Reluctant but brave
Dav Whatmore, Peter Sleep, Rick Darling, Allan Border, Rodney Hogg, Kevin Wright, Graham Yallop. The names of the tourists that year were a mixture of the giggle-inducing and the dramatic. It was the autumn of 1979, and the last Packer-depleted Australia side to turn out for the ACB was in India. Those of us that greeted them that year knew little of what reluctant tourists they were, about how they felt cheated and betrayed by their overlords, and how they griped and belly-ached about their touring and playing conditions. (For that, the serious cricket fan must read Gideon Haigh's The Cricket War.) All we knew was that Indian cricket was suspended in a bizarre netherworld, one where the world's best cricket players all seemed to be playing in a poorly attended circus in Australia, while second-stringers were sent to our shores. But I still thought the Packer players were mercenaries and still paid obeisance to nation-based cricket, so these players were going to get all my attention.
Kim Hughes' Australians lost the six-Test series against India 2-0 but they were not disgraced, and during the course of that season, I found new heroes, including the captain himself, who induced in me a species of obsessive fandom that I find hard to believe could be replicated by others. (For the record: I once switched off the radio commentary when he batted rather than run the risk I'd hear him dismissed.)
Hughes and Border both scored heavily on the tour; Geoff Dymock bowled his heart out; Whatmore played a brace of fine counterattacking innings in the only Test I saw telecast live; Yallop scored a fine ton at Calcutta. As can be seen, the series had many moments of personal success for Hughes' team, but the Australians were always just a bit outgunned and outmatched, and given that they were never very happy, the result was a foregone conclusion. Still, they showed fight, their batsmen played spin reasonably (Border and Hughes especially well), and their captain showed himself to be more enterprising than his Indian counterpart. As was their wont, and still is now, India failed to win more comprehensively against a much weaker team. (To be fair, weather did a play a role in generating draws as, yet again, a Test tour had been organised at a time when traces of the monsoon still lingered in India.)
Some of the tourists' promise and weaknesses were visible in the first Test at Madras. They enjoyed a 222-run partnership between Hughes and Border, but the rest of the side faded as they made 390. In return, their ostensible spearhead Hogg went for nearly four an over while showing the no-ball problem that would plague him in the series and induce a stump-kicking incident in the third Test, while the legspinner Jim Higgs, picked up seven wickets.
In the second Test at Bangalore, the Australians again scored over 300, but correspondingly, again failed to keep India under 400. In the third Test at Kanpur, their luck ran out. Despite restricting India to 271 in the first innings, taking a 33-run lead, and keeping India to 311 in the second innings, they crashed to defeat on the final day, on a pitch breaking up quickly, by 154 runs. My enduring image of the day remains that of Bruce Yardley hopping around as he was hit on his toes by Kapil Dev; to add insult to injury, he was out leg-before. I knew little of Australian complaints about the umpiring in the game; they just seemed to have finally met their match. Seemingly despondent at this loss, the Australians promptly conceded 500 runs in Delhi, and were forced to follow-on. But now, resolve asserted itself, and they scored over 400 for the first time in the series to draw the game.
Then came the Australians' finest hour, at Calcutta. They scored 442 in the first innings after they had won the toss and Hughes had participated in his second double-century partnership of the series (with Graham Yallop, who scored 167; heartbreakingly for me, Hughes was dismissed on 92). They then proceeded to dismiss India for 342, a total that took all of 125 overs to complete. By close of play on the fourth day, India seemed to have seized the initiative, as they had reduced Australia to 81 for 5. But a surprise awaited the Calcutta crowd the next day. Hughes scored briskly, including a dramatic straight six off Shivlal Yadav, and then stunningly declared, setting India 247 to win in (I think) 65 overs. As Border would describe it later, "the door had been left open".
There was, of course, little chance that India would chase, especially once the crucial cluster of the wickets of Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Gundappa Viswanath fell to reduce India from a comfortable looking 52 for 0 to 70 for 3. The Australians, sensing a chance, redoubled their efforts but Yashpal Sharma guided India to safety with an aggressive 85.
Had the series been called off there and then, five Tests done and dusted, I dare say the Australians could have gone home with honours even. They would have lost 1-0, saved a Test where they had followed on, and tried gallantly to force the issue in another.
But a sixth Test awaited and now the tired Aussies perhaps had little energy left. They watched Gavaskar hit yet another century, this time at his home ground, Bombay, and just when they might have been thinking of relief and a chance to put up their feet in the dressing room, after reducing India to 327 for 7 from 222 for 1, were pummelled for a 127-run partnership by Syed Kirmani and Karsan Ghavri. The former scored a century, while the latter belted 86 off 99 balls, including three towering sixes that flew into the stands, all greeted by roars from his adoring home crowd. The Australians collapsed quickly, bowing out for 160 in the first innings and then for 198 in the second. Nothing symbolized their abject defeat better than the knockout punch Dev delivered to Darling, who went down in a heap as he attempted to hook and was struck a fearful blow on the head. That was Australia, out for the count. Six Tests had been one too many. Fittingly, the captain scored a brave 80 as Border and he put on 132 for the third wicket in the second innings, but with their dismissals the decline was precipitous.
Most of the Australian players had been glad to see India reduced to a speck as their flight took off back Down Under, a tiring, contentious and ultimately losing tour over. But those who had thrived had acquired valuable experience, especially Allan Border, whose skills against spin and battling qualities were sharpened, experiences which would stand him in good stead when he would lead the renaissance of Australian cricket many years later. And at least one Indian fan thought the team had had kept the Australian flag flying high even in defeat.
A few weeks later, Hughes was dismissed as Australia captain. The Chappell-Lillee-Marsh troika was reinstated; Packer players got first dibs on Test spots; bitterness ran rampant; betrayal was a common accusation. A new Channel Nine dominated era of Australian cricket had begun.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here