By applying the criteria used today it is now 24 years since the last occasion when England and Australia were fourth and fifth respectively in the Test rankings. It is surely no mere coincidence that that too was on the eve of an Ashes series in Australia. There are striking parallels between 1986 and today. England on that occasion were led by a Middlesex player, their off spinner was at the peak of his powers and a starring role was played by a man named Broad. As now Australia were under pressure from their supporters and did not have a settled side. It seems to me therefore that England's victory this winter is pre-ordained, so as an hors d'oevre to the main event next month I thought I would take myself back to the last time England came back from Australia triumphant.
By the end of the 1985 season English cricket seemed to be in good shape. The Ashes, so disappointingly surrendered to the old enemy in 1982/83, had been regained with a convincing 3-1 victory. The batting seemed in fine fettle, the renowned "G-Force" of Mike Gatting, Graham Gooch and, particulary in this series, captain David Gower, all scoring heavily as did Nottinghamshire opener Tim Robinson who, at the end of the series, had a Test average of more than 62 after just eleven matches.
England's talisman, Ian Botham, took 31 wickets. He didn't score too many runs but then with the form his teammates were in he didn't need to. When he did get to the wicket he scored briskly and entertainingly and overall he enjoyed what was to be by some distance his finest season with the bat, scoring more than 1,500 First Class runs at nearly 70 (he averaged a Bradmanesque 100 for Somerset) in the process setting a new record for the number of sixes struck in a season. For the last two Tests of the series 26 year old Kent seamer Richard Ellison was recalled and took 17 wickets at less than 11 runs apiece and, with a lethal breakback in his armoury, seemed to be a different bowler from the man who had not looked to be anything special in his previous five Tests. With spinners John Emburey and Phil Edmonds also bowling well the future looked bright.
Sadly the optimism that accompanied David Gower's side to the Caribbean in 1985/86 was misplaced and a morale sapping 5-0 defeat followed. Home defeats to both New Zealand and India in the English summer of 1986 meant that even a triumphant return from suspension from Botham in the final Test of the summer did nothing to dispel the gloom over English cricket. After the first defeat by the Indians Gower was sacked as captain in favour of Gatting, but no discernable improvement resulted from that change at the top.
Australia had fared little better than England since 1985, having lost home and away to New Zealand in 1985/86. They had drawn a home series against India in the same season and prior to England's arrival in late 1986 had drawn away in India, the series of the Chennai (then Madras) tied Test. Despite that, on its face, uninspiring record, there was however a general acceptance within the game that under Captain Alan Border and Coach Bob Simpson, the Australians were moving in the right direction.
England had further setbacks when the selectors came together to choose their touring party. Of the successes of 1985 Gooch decided not to tour and form and/or fitness had deserted Robinson and Ellison. The three opening batsmen selected, Chris Broad, Bill Athey and Wilf Slack, had played just 16 Tests between them with a combined total of four half centuries. Of the pace bowlers none of Graham Dilley, Neil Foster, Gladstone Small or Botham were noted for their reliability.
The tour began with a match against Border's Queensland side. Queensland won comfortably by five wickets and although the tourists beat South Australia in their next First Class match, in the final match before the first Test they were down and out against Western Australia and were only saved from defeat by time running out. Small wonder therefore that journalist Martin Johnson famously wrote "There are few remaining English prophets in Australia forecasting anything other than doom, but "Don't Despair" is the message from this observer. It seems to me that England only have three major problems - they can't bat, they can't bowl and they can't field"
Australia's opening bowlers, Bruce Reid and Chris Matthews, both left armers, had shared ten wickets between them in the Western Australia game. The Gabba had been a happy hunting ground for fast bowlers for several years and with just Allan Lamb and Botham of the English batsman in any sort of form it was no great surprise when, on winning the toss, Border invited England to bat. Broad did not last long but the other England batsmen got going and at the close of a rain curtailed first day England were 198-2 with Lamb and Athey both well set. Next morning both overnight batsmen departed without a run added. Gower, dropped down the order to five after a pair against Western Australia, was all at sea and with the score still on 198 was dropped by Merv Hughes at third slip from the unlucky Matthews. On such moments do Test matches turn and Gower went on to score 51. Botham meanwhile was in vintage form. He took 22 from the Hughes over during which he went to his century and at one point Border had eight men patrolling the boundary for him. This removal of pressure allowed Phil De Freitas, a young debutant that day, to settle in and score 40 and share an eighth wicket stand of 92 with the great man.
