A while back I did a few articles on touring squads we should have picked in the past – very hardcore nerd stuff, of course, but not without some use, because the past teaches us things we can learn from in the future.
This was one of the odder Ashes series, being the last official Australian tour before World Series Cricket – indeed, news of that project broke just before the first Test causing much dissension.
It turned out that not only had most (but not all) of the Australian squad signed to play with Kerry Packer, so too had several English players including their own captain, Tony Greig.
The series was not a memorable one for Australia, to put it mildly: we lost 3-0, establishing a tradition for being lousy tourists that existed, basically, until 1989.
I was too young to remember all this happening at the time but when I was a kid I got hold of an old copy of Ashes ‘77, a book on the tour by David Frith and Greg Chappell (they wrote it in tandem).
It was a fascinating read to my young eyes, a mixture of interviews and match reports, with a very ‘ripped from the headlines’ quality: the book was clearly completed very quickly after the Ashes, with all these references to the international careers of players like Greg Chappell and David Hookes basically being over (at the time it was assumed they’d be banned for life).
Australia was very much in a rebuilding phase in 1977, even without World Series Cricket. A number of key players had recently retired, most notably Ian Chappell, but also Ross Edwards, Ian Redpath and I think Ashley Mallett.
This was due to the difficulties of cricketers making a living while also playing the game for not much money, which of course was a prime (if not the prime) cause of WSC.
They also had no Dennis Lillee, who was suffering a back injury. Still, Australia’s thrilling victory over England in the 1977 Centenary Test was a cause of optimism.
The optimism turned out to be misplaced when we lost the Ashes 3-0. This is routinely blamed on the divisions of World Series Cricket (not everyone in the Australian squad was offered a contract).
But it should be pointed out England had to deal with their own issues on that one, a big chunk of their side having signed with WSC: Tony Greig, Bob Woolmer, Dennis Amiss, Derek Underwood, Alan Knott.
And they had Geoff Boycott, whom trouble tends to follow, back in the side after a long absence – so their dressing room wasn’t exactly a spa retreat either.
Is there anything Australia’s selectors could have done differently to help the situation? Could we have won that Ashes?
Let’s look at the squad that was picked:
1. Greg Chappell (captain) – one of the greatest players in the world. Not as good a captain as his brother but few were. Lock selection.
2. Rod Marsh (vice-captain) – one of the greatest wicketkeepers in the world. Lock.
3. Rick McCosker – very consistent performer for Australia since 1974-75 (despite wobbles in 1975-76 when he was replaced briefly by Graham Yallop). Had recently played one of the all-time great innings when he batted in the Centenary Test with a broken jaw. No way he wasn’t being picked.
4. Ian Davis – a selector’s pet who, after many false starts, had his first consistent international summer in 1976-77. Scored a half century in the Centenary Test. Seen as the future.
5. Gary Cosier – had scored some memorable centuries for Australia since his debut in 1975-76. His form tailed off towards the end of the summer (he failed twice in the Centenary Test) and a lot of observers felt he was lucky to get on the plane, but he did have a track record and could bowl a little too.
Cosier wasn’t really rated by the Chappells – he wasn’t offered a contract with World Series Cricket, causing a lot of awkwardness on the tour. WSC signed up several batters not picked for the Ashes, such as Rob Langer, Bruce Laird, Martin Kent and Trevor Chappell.
6. Doug Walters – hadn’t done that well in England in 1968, 1972 or 1975 but had been in brilliant form recently – a scoring a Test double century in New Zealand, for instance – and maybe it would be fourth time lucky. His experience would come in handy with such an inexperienced squad.
7. David Hookes – came out of nowhere, it seemed, in 1976-77 to score five first-class centuries in six innings, got picked for Australia in the Centenary Test and made that wonderful half century. There was no way he wasn’t going to be on that plane.
