May 10, 2013

When AB and Thommo nearly pulled off a Melbourne heist

One December afternoon in 1982, Allan Border found an ally in the form of No. 11 Jeff Thomson and they almost pulled off the greatest last-wicket chase in history

The tension, the drama, and the final wicket © Getty Images

Throughout the middle of the 1980s, the one constant in Australian cricket - along with losing quite a lot - was Allan Robert Border, the great "AB".

More pugnacious than a pit-bull named Fighting Harada, with determination forged against the most terrifying bowlers in cricket's whitest-hot cauldrons, Border was Australia's Rock, a batsman whose willpower and steel - and no small amount of skill - single-handedly battled the forces of evil that so outgunned Australia at the time.

Unlike David Gower or Mark Waugh, who were both beautiful to watch, Border batted like a boxer - hit and be hit, he seemed to say. So many of his innings were lone hands and many were regarded as "fighting" or "rear guard" because he was the only one not killed off. This was some player.

Then, one afternoon, on the fourth day of the fourth Ashes Test at the MCG in 1982, Border found an ally in the form of a No. 11 - Jeff Thomson. And together they almost pulled off the greatest last-wicket chase in history, finishing three runs shy of the 74 they needed to win the Ashes. And a legend was born.

Border came to the wicket halfway through the fourth day, with Australia 171 for 4* chasing 292. In abysmal form, he was lucky an early leave only shaved off stump. Then wickets tumbled: David Hookes, Rod Marsh, Bruce Yardley, Geoff Lawson, and Rodney Hogg - all fell with Border at the other end. Norman Cowans ripped through Australia to take 6 for 77. And in came Thommo.

"When I went out to bat there was no pressure on me," said Thomson. "Everyone expected me to play a stupid shot and get out. AB hadn't been having the best of times but I played with him for Queensland and we were good mates. I went up to him and said: 'Let's beat these fruits.'"

Border, though, was struggling. He even felt his career had hit a dead end. "But then I got the break that can change a match or a career," he said in Gideon Haigh's The Border Years. Cowans bowled a wide half-volley and Border blasted it to the cover boundary. "It was the Christmas present Santa had forgotten and delayed until it was almost too late," said Border. "I hit it right in the screws and it went to the fence."

More luck followed. England captain Bob Willis was suffering a virus and bowling like "a wet paper bag". Willis' field settings - though at the time understandable - would be ridiculed. He put all his team's efforts towards getting Thomson out by gifting Border easy singles. Border being Border was often good enough to turn ones into twos. And with nobody trying to get him out, his confidence grew. And grew. And so did Thomson's.

Border and Thomson arrived at the ground the next day to find 10,000 Melburnians queuing at the gate - a huge number given the match could last all but one ball

When a quick single was turned into an overthrown five, the growing MCG crowd began to roar - they could win this!

The required 74 was whittled to 60, then 50. Then Australia needed 40 runs to win. Boundaries came occasionally. Border took twos when singles were offered. He sneaked singles and threes from the last balls of overs. So brilliantly did he farm the strike that Willis looked lost for answers.

At stumps Australia needed 37. They were halfway there. And England knew it. "When the partnership started, the Poms had been full of the joy of living," said Border. "By stumps they were showing a little strain."

The Australian team in the sheds were also feeling the pinch. "I was never worried while I was batting and it was never much of a drama for me," said Thomson. "But all the blokes in the dressing room were drinking while we were batting. When I got back they were all pissed!"

Border and Thomson arrived at the ground the next day to find 10,000 Melburnians queuing at the gate - a huge number given the match could last all but one ball.

With Border on 44 and Thomson on 8, Willis stuck to his tactics: he attacked Thomson and defended against Border. On the brand new giant television screen at the MCG, the concern on Willis' face was there for all to see.

The crowd swelled, first to 15,000, and then 20,000. And the Australians kept at the runs, surviving the new ball. Thirty to win, 20, 15… 10! The crowd cheered every ball Thomson survived, and every run scored, like Manchester United fans celebrating a goal.

With six runs to win Willis bowled his best over of the match. So searing was the heat that Border was only able to clip off his hip to fine leg for two. He was unable to get a single off the last ball, which meant Thomson would have to face Ian Botham. Four runs to win. The batsmen had a mid-pitch discussion. Thomson faced up. And Botham started in…

… and bowled a half-tracker that Thomson fended at. "It was a bad ball, really," said Thomson. "I just tried to push it out for a single rather than smash it. All I did was get an edge."

The ball dollied to Chris Tavaré at second slip and it was here that luck went England's way: the ball spat from Tavaré's fingers and popped over his head, where first slip Geoff Miller ran around to complete the catch.

