While the Rebels Were AwayMartin Chandler |
Robert Baddeley Simpson was 21 when he made his Test debut in South Africa in 1957/58. Over the next decade he played in 52 Tests for Australia before retiring from First Class cricket in order to concentrate on business. He was then very much at the peak of his powers as a player, averaging 58.80 with the bat in his final series against India in 1967/68, and enjoying his best ever series with the ball, his leg breaks and googlies bringing him 13 wickets at 16.38. At the end of that series his career average with the bat was 49.80. His bowling, very much his second discipline, had brought him 67 wickets, albeit at a relatively high cost, just a shade under 40. He was also as good a slip fielder as there has been, his ratio of catches per innings, 0.94, being comfortably the best that has been achieved. In addition he spent four years as Australian captain. Even his greatest admirers would not have claimed that he was one of the great skippers, but his record is a decent one nevertheless.
The First Class game left behind Simpson continued to play grade cricket, with considerable success, and from time to time attempts were made to entice him back into big cricket. He always resisted until, in 1977, he finally answered an SOS from the ACB. The game was in turmoil as a result of the defection of almost all of its top players to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket (WSC). With a fight on their hands for their very survival the Board organised a home series against India followed by one in the Caribbean for 1977/78. The only proven Test player available for selection was Jeff Thomson, and he was hardly captaincy or ambassadorial material, so Simpson was approached, and this time he agreed.
The Indians arrived at the beginning of November. They had never beaten a state side on either of their two previous tours so they would have been delighted to begin their trip with a win over South Australia. They then defeated Victoria, the first touring team to do so in fifteen years. After that New South Wales and finally Queensland went the same way. All of the victories were comfortable, and that over Queensland was by an innings. Bishen Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar had prospered on a pitch that deteriorated rapidly and the home side only just extended the game into a third day. Had Erapelli Prasanna not been injured before the start of the second day’s play the game surely would not have lasted as long as it did.
So India went into the first Test at the ‘Gabba full of confidence and hoping for a similar wicket to the state game. On that basis Simpson knew he would have to bat first if, as he duly did, he won the toss. The Australian side contained six debutants, Paul Hibbert (25), David Ogilvie (26), Peter Toohey (23), Tony Mann (32), Steve Rixon (23) and Wayne Clark (24). There wasn’t much experience amongst the rest of the side either as Alan Hurst (27) had played just a solitary Test, Craig Serjeant (26) had three caps and Gary Cosier (24) just nine. Apart from their captain the only seasoned Test player in the Australian side was Thomson (27) who was winning his 23rd cap.
The youngest player in the match was India’s Dilip Vengsarkar, who was just 21, although this was his seventh cap. There were no debutants for the Indians, nor had WSC claimed any of their number, and the rest of their vastly experienced side consisted of Sunil Gavaskar (28), Mohinder Amarnath (27), Gundappa Vishwanath (28), Brijesh Patel (25), Ashok Mankad (31), Syed Kirmani (27), Madan Lal (26) and the great spinning triumverate of skipper Bedi (31), Chandra (32) and Prasanna (37). Given their start to the tour the Indians must have been confident of success. The young Australian side, fighting not only for their country but for the future of the traditional order of things in the game, were certainly up against it.
Simpson wrote later that he had never seen a wicket take so much spin on the first day. When Bedi brought himself on to bowl, right at the end of a rain interrupted first session, he immediately removed Ogilvie with a classical slow left armer’s looping and spinning delivery, and right after lunch two more of those saw off Serjeant and Simpson to make the score 43-4. The fifth wicket fell soon afterwards but there was then a recovery of sorts, ably led by Peter Toohey, who marshalled the tail superbly before he was last out for 82 out of an inadequate looking total of 166. That total did look rather better however as Thomson produced a fearsome opening burst. The one wicket to fall, that of Gavaskar, went to Clark, but Thommo had fired a warning shot.
Next morning, bright and hot in contrast to the first day, Clark quickly removed Amarnath. Vengsarkar and Vishwanath then put on 75, and made the only two decent scores of the innings. Both were dropped early on from the luckless Thomson, the former by Simpson of all people. In the end India got to 153, the innings would have been in tatters had those chances been accepted. As the Australians began their second innings after tea there was no reason to expect trouble but, not for the first time in that era, the innocuous looking Indian opening attack ripped out three quick wickets to leave Australia on 7-3. That however was the end of the nonsense and Ogilvie and Simpson, followed by Toohey again with his second fifty of the match, righted the ship. A tenth wicket partnership of 50 between Thomson and Hurst meant that the innings totalled 327 and India’s victory target was therefore a distant 341.
