Reliving the Eighties and a great era for fast bowlers


Some of you may have watched the recent Fox Sports Series ‘A Brief History of Australian Cricket: the Eighties’. If not, I’d definitely recommend it. It has great nostalgia value for those who were fans in those years. Younger viewers get a deep dive into what was an exciting and pivotal era of cricket.

Exciting and pivotal because it was the first full decade of professionalism in cricket in Australia, thanks to the arrival of white ball one-day cricket and deals with commercial TV. Test cricket was still big, although it was actually one of Australia’s least successful decades, arguably our worst – three series defeats by England, four by the West Indies, two by New Zealand and two by Pakistan.

Contributing to the poor Test performances, and general disharmony, were defections by top players to rebel tours of South Africa. Compensating for them were Australia’s initial World Cup win in 1987, followed by the sweetest of Ashes victories in England, 4–0, in 1989.

General view of the Australian crowd during the Benson and Hedges World Series first final against the West Indies at Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia. David Cannon/Allsport

The TV series captures much of the fanfare and novelty around the introduction of ODI cricket in the wake of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket rebellion in 1977-79: coloured clothing, floodlights, stump mikes, spectators running onto grounds, and big, rowdy, boozy crowds – “yellow bullets”. Cans of KB lager, flying through the air on the SCG Hill. Mullets galore. The almost annual participation of the Windies in three-team ODI competitions that lasted ten to 15 matches: the Windies played in eight and won five.

Other features of the era that stand out were cigarette sponsorships – the Benson and Hedges Cup! Richie Benaud’s diverse set of jackets in beige, cream and ivory; Viv Richards never wearing a helmet, others like Geoff Lawson wearing a helmet but not a face guard and getting jaws broken. And ‘interesting’ decisions by the umpires that make you very grateful for DRS.

Comparing footage of the 80s with today is very instructive when you see how far the ball was hit and how few sixes were notched up. A big hit often only went three quarters of the way to the boundary, although the boundary was further out, mostly on the fence itself. 250 in 50 overs was a big score. The sound of the ball off the bat was just different – thin and tinny compared to the sound off today’s huge bats that weigh the same. Today’s players may practice six hitting a lot more, but don’t be fooled into thinking that guys like Richards or Clive Lloyd wouldn’t hit the ball as far or further with today’s bats.

The series suffers a bit from repetition of many clips and comments, as well as cliches and hyperbole typical of sports commentary. But beyond that there is lots of interesting footage and insights from players, commentators and even umpires of the time. Particularly the likes of Greg Chappell, Kim Hughes, Lawson, Merv Hughes, Lloyd, Joel Garner, Ian Smith, Ian Botham, Chris Broad, Wasim Akram and Ravi Shastri.

The internationals generally stick to more complimentary takes on Australia and Australian crowds than you might have expected from some, e.g. Botham and Shastri. Botham even said when veterinary students smuggled a piglet onto the Gabba with “Botham” painted on one side and “Eddie” (for the amply contoured spinner Hemmings), it was the funniest thing he saw on a cricket field.

Greg Chappell gives a detailed but unconvincing account of the notorious underarm incident against New Zealand in 1981. He attributes it partly to all the stuff going on around him as captain: he had an extremely heavy schedule of ODIs mixed in with Tests, with zero support – the team still did not have a coach or a media officer to filter things out. Fair enough, but in a subsequent episode, Chappell talks about his run of outs the following season – seven ducks – and says that up until that season, what happened off the field never affected him on it, he always zoned external stuff out.

Despite all the unhappiness about the completely idiotic underarm – the chances of tailender Brian McKechnie hitting a six to win the game off a normal delivery were probably below 0.1% – Ian Smith and fellow Kiwi Jeremy Coney underlined that the controversy actually gave quite a boost to cricket in New Zealand.

Leading 80s umpire Dick French, now 85, who wasn’t officiating that day, said he would have called the ball a no-ball as unfair play, which was totally within the umpire’s discretion. A bit of 20/20 hindsight perhaps?

Australian captain Greg Chappell batting against the West Indies in the First Test at Brisbane Cricket Ground, Brisbane, Australia, 1st-5th December 1979. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Getty Images)

Lawson aired his own beef with Chappell, who he said gave him no support and a bit of a cold shoulder when he first entered the team, and suspected Chappell may have preferred to have had some of his mates from WSC (World Series Cricket) days selected.

But others on the show had some unflattering reviews of Lawson. The mild-mannered Garner said Lawson was “a difficult fella to get along with on the field, that’s being polite”. Lawson himself claimed “I was a little more intellectual than a few and if I sledged someone it was for a very good reason”. Footage of him giving massive sendoffs to dismissed batsmen didn’t seem to bear this out.

Lawson even proudly noted that English batsman Graham Gooch said Lawson was the nastiest person he played against. But for Lawson, “That’s a win, that’s how it’s supposed to be.” All I’d say is that the send-off is the most classless and cowardly act in cricket, unless there is a good reason.

The greatest decade for fast bowling

The series episode on fast bowlers provided some of the juiciest food for thought. While the 80s witnessed very few top spinners, a big share of the greatest Test fast bowlers of all time played during or throughout the decade.

The West Indies had Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Courtney Walsh, Colin Croft and Patrick Patterson. Plus one or two others like Sylvester Clarke and Wayne Daniel (867 first class wickets at 22.5), who played few Tests but would walk into most sides today.

Australia had Dennis Lillee and Terry Alderman. New Zealand – the great Richard Hadlee. Pakistan – Wasim Akram and Imran Khan. Kapil Dev was India’s finest before Jaspreet Bumrah. Botham and Bob Willis led a strong England attack in the early 80s.

Seven West Indian fast bowlers took 50-plus Test wickets at averages below 25 from 1976 to 1995: Marshall, Garner, Ambrose, Holding, Croft, Walsh and Ian Bishop. Lillee and Willis were the only quicks from Australia or England who managed the same feat.

The Australian batters like Hughes and Chappell stressed how difficult it was to score off the Windies pace attack, which often sent down multiple bouncers per over in Tests. This led to the introduction of the two bouncers per over limit in the 90s. The Windies’ extremely slow over rate, sometimes as low as 70 per day, also made it harder for batters, and tough going for spectators.

Smith and Coney described Hadlee’s unparalleled professionalism in cutting down, perfecting his runup and mastering seam position. Hadlee was also instrumental in NZ’s first-ever series wins against the West Indies, England, India and Australia. Hard to beat that, even though Botham only called Hadlee “one of New Zealand’s greatest”. ‘One of’?

Wasim and others on the program noted Imran’s mastery of reverse swing, while hinting some of it may have been due to methods that would be illegal today. Some like English scribe Scyld Berry suggested it was sad that tighter rules meant this art had been lost to the game.

The concentration of so many great bowlers in one period begs the question: were they really that great, or did batting or pitch standards dip? A bit of both? Perhaps a debate and a discussion for another day.

Finally, a happy note for Westralian fans on The Roar. Do we have any? I noticed the 1981-82 series against Pakistan was peak Sandgroper in the Test team – seven players: Graeme Wood, Bruce Laird, Kim Hughes, Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman and Bruce Yardley.

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