England's all out total of 456 owed much to Botham's 138 and they never lost the iniative it gave them. Australia, despite having the better batting conditions, were all out for 248 with Dilley, seven years and 23 Tests after his debut, claiming his first five wicket haul. All the England bowlers contributed and Emburey and Edmonds in particular strangled the Australian scoring rate, their combined total of 46 overs going for just 76 runs.
In the fashion of the times Gatting enforced the follow on and, despite Geoff Marsh's third Test century in his first year in the international game, the lack of support from anyone other than Greg Ritchie meant that in the second innings Australia could muster no more than 282 with Emburey this time taking five wickets as well as exerting as much control as he did in the first innings. England lost three wickets in scoring the 76 needed for victory but there were no alarms and against all expectations it was 1-0 to England with four to play.
When Gatting won the toss at Perth he chose to bat. Athey and Broad had put on the small matter of 223 for the first wicket when Athey was finally dismissed for 96, just short of what would have been a richly deserved maiden Test century. There was no such ill luck for Broad who went on to complete a superb 162 and with Gower and wicketkeeper Jack Richards reaching three figures as well Gatting was able to declare on 592, and leave Australia with an awkward half hour to bat out at the end of the second day. Boon went early but 21 year old Stephen Waugh, at the time averaging just 16 in his tenth Test, stayed with Marsh until the close and next day went on to 71 to go a considerable way towards securing his place. Border too fought hard and with last man Reid with him at the crease he took the Australians past the follow on mark before being dismissed for 125 and conceding a deficit of 191.
England dithered in their second innings. They got off to a bad start and only Gatting and Gower were able to build a score. The declaration that came in the 54th over, when the eighth wicket fell at 199, was simply too late and Australia did not have to make a start until the final day began. The pitch was ugly to look at, scarred by deep wide cracks, but it played true and despite Dilley removing Marsh before a run was scored that was one of only four wickets that fell and Australia comfortably held out for the draw. It had been a disappointing three days for England after their superb start but they remained in the ascendancy, and more importantly 1-0 up, as the series moved on to Adelaide.
It is difficult to envisage an Australian side ever playing in a Test match in the manner they did in this one again and it is certainly an example of the sort of cricket that Australia forsook as they built their all conquering sides of the 1990's and early 2000's. Border won the toss and chose to bat. All of the Australian batsmen who got to the wicket made runs and Border declared shortly before the close of the second day with his side on 514-5. Remarkably despite the level of comfort the batsmen clearly had after 171 overs the scoring rate was just the slightest tick over three runs an over and would have been comfortably under that had Waugh and Greg Matthews not scored 49 in the last four overs of the innings.
England, with no need to force a win, still managed to score more quickly than Australia albeit only fractionally. Broad and Athey put up a century for the first wicket and Broad and Gatting both made hundreds. Given that they were at one stage 273-1 England must have been slightly disappointed to concede a first innings lead but at 455 they would have been happy enough. When the first two Australian second innings wickets fell with only eight on the board there was just a chance England might get on top. Border and Marsh stopped the rot however and Ritchie carried on after Marsh's dismissal and saw Border through to another century. Only then with the score on 201 did Border declare. The second innings lasted as long as 90 overs. Even taking into account the early wobble there was a remarkable lack of enterprise. There was time for England to crawl as far as 39-2 in search of their target of 261 before the curtains came down on a Test match in which five days play saw just 1209 runs scored for the loss of 20 wickets in 432 overs. For those of us who are prone to talk of the "good old days" of Test cricket we would do well to remind ourselves of this game from time to time.
The game may have turned out differently had a rib injury not forced Ian Botham to withdraw. Unsurprisingly England elected to reduce their bowling options by selecting a batsman, James Whitaker, in his stead. Whitaker, showing understandable caution on debut, took the best part of an hour to score 11 and, by virtue of his athleticism in the field, he made his contribution to slowing Australia down as well.
