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

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