Sunday, August 20, 2006

Ashes Countdown 96

If I am asked to choose the most defining moment in Ashes history or for that matter in the test cricket history itself, which has completely altered the whole landscape of test match cricket and made Australia as the most dominant force in test cricket, without thinking twice I will give my vote to the 1989 Ashes series.

Branded as the weakest Australian team ever to visit England, Allan Border’s Australian team under the able tutelage of their coach Bob Simpson, started their 1989 summer campaign on May 7th with the traditional match against Duchess of Norfolk XI. They beat them by 120 runs in a limited over match and then went on to win four more such games against non-county teams. Neither English Press nor the fans did give much importance to those games as they knew very well that Australia did not win a single test series of any importance under Allan Border’s captaincy. Ever since Kim Hughes broke down with tears on that fateful day of Nov 26th 1984 while reading his resignation speech, Australian cricket touched the nadir and went into a period of darkness, which given a chance and if at all possible every Australian would like to erase from their memory.

Here is how they fared under Allan Border ever since he was forced into the leadership role after Kim Hughes resignation and emotional breakdown

1-3-1 loss to West Indies in Australia 1984/85 (1st two tests were captained by Kim Hughes)
1-3-2 loss to England in England 1985
1-2-0 loss to New ZeAlland in Australia 1985/86
0-0-3 draws with India in Australia 1985/86
0-1-2 loss to New Zealand in New ZeAlland 1985/86
0-0-3 draws with India in India 1986/87
1-2-2 loss to England in Australia 1986/87
1-0-2 win 0ver New ZeAlland in Australia 1987/88
0-0-1 draws with England in Australia 1987/88
1-0-0 win over Sri Lanka in Australia 1987/88
0-1-2 loss to Pakistan in Pakistan 1988/89
1-3-1 loss to West Indies in Australia 1988/89

That’s 7 wins, 15 losses and 19 draws in 41 tests. Under Border’s captaincy Australia won just one out of 9 series over a period of 4 1/2 years. It sounds unthinkable for a side which dominated the world cricket for the last 17 years or so. England too did not do that well during that time as Viv Richards transformed his West Indian team with a four-pronged pace attack as the most fearsome side ever. England suffered two white washes at their expense but kept their pride intact by winning both the series that mattered most to English cricket. The Ashes.

So expectations were naturally high in the English camp, when the “the weakest Australian side ever to tour England” set foot on their soil. The entire Australian team knew that they were the underdogs and needed to take their performance levels to a whole different platform. But just to make the matters worse in the first serious game of the tour Australia was bowled out for 154 runs and lost to Sussex by 4 wickets in a limited over match and then to Ian Botham led Worcestershire side by 3 wickets inside two days in their 1st first class game of the tour by getting folded for 103 in the 1st innings and 205 in the 2nd . The whole British press and the fans were preparing for a one-sided affair and were hoping the test matches would be stretched over at least to the final day. They soon realized their preparations for the most one-sided test series ever did not go waste.

Australia did give an indication of things to come when they successfully chased a seemingly high target of 278 losing just 4 wickets in the 3rd ODI at Lord’s. After getting thrashed in the 1st ODI at Old Trafford Australia came back strongly to tie the 2nd ODI at Trent Bridge and in the end shared the honors with England.

Even then .. England thought they had the upper hand in that series and were under the impression that the test matches would be a whole different ball game and they don’t have match for them, especially in English conditions when the swing and seam of their bowling attack can do the talking there is no way that Australia is going escape another drubbing in their hands.

So when David Gower won the toss at Leeds for the 1st Test , without flinching a wee bit he put Australia into bat and when Australia lost 2 quick wickets with just 57 runs on the board there were many faces in the stands, members pavilion and English dressing room which showed an expression of “ I told you so….”.

Precisely that’s when I believe the defining moment may have occurred. Allan Border the Aussie captain joined Mark Taylor who was making his Ashes debut and had played just two tests prior to this and was trying to prove himself. Both of them were under tremendous pressure to perform but were bent upon proving the pundits wrong and do not let English team take the upper hand in the series. Taylor grew in confidence with his captain guiding him through the initial phases of his innings. Also both the batsmen being grafters they build the innings slowly but surely and gave preference to patience than flamboyance to add 117 runs for the 3rd wicket before Border was caught by Foster of the bowling of De Freitas. Then Dean Jones, not known to the cricketing world as much as he is now, joined Mark Taylor and by the end of Day One Australia 207 for 3 with Mark Taylor four runs short of his century. The next day both Taylor and Jones continued piling up runs before Taylor got out for a career altering 136.