For both sides it was off to the MCG for the traditional Boxing Day Test with, for England, the knowledge that avoiding defeat would mean the Ashes were retained.
Alan Border was widely quoted before the match began as having said that if Australia were to recover the Ashes they needed to play more boldly than they had in Adelaide. Some observers felt that a desire to avoid the criticism which came their way after the previous Test, as illustrated by that comment was, at least in part, responsible for the way in which the fourth Test unfolded. A further factor in this and the final Test, albeit with differing outcomes, was a selection controversy. In what was doubtless seen as an attacking move batsman Ritchie was dropped to make way for, effectively, pace man Craig McDermott leaving off spinning all rounder Greg Matthews to bat at six. It was said that both captain and coach were unhappy at Matthews playing. Border does not comment on the selection in his autobiography but the fact that Matthews was not called upon to bowl even a single over in the match rather supports the speculation.
For England Botham was back, albeit unable to bowl at anything like full tilt. Dilley, not for the first or last time, failed a fitness test and Gladstone Small took his place for his third Test cap. With De Freitas his opening partner, it was one of the least experienced opening attacks England has ever fielded and with only the partially fit Botham as a back up seamer the two spinners, Edmonds and Emburey, might well have expected to do a lot of bowling.
As it turned out Small was in the form of his life as, in favourable swing bowling conditions against some undisciplined batting, he took five of the first seven wickets that fell. Only Dean Jones with 59 put up any resistance and with Botham mopping up the tail, to match Small with a five wicket haul, Australia were all out for 141 by tea and the series was all but decided. For England Broad scored his third century in successive Tests as England made serene progress to 198-2. In the event the later batsmen showed rather less application than Broad and that, coupled with some good bowling by Reid and McDermott, meant that England were all out for 349 and were not, as they surely should have been, out of sight.
England's frustration increased as in Australia's second innings Marsh, Border and Waugh all batted with much more resolution than in the first but from 153-3, and a good chance of setting a target that would test England, the last seven Australian wickets tumbled for just 41 more runs to give England a comfortable victory by an innings and 14 runs and the series. The fifth Test, at the SCG, was therfore a dead rubber but, as is often the case, proved to be a superb game of cricket.
Australia rang the changes as David Boon made way for Ritchie's return and Dirk Wellham replaced McDermott to provide a sixth specialist batsman. It was the third change that grabbed the headlines however as off spinner Peter Taylor, 30 years of age and after just one First Class match all season, and six in all, came in for Greg Matthews, the man who played in front of him for New South Wales. There was much speculation that what had happened was that the selectors had intended to call for opening batsman and future captain Mark Taylor. This was not the case and the selection was a "hunch", and a spectacularly successful one at that, but Border was convinced that in their desire to accomodate Taylor that what the selectors did forget was that they had only given him one opening batsman.
In the event Ritchie volunteered to go in first with Marsh, although neither opener contributed much in either innings. Border won the toss and batted at the SCG and would have been disappointed to say the least had he known in advance that his own 34 would be the second highest individual score in the Australian innings. The innings was saved by the fact that Dean Jones first Test century on home soil, a magnificent unbeaten 184 from first drop, meant that Australia totalled 343. Jones's was a dour innings by his standards, lasting all of nine hours, but it was a vital contribution. Bitter Englishmen will point to the fact that he was given not out when clearly caught behind on 5, but with the series result unaffected few of us have borne a grudge in the long term.
When England batted Reid and Hughes had got rid of Broad, Athey and Gatting with just 17 on the board and it was then that Taylor took centre stage. Gower, Richards and Emburey all made runs but England were restricted to 275 by Taylor's 6 for 78 in 26 excellent overs. When Australia batted again their major batsman failed once more and at 145-7 the home side were just 213 in front with only Waugh and the tail left and England scented another kill. Their hopes were again dashed by the unknown Taylor who played exceptionally well for 42. He and Waugh put on 98 for the eighth wicket and ensured England would need to score more than 300 in the fourth innings to win. It was attritional stuff, 117 overs being taken to score the 251 Australia managed, but Edmonds and Emburey bowled superbly their figures being 43-16-79-2 and 46-15-78-7 respectively.