Vengsarkar was out early in India’s chase, playing all round an out-swinger from Clark, but having been off the field all day there were many Australians who questioned his entitlement to open. His early dismissal stopped the controversy but Amarnath and Gavaskar then added 51 before the close. The pair began well next day as well but Australia kept chipping away, and despite Gavaskar going on to a fine century, they seemed home and dry when the eighth wicket fell at 275. There were 66 still needed and just Bedi and Chandra left. Bedi could strike a few lusty blows but had no real pretentions to being a batsman, and Chandra was as poor a batsman as has ever played the game at Test level. In the event there were a few jangling nerves, as Bedi came off for once and with Kirmani got India to within 23. But then Kirmani mistimed a hook and lobbed a catch up to square leg. Bedi tried to take charge but wasn’t good enough to shelter Chandra from Thomson and the demon fast bowler soon dismissed the leg spinner to give Australia victory by just 16 runs.
Relieved and not a little surprised by their narrow victory Australia made three changes for Perth. Out went Hibbert, never to return, and with doubts about Cosier’s heel he too was omitted. In came two 23 year olds, opener John Dyson for his debut, and Kim Hughes for just his second cap. Serjeant was promoted to open with Dyson. Finally Sam Gannon (30), another debutant, was preferred to Hurst. For India Mankad was unfit so Chetan Chauhan (30) returned to partner Gavaskar and allow Vengsarkar to take his natural place in the middle order. Amongst the bowlers the off spinners were switched, Prasanna giving way to Srinivas Venkataraghavan (32). The younger Venkat was not much behind Prasanna as a bowler, and was a much better fielder, and as a batsman if he was some way short of being a genuine all-rounder, he was rather better than his rival.
Before the match Bedi, as he was entitled to, had refused to allow the wicket to be watered. He wanted as much of the pace out of it as possible, and the likelihood of it breaking up in the final stages of the match was an added bonus. The toss was duly won by Bedi and he must have fancied his side’s chances of squaring the series. The early dismissal of Gavaskar would have been a blow to his hopes but, ultimately, he might well have expected rather more than the 402 his side eventually totalled after a second wicket partnership of 149 between Chauhan and Amarnath. In the rollercoaster ride that Test matches can be however, after Thomson ripped out the middle order to leave India on 235-5, he would have been happy with what he got, the lower order of Madan Lal, Kirmani and Venkat contributing 43, 38 and 37 respectively. Of Madan Lal’s innings Simpson later wrote I still can’t believe it. What he did was impossible. He was referring to his habit of taking two steps back to leg to the quick men, and then slashing the ball through the covers.
That Australia got to within touching distance of a first innings lead was due to their captain rolling back the years with a gritty 176 put together in six and a half hours. Only opener Dyson, with a turgid 53, and nightwatchman Rixon, with 50, offered much support. India’s second innings began well for them as Gavaskar, first with Chauhan and then Amarnath, saw them to 240. He eventually went for 127. Amarnath too stayed to complete a century but the rest of the batting fell away and Bedi declared on 330-9 rather than expose Chandra to the marauding Thomson, stung by the combination of a warning from the umpires early in the innings for intimidatory bowling, and the highly competent manner in which Amarnath had dealt with his thunderbolts.
Thommo also had a big say in Australia’s second innings, albeit somewhat tenuously. Thanks to the pace of his bowling Rixon suffered a hand injury and could not take up his first innings role of nightwatchman. Tony Mann did instead and his 105 was the foundation upon which Toohey and Simpson added a century partnership. At 295-4 an Australian victory looked to be nailed on, but there was then a collapse before, after a bit of unnecessary teetering on the brink, Thomson finally had the last word, smacking Bedi over the covers to get the boundary that brought Australia a second narrow win, this time by two wickets.
The third Test at the MCG saw three Indian changes, Prasanna returning in place of Venkat and Karsan Ghavri (26) replacing Madan Lal. Ghavri was one of those bits and pieces players that India used to field in those days to take the shine off the new ball and give the lower order a bit of substance. He was a left arm bowler, strictly medium pace, but with all due respect to Madan Lal, Eknath Solkar, Syed Abid Ali and Roger Binny, was undoubtedly the best bowler amongst that group. A fit again Mankad replaced the unimpressive Patel in the batting line up. Australia were unchanged save for the return of Cosier at the expense of Hughes.
Bedi won the toss and batted on a quick bouncy wicket and India lost two wickets without a run on the board. Their last four later went down for two runs, so it was as well that inbetween the middle order all made a contribution. The impressive Amarnath top scored again with 72. It was fortunate for India that he was given lives on 13 and 43, as the 256 they eventually totalled did not look like enough.