"When Thommo hit it, my initial reaction was that it was going over the top and for four," said Border. "Then I thought: 'It's in Tavaré's hands and we're gone'. And when it bounced out of his hands, I thought: 'Beauty, we're back in it'. Then all of a sudden, Miller was there… '" England stormed off the field, fists raised.

Back in the sheds, Rod Marsh was picking up his cricket kit. "Looking for four runs," he said. Thomson and Border were stricken. "I was spewing," said Thomson. "I had lost and I couldn't believe it. I was so angry because I had decided what to do with that ball before seeing it. It really wound me up.

"I went into the English dressing room and lost it. I gave them a real mouthful and told them they were going to pay for it at Sydney. That was not like me. Beefy was a good mate. I bet they all thought 'what a dickhead'."

The fifth Test was drawn and Australia regained the Ashes.

*Border came to the crease on the fall of the fourth wicket, not the fifth as was originally written

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on May 13, 2013, 20:39 GMT

    I watched it!!!

    Border had been in terrible form. From the start of the NZ Test Series in 1982 until that innings he was averaging 18.85.

    Always remember how England spread the field for Border and bought them in for Thommo, and how the commentators said, "They're going to play Border into form!!"

    Sure enough, Border's Average for the next 2-years (83-84) was 61.52 which included 10-Tests against one of the best Teams and best bowling attacks of all time .... the West Indies!!!

  • Dummy4 on May 12, 2013, 6:16 GMT

    Remember listening to this. Very similar to 2005, when Warne, Lee and Kaspar brought Australia to within two runs of the Ashes. In retrospect, it is remarkable how much Pontings side was pilloried in the press, when the difference between the two sides was just two runs...and, possibly, Warne putting down KP in the last Test.

  • Pete on May 10, 2013, 13:45 GMT

    My first match, as a four year old (gates were opened; very much my dad's style to go and witness a contest the organisers had written off by virtue of its being free). I guess it's the perfect companion piece to Headingley '81 - the redemption that was not quite to be. The Border story would not be quite the same if they had actually made it. The forgotten component of the woeful '80s was that Australia weren't even that good post-Packer before the ageing G. Chappell, Lillee and Marsh retired. Pakistan certainly gave it a tilt that next, last summer before the long winter.

  • Jon on May 10, 2013, 12:58 GMT

    I watched it live. It is burnt into my brain. The heroics of 1989 could not assuage the agony. No amount of flogging the Poms in subsequent Ashes series could erase the nightmare of falling so short. The nightmare of Adelaide vs then world champs the Windies in 1993, in which Tim May and Craig McDermott got us to within a flick off the hip for two to steal victory, caused the wound to reopen. The miracle of Adelaide in 2006 was insufficient to exorcise the demons. Now we are truly looking down the barrel of more horror this year, part of me wants to hide in a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas until we have a halfway decent side again. My remaining lifetime may not be long enough to know cricket joy any more. My wife doesn't understand it. It becomes more difficult to even begin to explain the ecstasy and the agony of Thommo's half-baked poke at the loosener from Botham, which is burnt into my brain, where so many subsequent flashing strokes and searing 'W'-balls have faded from view.

  • Dan on May 10, 2013, 10:42 GMT

    Pretty sure it was John Dyson who got the benefit at Sydney, I always reckoned Aussie umpires were dreadful but I'm sure their fans looked at things like Wayne Phillips being caught off Alan Lamb's boot and thought the same of ours. In retrospect it's amazing that an England side with the likes of Cook, Tavare and Hemmings took an Aussie team with Chappell, Thommo, Border and Marsh to the last game.

  • Dummy4 on May 10, 2013, 10:10 GMT

    I remember staying up late listening to TMS for this, what a finish!!!

  • Jake on May 10, 2013, 9:25 GMT

    All I can remember about the fifth test in Sydney was that one of the Oz openers was run out by two yards, given not out, and went on to post a big score which enabled Oz to draw. Still bitter thirty years later!

  • Cricinfo on May 10, 2013, 5:34 GMT

    Thanks Hardik. The correction has been made

  • Dummy4 on May 10, 2013, 5:13 GMT

    Needs a correction. Border came to the wicket halfway through the fourth day, with Australia 171 for 5 chasing 292. In abysmal form, he was lucky an early leave only shaved off stump. Then wickets tumbled: David Hookes, Rod Marsh, Bruce Yardley, Geoff Lawson, and Rodney Hogg - all fell with Border at the other end. Aus were 171 for 4 when AB came in...

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