CAN’T BAT, CAN’T BOWL...
When Beefy tamed the Aussies in ’86
All those filling the Gabba on an overcast day had to do it seemed was sit and watch England collapse
Before the opening Test of the 1986/87 Ashes series in Brisbane, England’s cricketers had travelled 5,640 miles – and the odds of them ultimately emerging victorious were as lengthy as an itinerary that had seen Mike Gatting’s men embark on what had already amounted to a grand tour of Australia.
“It wasn’t as if we were travelling around and beating everyone in sight either,” says Bill Athey, 31 years on. “And everywhere we went we were reminded of what Martin Johnson had famously written about us before the series had even started.”
Johnson, of course, had quipped that there was only three things wrong with this England side….“they can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field.”
His non-too-optimistic assessment followed a resounding loss at the hands of Queensland and an equally poor display against Western Australia. Little wonder that the Aussies were licking their lips at the prospect of adding to the agony of a side that had lost eight of its previous 11 Tests.
The Aussie Press was characteristically quick to sense weakness, with the Brisbane’s Courier Mail greeting England’s to-date hapless band of travelling no-marks with the headline “Poms of course are the worst in the world”, as they touched down from Perth three days before the opening Test.
Away from the focus on England’s inadequacies, the rest of the attention was centred squarely on Australia’s twin left-arm threat of Bruce Reid and Chris Matthews. Lining up alongside them would be a young tyro fast bowler who would, over the course of the next decade become one of the most recognisable cricketers on the planet. A certain Merv Hughes.
Australia won the toss and wasted no time in inserting the tourists. All those filing into the Gabba on an overcast day had to do, it seemed, was to sit back and wait for the England batting to collapse.
“I don’t think they thought too long about putting us in,” says Athey. “I remember it being a pretty dank day, not your average Queensland weather. If we had lost some early wickets then I think things could have gone pretty badly pretty quickly. But, as it was, the way we played set the tone for the whole series.”
Far from folding, England’s batsmen occupied the crease and gradually wore down the Australian bowlers. Athey was just one of the batsmen to find some form, scoring 76 as England built a priceless base for a previously struggling middle order of Allan Lamb, David Gower and Ian Botham.
For Botham, in particular, it was a hugely significant innings. Coming in a week that had seen his acrimonious departure from Somerset confirmed, Botham attacked the Aussies’ bowling in a manner not seen since the fabled series of 1981, during his rampaging knock of 138.
He took a heavy toll on Hughes who disappeared for 134 off 36 overs in just his second Test. Given that he had conceded 123 in his first 38 overs as a Test cricketer against India the previous December in Adelaide, it was hardly the most auspicious of openings for the moustachioed Victorian.
During the game, Hughes would tell Botham that he had once coached him as a youngster on a previous trip Down Under. “What advice did I give you?” Botham enquired. “You told me to give up bowling,” came Hughes’ response. “Well, I was right, wasn’t I?” chuckled the England all-rounder.
For an Australian crowd that had come to witness a procession, the wheels were coming off. And fast. After England’s first innings effort of 456, the Aussies subsided meekly to an apologetic 248 as Graham Dilley, Phil DeFreitas and Botham ripped through them. Only a gutsy 56 not out from Greg Matthews stopped their first innings deficit from being far more significant.
“There was a lot of talk about the batting before that tour but I think a lot of people had overlooked the quality of the bowling attack we had taken out there,” says Athey. “Daffy (DeFreitas) was only 20 at the time and he was slippery. When he and Graham were on form then they were as quick as anything the Aussies had. Then we had Both, obviously, Gladstone Small and Fozzy (Neil Foster) and two quality spinners in Phil Edmonds and John Emburey.
“The only thing we didn’t have was a left-arm quick, which the Aussies have always had plenty of.”
For all the talk of Reid and Matthews, neither had lived up to their billing in the most pressurised match of their careers. And after following-on, it was the Aussie batsmen who had to work to right a sinking ship as the match entered its final phase.
“Never did a side so confound their critics as England have so far in the first Test match against Australia,” wrote John Woodcock in The Times. “In spite of all the pre-match propaganda, Australia have so far looked no less vulnerable
than they did in England in 1985. England, on the other hand, have excelled themselves.”
Australia resumed at 2-0 after the obligatory rest day but there was no let-up from an England side scenting unlikely early blood in a series in which they were supposed to be little more than sacrificial lambs.
A painstaking century from Geoff Marsh aside, the rest of Australia’s batting had no answer to the excellence of Emburey, who took 5-80 from 42 overs. DeFreitas continued to make an impression, taking 3-62 as the Aussies were dismissed for 282 – a lead of just 74.
“I was out early on in the second innings but Chris Broad batted really well and Gower came in and finished the job pretty swiftly,” says Athey.
For Broad, his 35 not out would act as a precursor to a dream Ashes series that would see him score three hundreds in successive Tests in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. Athey himself would come within four runs of a first Test century at the WACA, falling agonisingly for 96 after he and Broad had put on 223.
“I think that series was probably the best I ever played for England,” he says. “I suppose we were fortunate in that a lot of our batsmen hit form at just at the right time and we were so solid at the top of the order – that gave the middle order the opportunity to go out there when the ball was already old and the bowlers were getting tired. As an opening batsman that’s your job.”
The difference in the mood between the two camps after England had chalked up their seven-wicket win couldn’t have been starker.
“I haven’t been in a winning Test team for some time,” said Gatting, who was also celebrating his first Test win as captain. “People writing the guys off was just the spur they needed.”
Australia were contemplating having to come from behind to win an Ashes series for the first time in 50 years. Little wonder that the mood of the Aussie captain, Allan Border, was dark.
“That’s exactly how I knew they (England) could play,” he said. “You experts were suggesting they couldn’t bat, couldn’t field and couldn’t bowl.”
Johnson later said he had used the right line – but had used it to describe the wrong team. Given the woes that followed England Down Under from 1990 to 2010, he could simply have been looking into his crystal ball.
Gabba Dabba Do: Ian Botham takes the attack to Australia
Resistance: Greg Matthews
Heroes all: Mike Gatting, Ieft, Ian Botham and Phil DeFreitas, right