Gavaskar played for India 125 times. He was of course one of his country’s finest ever batsmen, but his solitary Test wicket cost him 206 runs. With Amarnath, another ordinary medium paced trundler, unable to bowl due to a finger injury, Gavaskar opened the bowling with Ghavri. It is perhaps not surprising that the two quick wickets India took both went to the left armer. Gavaskar bowled two overs, and Ghavri nine. First Cosier and then Serjeant batted well for Australia, but no one else did and after a six wicket haul for Chandra India emerged with a precious lead of 43.
With an opportunity beckoning Gavaskar, in his rather more familiar role, scored a century in India’s second innings. Viswanath, Mankad, Kirmani and, inevitably and despite his injury, Amarnath, all gave him some assistance as India made their way to 343, thus a victory target for the home side of 387. They never looked like getting there and Chandra repeated his 6-52 from the first innings as Australia were routed for 164. India ran out winners by the small matter of 222 runs.
Hughes came back in place of Ogilvie for the fourth Test at the SCG. India did not change their winning combination. Simpson, realising the wicket would take spin later on had no hesitation in batting after he won the toss but sadly for him the match carried on where the third Test had left off. Australia were all at sea against Chandra and Bedi and were bowled out for 131. Their captain played a lone hand, top scoring with 38. As if to mock the Australians the Indians then batted through the final session to reach 86 without loss.
Next day Australia would have perked up briefly as both openers and the talismanic Amarnath were dismissed before their score was matched. Vengsarkar and Viswanath then put on 125 and later Kirmani, Ghavri and Prasanna all scored runs before Bedi declared on 396-8. Again the reason for the declaration was to spare Chandra from the risk of injury, and indeed himself from further damaging his own right hand after he took a sharp knock on it. Had the Australians not put down a regulation catch from Vishwanath, and two from Vengsarkar, all off Thomson and all before the pair were established, it may have been a different story.
So Australia needed 265 to make India bat again. They nearly got there, and Toohey and Cosier both batted well, but after them only Simpson, again, showed any application and, this time with Prasanna playing the leading role. The eventual margin of victory as India levelled the series was an innings and two runs.
If there were ever any doubt that spectators would prefer the official game this fascinating series had scotched that. After the Indians early clean sweep in the state games, followed by the two narrow home victories and subsequent recovery the public imagination had been well and truly captured, and all eyes turned to Adelaide for the decider.
All season Adelaide wickets had been helping pace bowlers and Simpson was hoping for a quick green wicket. He would have been rather disappointed with the straw coloured strip he saw. Australia’s selectors acknowledged recent problems by making as many as five changes from the team that lost at the SCG. First of all the youngest opening pair in Australian history made their debuts, Graeme Wood (21) and Rick Darling (20). At first drop Graham Yallop (25), veteran of three previous Tests, came in. Like Wood he was a left hander, something Simpson had grown to believe was important to try and disrupt the Indian spinners’ rhthym. Dyson, Serjeant and Hughes were the unucky batsmen, and Cosier found himself moved down the order to six.
Amongst the bowlers Gannon and the hero of the second Test, Mann were left out. Despite his matchwinning hundred Mann had paid 79 runs each for his four wickets and had seldom looked threatening. As for Gannon he could consider himself a little unfortunate, but he was not very quick and the selectors decided they wanted someone faster to partner Thomson. Victorian debutant Ian Callen (22) was not express pace by any means, but he was sharp, and enjoying a good season. Mann’s replacement, another first-timer, was Bruce (Roo) Yardley, an off spinner. At 30 his selection was perhaps a little surprising, but he was renowned for his steadiness.
Simpson won the toss and batted and despite a few alarms for Darling the openers both made runs. Wood’s composed innings of 39 was brought to an end by a brilliant piece of work by Kirmani. Darling’s 65 was a little streakier but no less important. After lunch Yallop showed the value of a left hand/right hand combination as with Toohey and then Simpson the future captain set about putting up a commanding score. These three scored 121, 60 and 100 and after the captain went at 457 the tail, more particularly Callen and Thomson, wagged to good effect to take Australia to 505.
With both openers and Amarnath back in the pavilion with just 23 on the board India looked in trouble. They never quite dug themselves out of it, but with Vishwanath’s 89, assisted by Vengsarkar, Kirmani and Anshuman Gaekwad (25), who had replaced Mankad, the Indians got to 269. It was as well for India that Thomson had pulled up lame after taking the third wicket.