England needed 319 to win and at one stage, thanks to a captains innings of 96 from Gatting, they looked like they might just get there but wickets kept falling and they were still 55 short when, in the penultimate over, leg spinner Peter Sleep completed the only five wicket haul of his 14 Test career by bowling Emburey. Taylor had contributed again bowling 29 economical overs and removing Lamb and Botham in successive deliveries.
In between the fourth and fifth Tests England had won a quadrangular ODI tournament involving themselves, Australia, West Indies and Pakistan. They also won a more challenging three team tourney that pitted them against Australia and West Indies after the final Test. Later on that winter they went to Sharjah and won another tournament this time seeing off Pakistan, India and Australia. It was inevitable against that background that at the beginning of 1987 England supporters believed the dark days of 1985/86 were long gone. They were, of course, wrong. England would not win another home series until 1990 and they did not win an away series outside New Zealand until the new millenium. As for the Ashes as everyone knows a new Australia hammered England 4-0 in 1989 and thereafter it was not until 2005 that the Ashes were finally regained. For Australia the defeat galvanized the nation's cricketers and first Border and then Taylor, Waugh and finally Ricky Ponting have led a succession of sides as good as any others to have ever graced the game.
Ian Botham was a wonderful cricketer. Any England supporter who witnessed the heady days of 1981 could not fail to believe that. In his pomp he was a magnificent swing bowler capable on occasions of being genuinely fast. He was also a superb batsman, not just a slogger but a classically trained and highly capable strokemaker. It became clear early on in his career that his bowling would not, due to the strains on his physique, last forever but that never worried me unduly. In many ways I looked forward to the days his bowling would cease to be relevant at which point I was confident his batting would eclipse them all, perhaps even Bradman too. I became convinced of this in 1985. Those were the days when England players never really saw leg spin. That year's Australian tourists had Bob Holland. Holland was nothing special, and in the Test series took but a handful of wickets at high cost, but I remember watching all the England batsmen bar one struggling to look convincing against him. The one exception was Botham. He kept getting out that series because he was always looking for quick runs for the good of the team but he looked technically superb and Holland in particular he could have played with the proverbial stick of rhubarb.
In July 1986 someone I played cricket with told me he was taking a six week sabbatical to go and see the Ashes. He urged me to do likewise stressing that it would be our last chance to see Botham the Great, whose time he was convinced was nearly up. I assured him that that was an absurd notion and explained my theory about what Botham, who was after all only 31, was about to turn into. Sadly my team mate was right and I was wrong. It would be as far in the future as 1992 before Botham would play his last Test but 86/87 saw the last of his 14 centuries and the last of his 27 five wicket hauls. Only once in his remaining 13 Tests would he pass 50, and that in an uncharacteristically dour rearguard action against Pakistan in 1987. As for his bowling he would only once more take as many as three wickets in an innings, and those came at a cost of 217.
Why was I wrong in my assessment of Botham's future? More than two decades on I can see that his injuries, despite his having recovered from them, would have still affected him. That said I still believe that the main reason was simply that he stopped trying. I hasten to add that I do not suggest that Botham ever gave less than 100% on the field - I have no doubt at all that he always did but his antipathy towards net practice is well known. There remains little doubt in my mind that had Ian Botham decided, in the spring of 1987, that he was going to reinvent himself as a great batsman, that he would have succeeded had he been prepared to put in the hard yards it would have needed and, as one of his legion of fans, I do still feel, even after all these years, a degree of frustration, anger and disappointment that he did not do so.
There is a wider relevance to the Botham malaise as he was not the only Englishman of his generation whose career drifted in a similar way. It has always affected some top sportsmen the world over but not, after 1987, to any Australian cricketers, well at least not any that figured in the thoughts of the national selectors. The mantras of top coaching, hard work and superlative fitness levels all directed solely towards success in international cricket were what Border and Simpson brought to Australian cricket, and will be their legacy in perpetuity. In England we watched, wide eyed and disbelieving as the baggy green juggernaut started rolling in 1989, picking up speed as it continued along. It took English cricket far too long to realise the Australian ways were right, and had to be copied. But we have got there now and in 2010/11 Andrew Strauss's men will match the achievement of Mike Gatting's side - but just to make sure could Glenn McGrath please go on record as saying that the current England side "Can't bat, can't bowl and can't field"