3. Border
4. Hughes
5. Yallop
6. Whatmore (replacing an injured Darling)
7. Wright
8. Dymock
9. Hogg
10. Hurst
11. Higgs

Border and Hughes batted magnificently, as they would throughout the tour. Hogg struggled, as he would throughout the tour. Australia got in a strong position on the first day but collapsed and only rain and some handy tail end batting saw them escape with a draw.

For the second Test, Darling came in for Whatmore and Yardley for Dymock.

Australia’s bowlers really struggled and India had the better of another draw. The home team probably would have won if not for rain.

In the third Test Dymock replaced Hurst, who had back trouble – so bad it prematurely ended his career (Geoff Lawson was flown out to replace him but did not play a Test).

India flag

(Photo by Simon Cross/Getty Images)

This was the first game Australia had a chance of winning due to some magnificent bowling from Dymock, but a number of dropped catches in India’s second innings and a batting collapse saw India take the game.

India had the upper hand for the fourth Test where an injured Bruce Yardley was replaced by Peter Sleep. However the game ended in a draw due to some fighting Australian batting.

Australia’s best chance to win a match came in the fifth Test, in which Yardley replaced Sleep.

Australia was in front for most of the game, declaring in their second innings, but the bowlers couldn’t break through and another draw resulted.

The wheels fell off in the sixth Test where Australia lost Yardley to injury and India won by an innings.

Australia didn’t win a game all tour but I think the 1979 expedition can’t be regarded as a fiasco. Australia did better than say their 2013 counterparts; they had a chance of winning two Tests and had the upper hand in most tour games.

Border, Hughes and Dymock had excellent tours; Yallop had a pretty good one (doing better as opener, surprisingly).

Allan Border

(Credit: Ben Radford/Allsport via Getty Images)

But they lacked support. Hogg had a rotten trip – he was pelted with fruit, kicked over stumps and was constantly no balled. Although he was not as bad as poor old Hurst, whose career ended with injury.

Wood, Hilditch, Darling, Higgs and Yardley had disappointing series. Sleep struggled in his one game. Porter never got a look in. Test averages are here.

Could this side have defeated India?

1. Wood/Darling
2. Hilditch
3. Yallop
4. Hughes
5. Inverarity (captain)
6. Border
7. Wright
8. Yardley/Sleep/Clark
9. Hogg
10. Hurst/Dymock
11. Higgs

I’m not sure. Hogg and Hurst had been so good and then didn’t deliver – in hindsight we would’ve been better off if both bowlers had been ruled out of the tour due to injury but who could have predicted that?

No one could have predicted Hilditch, Wood and Darling being so average. Catches were dropped. I think Toohey and Clark should’ve been picked over Whatmore and Porter but I can’t guarantee they would’ve done better. Maybe Hourn would have done better than Sleep – who knows?

I do think Inverarity’s leadership could only have helped (though there were no scandals from Hughes on this tour); ditto his part-time off spinners.

Even if he underperformed with the bat he surely couldn’t have done worse than Whatmore, or the openers. I actually think the selectors of the 1979 tour did a decent enough job except for overlooking Inverarity.

The Australian squad that toured India missed the first few rounds of Shield cricket in ’79-80. The next Test played was against the West Indies.

Eight of the 12 players selected were from World Series Cricket, including Greg Chappell as captain (despite some tactless public lobbying from Hughes for the job).

But Hughes, Border, Hogg and Dymock were kept in the side and Hughes was appointed vice-captain.

While some of the 1979 tourists would never play international cricket again (Whatmore, Wright, Porter, Hurst) the others did, all having decent runs at some point or another (Hilditch, Wood, Yallop, Sleep, Yardley, Higgs, Lawson).

Darling had a run in the ODI team, Whatmore became a top international coach, and Hurst surely would’ve played again if his back hadn’t packed it in.

The Australian team that toured India in 1979… it did alright.

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