“We go there, we get walloped, and we return. It will be no different this time.” Thus wrote yours truly on the eve of the test series in Australia.
There are two ways in which one can meet the fate of this prediction. The first is to take consolation in the fact that men much wiser than myself also forecast a comprehensive Australian victory. If one has to be wrong, then one may as well be wrong in the company of Geoffrey Boycott and Ian Chappell. The second (and altogether more honourable) path is to admit that I was foolish to contemplate a change in profession. Historians have no business becoming astrologers. And so I solemnly vow, in this newspaper published in the city of Saurav Ganguly, that I shall never again venture into the future.
But the past remains my preserve. Thus, looking back over the past century of test cricket, I see that before Steve Waugh’s champions, there were three other Australian teams that dominated their opponents. But, in time, each of these teams was dislodged from their perch. In the stories of their rise and fall lie the key to why India, against all odds and in defiance of all pundits, did so spectacularly well in the test matches Down Under.
The first great Australian team was forged soon after World War I. Its batting revolved around the dogged Warren Bardsley and the dashing Charlie MacCartney. Its bowling was led by the ferocious fast-bowling combination of Jack Gregory and Ted MacDonald, with that whimsical leg-break bowler, Arthur Mailey, mopping up the wickets that remained. Captained by the burly all-rounder, Warwick Armstrong, the “Big Ship”, this side won 12 test matches in three series against the old enemy, England.
The second great Australian side was built immediately after World War II. Led by Don Bradman, the other great batsmen in this team included Arthur Morris, Neil Harvey and Lindsay Hassett. Again, the main strike bowlers were the quick, in this case Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. Aiding them was Bill Johnston, a superb left-arm swing bowler who could also bowl spin. Between 1946 and 1952, this Australian side won as many as 24 out of the 31 test matches that it played.
The third great Australian side was captained by that learned googly merchant, Richie Benaud. Its other world-class bowlers included Grahame McKenzie, right-arm pace, and Alan Davidson, an updated and possibly better version of Bill Johnston. Its main batsman was Neil Harvey; around him were a clutch of talented younger players, such as Bill Lawry, Bobby Simpson, and Norman O’Neill. Between 1958 and 1963, this team did not lose a single series, defeating England, Pakistan, India, the West Indies and South Africa.
Four features were common to these teams. First, each side had an abundance of quality all-rounders. Gregory, and Miller, and Benaud, could all run through a side or score a match-winning century. Just a little behind them in this respect were Armstrong, Lindwall and Davidson.
Second, each side fielded much better than their opponents. In the team of the Twenties, “Nip” Pellew and T.J.E. Andrews redefined the art of outfielding; while Gregory and Bardsley caught everything that came their way at slip. Bradman was himself one of the finest fielders to grace the game; with him were Neil Harvey (a cover specialist), and Keith Miller (an outstanding slip). Likewise, the side of the late Fifties had at least half-a-dozen brilliant fieldsmen, among whom were Davidson, O’Neill, Simpson and the captain himself.
Third, each of these sides was very well served behind the stumps. Armstrong first had Hanson Carter and then Bert Oldfield. Bradman had Don Tallon, while Benaud had Wally Grout; both of whom would figure on any short list of the greatest wicket-keepers in the history of cricket.
Fourth, the batting of all three sides was dominated by stroke-players. True, Warren Bardsley and Herbie Collins were careful and orthodox, as, later, were Sid Barnes and Bill Lawry. But the bulk of the batsmen were strokemakers. Macartney, Armstrong, Morris, Hassett, Harvey, O’Neill; all sought to score at four or five runs an over. And the likes of Gregory, Miller and Davidson were more attacking still.
Fabulous fielding, brilliant wicket-keeping, explosive batsmanship; in these respects, the Australian side of our own time has emulated its predecessors. And while it may have lacked all-rounders in the conventional sense, Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist have done the work of two men — one behind, the other before, the stumps — and done it spectacularly well too.
Warwick Armstrong himself never lost a test series as captain, but the side he built was finally defeated by England in 1926. Don Bradman was likewise unvanquished as a leader; but his boys lost to England in 1953. Richie Benaud, again, retired undefeated, but soon afterwards Australia was dethroned as world champions by the West Indies.
How and why did these sides finally lose' In each case, the chief cause was a decline in bowling strength. Ted MacDonald did not tour England in 1926, and his mate, Gregory, was a shadow of his former self. On the 1953 tour of England, Bill Johnston broke down, Miller was plagued by a bad back, and Lindwall was ageing. And when Australia lost to the West Indies in 1964-65, they were without Benaud and Davidson, who were both retired.
Notably, while the bowling had declined, the batting remained strong. In England, in 1926, Bardsley and Macartney both batted at close to their top form — as, 27 years later, did Hassett, Morris and Harvey. Likewise, there were three world-class batsmen in the Australian side that toured the Caribbean: Lawry, O’Neill, and the captain, Bobby Simpson.
Man for man, the batting matched the opposition. So did the fielding. But not the bowling. When England won at the Oval in 1926, crucial roles were played by the tear-away cold, Harold Larwood, and the veteran slow bowler, Wilfrid Rhodes. When Len Hutton’s side regained the Ashes in the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the Australians came unstuck against an attack led by the young Freddie Trueman and sustained by the Surrey spin-twins, Tony Lock and Jim Laker. And in the West Indies in 1964-65, while Australia had but one world-class fast bowler, Garth McKenzie, the home side had three — Hall, Griffith and Sobers — apart from a world-class slow bowler, Lance Gibbs.
Bowlers win test matches, and bowling attacks make world champions. Taking 20 wickets is far more important than scoring 600 runs. In their pomp, of course, the great Australian sides did both. In their declining years, they retained the ability to put up large totals. What they lost was the ability to bowl out the opposition quickly and cheaply.
Such was the case in 1926, in 1953, in 1964-65 and in 2003-04 as well. For Ponting and Langer have batted as well as Dravid and Laxman. Gilchrist has kept far better than young Parthiv Patel. But Kumble, always, and Agarkar, when it mattered, bowled with more penetration than Lee and Gillespie and McGill. In retrospect, one can see that the loss of McGrath and Warne meant more, far more, than Steve Waugh appreciated, or we, know-all pundits, understood.