Border created Aussie dynasty - 'Captain Grumpy' replaced mid-80s mediocrity with fight and passion

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  • Published 21.07.05

As well as winning the last eight Ashes series, Australia have also been the best team in world cricket since February 1995, when they toppled reigning monarchs, the West Indies, in the Caribbean.

But that greatness has been hard won and can be traced directly to Allan Border, the ‘Captain Grumpy’ who created a dynasty when he replaced mid-80s mediocrity with fight and passion. Border, or AB as he is widely known, was a combative batsman who gained his first chance of Test cricket against England in 1978-79 after Kerry Packer World Series had filleted countries of their star players.

A compact lefthander with a sound defence and a few well-oiled shots ? principally the cut, the cover drive and pull ? Border went on to play 156 Tests, captaining Australia in 93 of them, and scoring a world record 11,174 runs in the process. That colossal career included nine Ashes series, though he was on the losing side in four of the first five.

As two of those defeats occurred on his watch as skipper, including the 1986-87 series when England last held the old urn, the jibes from media and public eventually got to him and he decided to do something about it. In truth, he’d probably already begun the process the previous English summer as Essex’s overseas player.

Like many Australians, Border was intrigued by the county treadmill and spent the 1986 and 1988 seasons with the county. Back then, Essex had a reputation for playing hard cricket with a light touch, though Border later admitted it was Keith Fletcher, Essex’s gnostic skipper, then in the throes of handing over power to Graham Gooch, that he was hoping to learn most from.

It proved a symbiotic relationship. Watching Border from close quarters was an education that couldn’t be bought from a coach in the indoor nets. One innings against Hampshire in 1986, at Ilford’s Valentines Park, contained his best qualities. Needing 196 to win in the fourth innings of a County Championship match, Essex fell 12 runs short with Border the last man out for 54. The dry pitch, after two days play, was a minefield, and Border, batting in cap rather than helmet, took a frightening amount of body blows from Malcolm Marshall, then the quickest and best fast bowler in the world.

Batting appeared a lottery except when AB was on strike. It was precious glimpse of what separates the truly great from the merely gifted and that in cricket you have to be as tough as teak if you want to play Test cricket for any length of time, a fact most English players are only just learning.

Apart from 40-over games, which he had little time for, cricket was serious business. Not for him the Zen book of minor disappointments, and failure, as Rudyard Kipling once suggested, was not so much treated as an impostor, but as something to be confronted with little thought for those of a nervous disposition.

His temper often surprised teammates more than it did the opposition. After a slow start one season, he turned nasty on the banal dressing-room chorus of ‘Bad Luck AB’ after he chopped another one on. “Bad ****ing luck. It’s not bad luck, I’m playing like a busted a***.”

With his formative years spent playing cricket in the tough Sydney Grades, Border feistiness appeared endemic and he was never short of a word when confronted. Once, when a young Angus Fraser felt the urge to comment during a one-day match, after a wild swipe from Border had found fresh air, the Aussie went into overdrive. “I’ve faced bigger, better and uglier bowlers than you mate, now **** off and bowl the next one.”

At first, Fraser felt his riposte should have been “Well I’ve bowled at better batsmen than you,” but realised there was a basic untruth there and he probably hadn’t. Like the sensible man he is, Big Gussie left the talking to the next ball, though when it bounced off the old press box at Lord’s for six, there was little to say.

In hindsight, it was the 1987 World Cup which proved pivotal in Australia’s fortunes under Border, after his side beat England by seven runs in the final at Eden Gardens in Calcutta. Having picked young players with potential the previous year, the Aussie selectors were rewarded for sticking with them, though the process might have been questioned had Mike Gatting’s ill-fated reverse sweep to Border not cost England the match.

Since then, Australia have rarely looked back, at least against England, and having lost his first two Ashes tours as captain, Border promptly won the next four before retiring at the end of 1993. His famous directive on the 1989 tour, of “No socialising with the Poms,” may have lost him friends here, but not in Australia.

Yet, Border’s legacy, apart from his own massive contributions with the bat, was to re-introduce the tough uncompromising cricket still found on city ovals and matting pitches in the bush ? and those wearing the Baggy Green have been reaping reward ever since.