Our Cricketing Heroes – Allan BorderCameron Burge |
A tour to Australia by the West Indies takes one back to more dangerous days – when wickets were greener, helmets less reliable, bats less explosive and visiting bowlers elicited feelings of impending doom. I speak, of course, of the late 1970s and the 1980s.
Roberts. Holding. Garner. Croft. Marshall. Walsh. Patterson. Ambrose. Bishop.
Don’t just glance at those names; take a while to consider just how devastating they were. A production line of awesome fast bowlers who came to represent Caribbean dominance. In that era, if you wanted to drive, you went and bought a new car.
But it wasn’t just the West Indies who possessed fine bowlers. Pakistan had Imran and Sarfraz, with able support in the spinning department from Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed followed by the masterful Abdul Qadir and later still the great Wasim Akram. New Zealand had Richard Hadlee; Bob Willis and Ian Botham (in his pomp) carried England’s attack; India had Kapil Dev and an array of spinners who tested technique and temperament, especially at home. Make no mistake, this was an era of tough, uncompromising Test cricket played on a variety of surfaces against varied attacks.
Allan Robert Border stepped into this firmament during the Packer schism in 1978-79. Short, pugnacious and talented, Border proceeded to launch a career the greatness of which is sometimes lost on those who saw little, if any, of “Captain Grumpy”. To those who revere Steve Waugh’s admirable fighting qualities, take pause to remember that it was Border who taught Waugh virtually all he knew about toughness. Steve Waugh was a tough batsman, his approach founded in the misery of his early days in the mid-80s. But Waugh’s toughness really manifested itself as Australia began its ascendency. His first Test captain, by contrast, had to lead a mediocre side through a period of upheaval and division. When it came to toughness, Allan Border was Steve Waugh squared.
In just his second Test, Border made a soon-to-be-trademark half century as a Packer-less Australia crumbled against England. Twin failures in the next match saw Border dropped, but he was recalled for the first Test of the next series against Pakistan. It was to be the first of an incredible 153 consecutive matches at the highest level for Border.
Batting at number three, Border compiled his maiden test hundred as Australia reached 305 for three in chasing 382 for victory. His dismissal for 105 triggered an amazing collapse of 7 for 5 as Australia failed to cope with Sarfraz’s dazzling spell of 7 for 1. Little did Border or anyone else suspect that lone hands amongst the ruins of batting collapses would become his stock-in-trade for nigh on the next decade.
His first overseas tour (to India) saw Border compile 521 runs at 43, including 162 at Chennai (then Madras) where he first displayed the immaculate technique and temperament against spin which he maintained for the balance of his career. His solid contribution saw Border retained for the first post-Packer series in which Australia played three Tests against each of England and West Indies.
Against West Indies, Border managed a paltry 118 runs at 19 and it was during this series I recall him being referred to as “Big Bird’s Bunny”. Against England he fared much better, finishing third in the averages behind the Chappell brothers with 198 runs at 49.50.
Border kept his place for Australia’s tour of Pakistan in 1980. During that series, he made his first piece of cricketing history when he became the first player in Test history to compile 150 in each innings. He remains the only player to complete this double act.
By 1981 Border was a regular in the Australian side. On that year’s disastrous Ashes tour, Border stood tall when all were failing around him. In the last two matches of the series, he scored 123 not out, 106 not out and 84 in consecutive innings – 313 runs over two Tests in 15 hours of batting before he was dismissed. These performances led Sir Len Hutton to describe Border as “the best young left-handed batsman in the world”.
When England visited Australia in 82-83, Border struggled and there were calls for his sacking from the side. He responded in typical style, manufacturing an inspired last-wicket stand with Jeff Thomson at Melbourne which saw Australia come within three runs of victory when all had seemed lost.
The end of season 83-84 saw the retirements of Lillee, Chappell and Marsh from national colours, and Australia entered arguably the darkest period of its Test-playing history. New captain Kim Hughes had the questionable privilege of leading his relatively inexperienced side on a tour to the West Indies. The tour was a shambles from an Australian point of view, but it served to confirm Border’s greatness as a batsman.
