A Golden Age
Australian crickets two decades at the topAuthor: Ian Chappell
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The fifth Test at The Oval in 1972 was one of the best games of cricket I played in: the match fluctuated through six tension-filled days, until midway through the penultimate session, when Australia finally got the upper hand and went on to defeat a tough England side by five wickets.
It was a victory inspired by Doug Walters' hilarious speech at the pre-match dinner when he imitated our manager, Ray Steele, in exhorting the team: ‘Aussies take it lying down. Pig's bloody arse they do.'
Out on the field it was Dennis Lillee's turn to boost his team mates when, at the fall of the ninth wicket in England 's second innings, he declared, ‘We can't let these bastards score any more runs.' He then made sure of it by clean bowling the obstinate Alan Knott to contain our victory target to 242. That thrilling win over the best side around became a watershed match for an emerging Australian side: it was the one that convinced us we were good enough to challenge any team and win.
From then until we crushed a talented but naïve West Indies side in 1975-76 the Australian team was unbeaten in a series. We dominated with a balanced attack headed by the indomitable Lillee and a lethal Jeff Thomson. In addition it was a strong batting line-up underpinned by the class of Greg Chappell and the match-winning stroke play of Walters. Fielding also played its part as an exceptional group of catchers inspired by the acrobatic and skilful wicket-keeping of Rod Marsh let very little pass without interception.
It was an entertaining team that aggressively sought victory and enjoyed each other's company. A lot of fun was derived from a period where many strong bonds were formed between the players, and nowadays when we are reunited it is the celebratory victory parties that are recalled rather than the runs scored and wickets taken. The team was blissfully ignorant of the reputation being built on the field, but in time the period was classed as the fourth Golden Era of Australian cricket.
Having played in one I was then fortunate to witness Australia 's next Golden Era from the commentary box.
Just like the 1972 side, the highly successful team of the mid-Nineties had a watershed match: the first Test at Headingley in 1989. Unlike in 1972, it took six years for that crucial victory to materialise into world domination, but there is no doubt the Headingley win provided the spark of confidence that spawned a steely attitude and eventually led Australia to the top.
On this occasion it was the captain Allan Border who inspired the 1989 side with an uncharacteristically aggressive knock at a crucial time in the first innings. Border's more belligerent attitude towards the opposition reversed a trend which had seen Australia hit the bottom in 1984-85 and then slowly climb off the floor. In 1989 Border suddenly decided he wanted to be the leader of the team. Whilst his career didn't extend long enough to see Australia reach the top, his change of heart proved to be an inspiration for three young players, Steve Waugh, Ian Healy and Mark Taylor, who all played an important role in the team, eventually becoming world champions.
Waugh, Healy and Taylor had all been drafted into the team following the mid-Eighties debacle, not just because of their skill but also their attitude: they were competitors. Whereas Border had witnessed mainly despair before the 1989 tour (apart from the World Cup win in 1987), he suddenly saw a light at the end of the tunnel. The young players provided a spark; enthusiasm and confidence replaced despair and pessimism, and gradually the side built to a crescendo like a well-tuned orchestra.
Waugh, Healy and Taylor were eventually joined by other skilful, aggressive players in Mark Waugh and Michael Slater and, later on, Ricky Ponting. However, it was the addition of two young bowlers who would go on to become world-beaters that ensured the team would eventually crush all opposition. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath were the detonators that blew the opposition apart after they'd been stunned by Australia 's quick scoring batsmen.
The combination of top-class bowling and aggressive stroke play was a sure-fire recipe for success, one that has stood Australian teams in good stead throughout more than a century of Test cricket. During Australia 's amazing world-record run of sixteen victories it was said that Steve Waugh's team took the game to another level by consistently scoring quickly in Test cricket.
Whilst it's true that Waugh's team scored extremely quickly, with Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer leading the charge and Adam Gilchrist's blistering attacks from the middle order, I'd remind the modern fan of the following. Didn't Victor Trumper score a century before lunch at Old Trafford in 1902? Wasn't it Don Bradman in 1930 who became the first (and only) man to amass three hundred runs in a day of Test cricket, scoring centuries in the first and second sessions? In 1935-36 at the Wanderers ground, Stan ‘Napper' McCabe hit the ball with such ferocity during an extraordinary innings of 189 not out (165 minutes) that the South African captain Herbert ‘Billy' Wade appealed against the light because he felt his fieldsmen were in danger. And three times in the Seventies Walters completed a Test century in a session, the most famous being at the WACA, where, to achieve the feat, he clubbed a six off the final ball of the day. Australian teams have always scored quickly whenever the opportunity presented itself, and that is why the country has far and away the best overall record in Test cricket.
If any one person was responsible for initiating Australia 's most recent outbreak of quick scoring in Test cricket it was Mark Taylor. He inherited a very good side from Border but he did what a captain should do: he looked to make the team better.
Taylor decided the aggressive batting line-up he inherited was an asset that wasn't being fully exploited. Under the optimistic Taylor the team shed the slightly pessimistic outlook that remained from Border's reign, and from then on the Australian team continued to send a strong message to their opponents from the opening ball of every Test: we have come to WIN this match.
This more aggressive Australian approach led the team to the 1994-95 series victory in the Caribbean, the first such win since 1972-73 and the one that signalled its rise to world-champion status. Then followed a series win over South Africa in the Republic in 1996-97 and the first victory in Pakistan (1998-99) since Richie Benaud led his side there in 1959-60. These were all feats that hadn't occurred under the leadership of Border and that's why I rate Taylor as the best of the four captains in this period.
The one achievement that eluded Taylor was a series win in India. Steve Waugh was also denied this accomplishment when V.V.S. Laxman played a remarkable innings in Kolkata to snatch victory from the all-conquering Australians and reverse the direction of a series that appeared to be headed safely into the clutches of the touring side.
Ponting will be listed as the captain of the Australian side (2004-05) that achieved a series win in India for the first time since Bill Lawry's team did it in 1969-70. In reality it was Adam Gilchrist who captained the side in the two victories (when Ponting was injured), whilst the skipper led the team in their sole defeat at Mumbai.
Unfortunately, Ponting will be remembered as the Australian captain who lost the Ashes in 2005 following an unbroken successful run since Border's team triumphantly regained them in England in 1989. It was a glorious run whilst it lasted and undoubtedly a memorable part of the fifth Golden Era of Australian cricket.