Almanac Book Review – ‘Border’s Battlers’ by Michael Sexton

 

 

 

 

Michael Sexton has captured the drama and mystery that surrounds the famous 1986 Tied Test in Madras. Border’s Battlers (Affirm Press 2019) is the eighth book for the veteran journalist and follows his highly-acclaimed Chappell’s Last Stand which is an account of South Australia’s astounding Sheffield Shield-winning 1975/76 season.

 

The Madras Tied Test is widely misunderstood and underappreciated. Just today I mentioned to someone that I had read a book about the Tied Test in 1986. They quickly corrected me and said that “the” Tied Test was actually in 1960 in Brisbane. Ian Meckiff being run out by Joe Solomon with a direct hit is certainly a classic image depicting the final moment of this great game, but there was another equally thrilling Tied Test in more recent times which is worth recalling as well.  Sexton, has finally filled this gap in the cricket book market and to quote John Harms on the front cover blurb, “gives this epic Test match the place in cricket history it deserves.”

 

Tests between Australia and India were still quite infrequent and conditions on the sub-continent were basic in some respects. The key off-field support staff consisted of coach, Bobby Simpson and team physiotherapist, Erroll Alcott. To describe Alcott as just a physio would be downplay his role as he was a general medical advisor in the oppressive heat and basic conditions. Some of his far-sighted ideas make for interesting reading, eg the Australian cricket team should stay at hotels equipped with a swimming pool and gym, surely now a given for a professional sporting team.

 

It was a period of transition for Australian cricket: World Series Cricket was long-over but a rebel tour of South Africa had lured some players seeking financial security over a baggy green. As if to symbolise the situation, a single WSC-capped player, off-spinner Ray Bright, was in calculations for a berth in the Test. He would end up playing a significant role in the match alongside fellow tweaker, Greg Matthews. Allan Border had replaced a tearful Kim Hughes as the Australian Captain and had earnt the nickname “Captain Grumpy” with his off-field demeanour. The young Steve Waugh showed promise but was still a kid and yet to taste success. The foundations were in place but a lot of hard work was required to restore Australian cricket to its former glory.

 

The Tied Test is best-remembered for one epic individual performance by a batsman, Dean Jones. Ironically Jones had been no certainty to be picked for the Test ahead of West Australian Mike Valetta. As Sexton described it, Border had personally invited, and then sternly entrusted, Jones to bat at number three for the next two years, the realisation of a lifelong dream for the brash young Victorian.  At that stage, Jones was predominantly a one-day performer, having played just two Tests with a highest score of 48 not out. Indeed, it would have been a big decision by the captain to hand him the spot regarded as the most important in the batting line up. Jones was duly able to repay the faith shown in him by scoring 210 in a first innings of 7 dec for 574. It was an amazing feat of human endurance resulting in Jones losing seven kilograms of weight and becoming dangerously ill. Bobby Simpson rated it the best innings by an Australian that he had ever seen.

 

A recurring theme in Sexton’s narrative is the furnace-like conditions, the humidity and the pungent odour from a canal outside the concrete stadium. Matthews, for reasons best known to Mo himself, toiled away in a sleeveless sweater and baggy green cap.  Meanwhile, his bowling partner, Ray Bright, 33, overweight and fond of a beer or two, was said to be barely able to stand in the field on Day 5.

 

Like the recent “Stokes” Test match, there was little to indicate that this would be one of the most dramatic-ever climaxes to a Test. By its very nature, Test cricket is akin to a 5-day tug of war. On reflection, there are always crucial moments like a dropped catch or a missed stumping. If a game is close, these small moments are magnified 100-fold. Nathan Lyon’s unfortunate fumble and failure to run out Jack Leach to secure The Ashes at Edgbaston is one such moment.  Herschelle Gibbs’ famous ‘dropping of the World Cup’ for South Africa is another.

 

The Madras match looked like being a runfest with no decisive result likely. The docile pitch was referred to by David Boon as ’a road without the white lines up the middle!’ Commendably, both teams played to win until the final ball, as they had in Brisbane 26 years earlier. Sexton describes in vivid detail the cut and thrust of the game, including the heated exchanges between players in the 40 degree heat and 90% humidity.

 

He has interviewed all the key players in the drama as well as some of the few Australian journalists who reported on the match. Unlike today there was no television coverage of the event beamed back to Australia.

 

He also discusses the state of Indian cricket which was in its own transition – the Bedi/Gavasker years were nearly over and the future revolved around a combative fast-bowling all-rounder, Kapil Dev. In India’s first innings, batting at number 7, he plundered 119 from 138 balls with nineteen boundaries. In many respects the new captain was the antithesis of his predecessor, the more circumspect Sunil Gavaskar.

 

In describing each days play, Sexton has helpfully added the stumps scores and notable individual performances for the day.

 

When Australia declared its second innings at the close of Day 4, the assignment for India was to score 348 or bat for the entire day and force a draw. Conversely, to win Australia needed 10 wickets on a pitch that was starting to take spin. David Boon, who was involved in the declaration decision with Border and Simpson, said: “We wanted to learn how to win cricket matches. Because of 1985-86, losing more than we won, we didn’t want to be scared of losing. (It was like), what have we got to lose?”

 

With one over to go, it was 4 to win and 3 to tie with one wicket left. Therefore, all four results were in play- India win, Australia win, draw or a tie.

 

Matthews was the bowler and Shastri the batsman. One hefty blow from Shastri and it would be all over. He had earlier lifted Greg for two huge sixes, so a tie was going to be a win of sorts for Australia. The author describes the excruciatingly tense final five balls of the match in graphic detail.

 

The cover photo of Border’s Battlers shows the jubilation of the Australians as the umpire’s finger points skywards. The controversial LBW decision had ensured a tie, but even this was not certain as the scoreboards at the ground showed different scores! Border himself is holding the ball and looking at the umpire in astonishment. From his close fielding position, he may have heard an inside edge. Shastri, at the non-striker’s end, was even more certain the umpire had erred. The umpires were certainly assured of their place in history but their cards had already been stamped by the Indian cricket authorities. Neither would officiate in a Test match again.

 

The tie was not immediately significant for Australian cricket as the next two Tests in the series were drawn. However, under Simpson and Border, there was a belief that an Australian XI could win against the odds.  A year later they went back to the sub-continent and won the World Cup. ‘Border’s Battlers’ were now the world champions.

 

Border’s Battlers is well worth reading for those who want to know more about a remarkable match that shaped Australian cricket for the next ten years.

 

To secure a copy of Border’s Battlers send us an email and we’ll point you in the right direction.  [email protected]

 

To see the full scoreboard of this match, click HERE.

 

 

Reviewed by Dan Hoban

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks for this Dan.

    I love Mike’s work, but for me this one was a bit of a slog to get through initially, due to the amount of background detail/scene setting. However, it documents an era that has been largely overlooked to date, which is important in itself and there were countless insights that were new to me.

    3.5 abdominal protectors (out of 5)

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