8. Kim Hughes – had been mentioned as an international prospect since 1975-76, and toured New Zealand with the national side in early 1977. His place in the pecking order had been gazumped by Hookes but he was clearly a player for the future… except in the eyes of Ian Chappell, who didn’t offer him a WSC contract.
9. Craig Serjeant – only played one season of first-class cricket but did very well, including a century for WA against the touring English side. Made 730 first-class runs at 66 that summer. So raw he wasn’t considered for WSC (he would be offered a contract later but turned it down) but there was a lot of press hype around him, Hookes and Hughes at the time.
10. Richie Robinson (back-up keeper) – superb performer for Victoria over a long period of time, and had a great season with the bat (828 runs at 82.80), which probably pushed him past John Maclean of Queensland. A generally uncontroversial choice, not expected to play any Tests unless Rod Marsh got injured.
11. Jeff Thomson – the fastest bowler in the world, or at least had been prior to his recent injury in a Test against Pakistan. Not as effective on English pitches as Australian ones but had done okay in 1975. With Lillee’s injury, it was a big relief that he was able to play.
12. Max Walker – a sturdy performer for Australia since 1973, expected to do well on English wickets, though it hadn’t really worked out that way in 1975.
13. Len Pascoe – exciting speedster in the ‘Thommo’ mode. Got in ahead of other candidates like Wayne Clark, Ian Callen and Alan Hurst via an excellent ’76-77 summer.
14. Geoff Dymock – very solid performer for Queensland, had played for Australia on and off since 1973-74 but always seemed to be reluctantly picked. A lot of observers considered him the most surprising selection in the squad but a strong domestic summer saw him get on the plane. Like Cosier, Hughes and Serjeant, not offered a WSC contract.
15. Mick Malone – solid performer for WA, who took 49 first-class wickets at 19 that summer. Expected to do well in England.
16. Kerry O’Keeffe – played for Australia on and off since 1970-71, fighting over the spinners spot with people like Terry Jenner, Ashley Mallett and even once John Watkins. A bit erratic but clearly talented and very handy with the bat. He had done well in New Zealand and played an important, often overlooked, role in Australia winning the Centenary Test.
17. Ray Bright – toured New Zealand with Australia in ’73-74 and ’76-77. Strong domestic performer. I read an old article from 1977 where various experts gave their hypothetical squads and everyone listed O’Keeffe and Bright as the spinners. Their other rivals around this time included Graham Whyte, David Hourn and Jim Higgs.
Who were the notable omissions? Were there any?
Alan Turner had been opener from 1975 until the New Zealand tour, solid rather than spectacular, but his form had dropped away and his omission from the squad wasn’t a huge surprise outside of New South Wales.
What was a surprise is the selectors only took two specialist openers to England – McCosker and Davis. This was a risky move – and indeed it did wind up hurting Australia on the tour.
Spoiler alert, Ian Davis struggled with the bat, forcing Australia to look around to find someone to partner McCosker. The most obvious replacement was Craig Serjeant, who had done well as a makeshift opener in county games – but in the first Test they decided to play Serjeant down the order, drop Cosier, and use Richie Robinson to open (he’d made 70 as an opener in a ODI).
Looking back, if they didn’t want to take Turner they really should have taken Bruce Laird, who made 502 runs at 36 that summer, which isn’t awesome but it’s okay. Also, he’d toured England in 1975. But if they didn’t go with Laird, then they should have had a proper back-up plan in place… and stuck to it.
Graham Yallop had played three Tests for Australia against the West Indies in 1975-76 and done well, but then seemed to drop back in the pecking order.
He’d made 472 first-class runs that summer at 47.20, so looking back he was a little unlucky to miss out to, say, Serjeant, but there wasn’t that much criticism of the decision at the time, at least not outside Victoria.
When the next Ashes came around in 1978-79, Yallop would be the national captain but that’s another story for another time.
The most controversial omission from the squad was Gary Gilmour, the spectacularly talented all-rounder who had only recently scored a Test century in New Zealand, and enjoyed enormous success with the ball in England at the 1975 World Cup.