Then walked in the new batsman to the crease in a baggy green cap looking like a picture perfect cricketer reminding old timers of the bygone era of helmet-less batting. At last the Aussie wonder has proved his full potential and lived up to the faith the selectors had kept in him over the years. If you were told that the batsman had already played 26 tests without making a single century since his test debut in 1985 and scored just 1099 runs at an average of 30.53, you would not have believed he would become one of the greatest cricketers of all time. Yes, Stephen Rodger Waugh, who till then was just a shadow of what he would achieve in cricket history, played one of the greatest career defining innings that test cricket has witnessed.

Steve Waugh made a classic 177* adding in the process 138 runs for the 5th wicket with Dean Jones and then further 147 runs with Merv Hughes by the time Australia declared their innings closed at 601/7. England though avoided the follow on could not really recover from the shock and when Australia made a quick 230 for 3 and closed their innings to let England survive 83 overs for a draw or chase 402 runs for victory the writing was on the wall. Lawson, Alderman and Hughes made sure that England can not take them for granted by bowling them out for 191. From that point onwards the Ashes series turned out to be one-sided as completely and as thoroughly as English press predicted before the Australians even landed. Unfortunately it went in favor of the other side.

Steve Waugh completely demoralized the English attack in the 1st test and such was the domination he exercised over their bowlers by the time they could pick up his wicket Australia already won the first two test matches and 3rd test was into its 2nd day. Waugh made 393 runs including 177* in the 1st Test at Leeds, 152*& 21* in the 2nd test at Lord’s and 43 in the 3rd test Edgbaston before getting clean bowled by Angus Fraser. In that rain ruined drawn encounter Dean Jones helped himself with a century and made 157. The 4th test at Old Trafford was the only test of the series in which no Australian batsman could hit a century, but both Lawson and Alderman made amends for their batsmen’s time-out by bowling out England under 300 in both innings and secured a 9 wicket win for their team to make their captain first captain since Bill Woodfull in 1934 to regain the Ashes in England.

Mark Taylor made 839 runs in the series with 2 hundreds and 5 fifties. He hit a fifty in every test match. His opening partner Geoff Marsh too had a good series though not as stellar as Taylor did. Marsh’s century came in the 5th test at Trent Bridge when both Marsh & Taylor rubbed the struggling England’s wounds with more salt by batting the entire first day. Taylor made a glorious 219 to compensate for Steve Waugh’s duck and Australia won the test by an innings and 180 runs. Bad Weather during the 6th test at The Oval deprived another victory for Australia. But the way they took upon England created a whole new generation of Aussie cricketers who till today kept their dominance in all forms of the game.

Ashes Countdown Factoid 96:

It was not just Australia’s batmen that dominated the series, their bowlers too gave their best spearheaded by Terry Alderman who took 41 wickets in the series and still remains the only bowler to have taken 40+ wickets in a test series on two separte occasions. Lawson with 29 wickets, Merv Hughes with 19 and Trevor Hons with 11 were the other destroyers of the feeble English batting line-up.

The 1989 Ashes Series was a career defining series for most of the Australian players, but for 9 of the 29 players that England tried during the series it proved out to be a career ending series. KJ Barnett, Chris Broad, Nick Cook, Tim Curtis, Graham Dilley, MD Moxon, and RT Robinson. JP Stephenson & Chris Tavare never played test cricket after this series. Careers of many other English cricketers did not go too far after this series. Ian Botham played just 5 more tests, David Capel 4 more, John Emburey 4, Neil Foster 1, Mike Gatting 9, Gower 11, Hemmings 7, Igglesden 2, Newport 1 and Gladstone Small 11 after the 1989 Ashes. Their only blessing in disguise was Michael Atherton, who made his test debut in the 5th Test and went onto play 113 more tests after this series. For England the lone batting mainstay was Robin Smith who made 553 runs with 2 hundreds and 4 fifties.

For Australia, Trevor Hohns was the only player who never got a chance to play in test cricket again after this series though he played in all of the last five tests as part of the same playing eleven. Trevor Hohns, a decent leg spinner and a shrewd cricketing brain, later went on to become the Australia’s Selection Committee Chairman.

When Trevor Hohns replaced Greg Campbell for the 2nd test of the series he did not know that he is taking the position of a player whose nephew would become a key member of an Australian side who would win 16 tests in a row and win the world cup for Australia during his tenure as chairman of the Australian Selection Committee.

Can you guess?

No it’s not Steve Waugh. It’s Ricky Thomas Ponting, who last year returned back the Ashes that were won 1989 to England in one of the most thrilling test series ever. No doubt he would like to regain the Ashes back in this winter. With the kind of form he and Australia is in right now I don’t bet against it.

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