Although the follow on was available Simpson chose to bat again and at the close of the third day Australia were 103-3, 339 runs on. Bedi caused some controversy at a press conference by berating the umpiring, but in truth there was little to justify his attack, that was doubtless borne of frustration at the seemingly hopeless position his side were in after starting the game as favourites. Next day India chipped away and restricted Australia to 256 but this did not raise any real hope – after all no side has ever scored 492 to win a Test. In this match there were still more than two days to go, a sixth having been added so, with no rain in the offing, there was no chance of a draw.
The pitch was still good, and there was no Thomson, but even so when, after scoring at an uncharacteristic run a minute for nearly half an hour, Gavaskar was out hooking, India’s slim chance seemed to have gone. When the previously circumspect Chauhan was also out to a rash shot shortly before the close Australia were well in command.
On the fifth day the wicket, if anything, got better and with Clark having back problems the Australians lacked any sort of cutting edge. Amarnath and Vishwanath’s stand was worth 131 when the suffering Clark finally got rid of Vishy. Yardley kept plugging away and by the close had removed the middle order. India were 362-6, and by no means out of it although they were not, of course, entitled to expect much from Prasanna, Bedi and Chandra.
Next morning the not out batsmen, Ghavri and Kirmani, knew the responsibility was theirs and they soldiered on until the new ball was taken. Ghavri, who had scored 23, was out at 415 and when Kirmani went two balls later the game was up, or at least it should have been. There was no way the spinners were going to get another 75, but they decided to take the fight to the bowlers and when, fittingly, last man Chandra was dismissed by Simpson, the difference between the sides was just 47. Without the rushes of blood to the head from her openers back on the fourth evening India might even have secured the most improbable victory in Test history. Had they got there it would remain to this day the highest fourth innings total resulting in victory of all time. Even in defeat it has been exceeded only twice, once by England in the Timeless Test in 1939, and by New Zealand, against England, at Christchurch in 2002.
Only in Perth, where the WACA was staging only its fourth Test, were the crowds disappointing. Although 35 years on interest in this era largely surrounds the WSC matches that were played, at the time the ratings war was won hands down by the establishment. As for Bob Simpson he had averaged 53.90, and added two centuries to his tally. He wasn’t finished either because as soon as the final Test ended he left with the party that was going to the West Indies. That series was also interesting if rather more one-sided. The WSC season was over by then and its players all signalled their availability. Australia steadfastly ignored their outlaws but their Caribbean counterparts, reasoning that at no time had their Packer players refused to play for West Indies, selected them. The first two Tests ended in heavy defeats for Simpson’s team, but after that the WSC West Indians all withdrew and when the third Test began just Alvin Kallicharran and off spinner Deryck Parry remained from the first two matches. Australia duly won the third Test, and the West Indies were down and out when a crowd disturbance caused the abandonement of the fifth Test. In the fourth though the new West Indies side had taken a big win to retain the Frank Worrell Trophy. For Simpson there was just one half century, and an average for the series of 22.11. It was the end of his playing career although not his influence, Simpson the coach later being the man largely responsible for the side that assumed the West Indies mantle in the 1990s
For the Australian Test side there was one more real trauma as the side led by Yallop in 1979/80 was beaten 5-1 as Mike Brearley’s side retained the Ashes. As the slick WSC publicity machine waged war, and the average cricket fan lost interest in a second string side that was getting thumped by their oldest and bitterest rivals the end was in sight. A series against a Pakistan side with its full complement of WSC players, after England went home, was honourably drawn, but that was the end for the seconds as peace was restored for 1979/80 season and Greg Chappell assumed the leadership once more.
With their WSC players returning most of the men who had played in that exhilarating series against India melted away. Of those who were first capped against Bedi’s men only Wood, Hughes and, although he was dropped during the series, Dyson, made the grade amongst the batsmen. Toohey played twice after the reunification and Darling five times, but Hibbert, Ogilvie and Cosier never played for the full side. Rod Marsh donned the gauntlets again on his return, so Rixon was no more, although he did reappear three times seven years later. Of the bowlers Yardley, perhaps surprisingly in light of his being 30 on debut, enjoyed a 33 Test career, but Gannon, Callen, Clark and Mann never wore the baggy green again.
The legacy of Kerry Packer and WSC is apparent wherever the game is played and the late 1970s has, with the showing in 2012 of a dramatised mini-series on Australian television, and the release of a new book, renewed interest in the period. Bob Simpson’s men however seem to have been left on the shelf, which is a great shame given that his side, and that of Bishen Bedi, gave the game one of the most exciting Test series in its history.