On his day Gilmour was one of the best players in the world – but he was a bowling all-rounder and his form with the ball had dropped away alarmingly. In the Centenary Test, for instance, Chappell only used him for four overs in the second innings as England scored 417.
Still, it was a shock. Noted cricket scribe Ray Robinson called it the biggest selector blunder since omitting Keith Miller on the 1949-50 South African tour. Miller wound up going on that tour but Gilmour had no such luck in 1977.
What makes it even more upsetting is that Gilmour had been bowling all summer with a bone “the size of a five-cent piece” floating around his heel. An injury easily fixed – had only there been decent communication between him and selectors.
Was it a mistake leaving him out?
That’s a tough one, even with the benefit of hindsight – because Gilmour never really recaptured the form of his 1975-76 period. He had his moments during World Series Cricket but they were sporadic and he only played two first-class games after the post-WSC peace treaty.
But I actually do think it was a mistake omitting Gilmour. He had so much talent, plus a decent track record in England, he could bat, and it was an Ashes squad – there were other pace options if he was struggling in tour games.
Anyway here’s the team I think Australia should have chosen, trying not to be too wise after the event:
1. Greg Chappell (c)
2. Rod Marsh (vc)
3. Rick McCosker
4. Ian Davis
5. Gary Cosier
6. Doug Walters
7. David Hookes
8. Kim Hughes
9. Bruce Laird or Graham Yallop (he could open)
10. Richie Robinson (back-up keeper)
11. Jeff Thomson
12. Max Walker
13. Len Pascoe
14. Gary Gilmour
15. Mick Malone
16. Kerry O’Keeffe
17. Ray Bright
Not too different from the side that went.
Do I think my squad would have won the Ashes?
It wasn’t the selectors’ fault we lost.
The main reason for that was the failure of senior players to step up, particularly Walters (223 Test runs at 25), O’Keeffe (three wickets at 102) and Walker (14 wickets at 39.35). Players who looked like they were going to mature, such as Davis (107 runs at 18), didn’t.
Chappell, Marsh and Thomson did well, if not sensationally. The juniors like Pascoe, Malone and Hookes did fine. It was the other more experienced people that let down Australia.
In hindsight you can see clear selection errors – they should’ve picked Mick Malone over Max Walker and Bright over O’Keeffe, used Kim Hughes from the first Test, and tried Craig Serjeant as opener.
But no one could have really predicted that Walters, O’Keeffe, Davis and Walker would be so disappointing (O’Keeffe and Walker did well in county games), or that Malone would do so well in his one Test, or that Serjeant would never quite live up to his first season in domestic cricket.
And England had some fantastic players – Geoff Boycott returning from self-imposed exile, a debuting Ian Botham, Derek Underwood, Tony Greig, Alan Knott, Bob Willis – and were very skilfully led by Mike Brearley, one of their greatest ever captains. At home they were simply a stronger side against a Lillee-less Australians.
I also think there was a disconnect between the selectors of the squad (Phil Ridings, Sam Loxton and Neil Harvey) and the selectors on tour (Chappell, Marsh and Walters).
The squad selectors rated some players, notably Cosier, Dymock and Hughes, that weren’t held in the same esteem by the tour selectors.
Cosier never seemed seriously considered for a Test spot although his tour game form wasn’t bad (he had a better average than Walters and Davis, for instance). Hughes clearly should’ve been picked early on he was overlooked in favour of Robinson. Dymock never got much of a chance to bowl.
The main lessons I would draw from the 1977 Ashes were as follows:
1. Only pick players in the squad that the tour selectors might actually pick.
2. If a champion player has notably lost form weirdly, always check if there’s a physical reason why they’ve lost form (such as Gilmour).
3. Have a back-up opener plan and stick to it.
I actually don’t think the selectors of the 1977 Ashes did that bad a job. It was the veterans who let them down.