In the second match at Port of Spain, Border walked out to face his nemesis Garner with Australia teetering at 16 for three. Despite Garner snaring 6-60, Border remained 98 not out in a total of 255. Facing a deficit of 213 on the first innings, Border’s second innings rescue act began at 55 for three late on day four. When Terry Alderman joined Border at 238 for 9, Australia was only 25 runs to the good and a thrashing seemed inevitable. Incredibly, Border and Alderman batted for 105 minutes to secure a draw, with Border smashing the last ball of the match for four to bring up his hundred. Pointedly, West Indies wicketkeeper Jeff Dujon listed Border’s missing out on twin hundreds in this match as his greatest disappointment in cricket.
In that Test, Border resisted for 634 minutes on a lively pitch against an attack which included both Garner and Malcolm Marshall with support from Wayne Daniel and Milton Small. He finished the series with 521 runs at 74: more than twice as many runs as the next best Australian batsman.
By the mid-1980s, Australia was well and truly in the mire. Hughes had retired in tears, and Border had reluctantly taken over as captain. Despite the new skipper’s fighting qualities, the rebuilding phase was made more difficult when a group of mercenaries led by Hughes defected to a rebel tour of South Africa. Series losses home and away to England and a first ever series loss to New Zealand at home confirmed the depth of the despair. Moreover, Border’s captaincy was stilted and lacked imagination during this period.
Recognising the need to support its captain, the Australian Cricket Board (as it then was) appointed Bob Simpson as national coach. Simpson’s appointment coincided with the selectors adopting an approach of selecting young players who, while not perhaps ready for Test cricket, were perceived as having the necessary temperament to ultimately succeed at the top level. Over the ensuing few years, players like David Boon, Steve Waugh, Geoff Marsh, Dean Jones, Merv Hughes and Ian Healy were either introduced or persisted with when many thought they ought to have been discarded. They formed the nucleus of the team which led Australia’s resurgence.
The result was a renewed sense of purpose in Border and his team. It is a well-worn tale that Border led Australia to India where they played in only the second tie in history, then back to the subcontinent a year later for the unlikeliest of World Cup victories. By 1989, Border was leading a team on the rise, his unheralded side thumping England 4-0 and beginning a 16 year run of Ashes dominance. Despite not winning a series against West Indies, by the time Border retired in 1994, Australia was well on its way to becoming the number one side in world cricket, a feat which Border’s successor Mark Taylor accomplished the next year with victory in the Caribbean.
To simply recount Allan Border’s statistical achievements is to sell him short. Border WAS Australian cricket in the 1980s – the sole shining light of its darkest days. Moreover, he typified the traits which many Australians would like to see in themselves: doggedness in the face of adversity; standing up to a superior foe, and a hard-edged determination above all else.
Border’s legacy to Australian cricket is as under-estimated as it is immense. He demanded high standards from his young team, but more importantly he set and maintained those standards for himself, whether with bat, in the field or as an under-utilised left arm spinner. The benchmarks which he and Simpson established gave his side the hard edge which it carried into its era of dominance – and which, without Border’s guiding hand, it sometimes carried too far.
Who could forget Border telling an exhausted, dehydrated and physically ill Dean Jones during the Tied Test to “get out so we can get a real man, a Queenslander in”, which inspired Jones to continue on to his epic double hundred? Or his spray of Craig McDermott on the 93 Ashes tour when McDermott back-chatted him in a tour match, leading the skipper to remark “Don’t push me son, or you’ll be on the next f***ing plane home!” But perhaps the incident which best sums up Border’s hard-edged approach was during the same series, when at stumps on day two of the fourth Test with his team sitting at 613 for four and with the Ashes in the bag, Border walked into the change room and announced “We are batting on tomorrow to inflict further physical and mental disintegration on the opposition”. He’d come a long way from the timid, reluctant captain of 1985.
The comedian Andrew Denton best summed up how AB was regarded in his excellent speech at Border’s testimonial dinner:
“I don’t just respect AB, I worship the very protector he sweats in…. The statistics alone tell the story: Eight thousand Tests. Four million one-dayers. Almost two billion runs in a career that began way back when fast bowlers began to walk erect. This guy’s been around. As Jane Border discovered when they started going out, you don?t date Allan Border, you carbon date him'”
The real beauty in Border’s story is not the records he broke, the runs he scored or even his unending reliability. Rather, it’s the fact that so self-effacing and reluctant a leader could turn a team which couldn’t beat time with a stick into one which came to ultimately dominate world cricket. To do so he had to modify his own attitude and methods, and he had to take the team with him. That he did so ensures his place in the Pantheon of Australian cricketing Gods.