'Jeez ... what have we got here'
That was what Ian Chappell asked himself when Jeff Thomson joined Dennis Lillee in his Australian side. Now, all three are in demand as commentators. Jonathan Agnew quizzes Chappell about captaining the terror twins, and much else besides
All manner of cricket heroes, past and present, are gathered here. Open the door to the Sky TV box and you will find Ian Botham pulling somebody's leg - possibly Allan Border's. In the BBC TV suite, Richie Benaud will be quietly tapping away at his word processor, and David Gower will be tackling the Daily Telegraph crossword. In our BBC Radio commentary-box, the air will be thick with smoke from Fred Trueman's pipe, and the hopelessly cluttered floor is an obstacle course of cakes, assorted buns and Christopher Martin-Jenkins's letters.
It was beside the Test Match Special box four years ago that I chanced upon Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain and now the host of Channel 9's cricket coverage. Lunch was drawing to a close and a fourpiece jazz band was pootling away on the boundary edge, making it difficult for Chappell, who was waiting for the programme in Sydney to join him live any second, to hear the voice in his earpiece.
"What the %Q£!*'s going on?" I heard him shout, looking directly into the camera, followed by "Oh! Sorry about that. Welcome back to Old Trafford ..." It was an unfortunate moment. Kerry Packer, listening in bed in Sydney, was not amused and it nearly cost Chappell his job.
Four years on, I chose not to remind him of the incident as we settled down to chat only yards from the scene. The main purpose of the interview was to get the captain's view of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, who had both gained enormous popularity while commentating with us on TMS. But, first, I wondered how easily Chappell had slipped from player to television frontman and commentator.
"I love it," he replied. "And there's no doubt that playing the game stands you in good stead. It's like batting, you learn how to concentrate and how to rectify mistakes. As a former captain, I am in a position to sit and analyse the position of both teams, and as a commentator I like to knock on the viewer's sitting-room door and go in."
But what about the door to the players' dressing-room, particularly in the light of his fierce criticism of Mark Taylor? Does he knock on that, too?
"I never go near the dressing-room and don't have much to do with the players. I might see one or two of them before a day begins when I inspect the pitch and we'll have a chat. If we stay in the same hotel I'll have a drink in the bar and if a player or two joins me, that's great.
"There was a time when two or three players came up to me and said that they didn't like what I had been saying about them. I said: "There's a little button on your TV marked Volume. If you don't like it turn it down. If you still don't like it, there's another button marked OFF - hit that and you don't have to see me either. You've got your job to do, I've got mine, don't come complaining to me.'
"Of course I still talk to Mark Taylor, but I wasn't really criticising him, I was having a go at the selectors for putting him in such a difficult position. I didn't expect him to give it up for one minute by dropping himself. I went up to him after Edgbaston and said `Well played'."
"We're in an impossible position but I try to be constructive rather than destructive in my comments. There's one player who feels I am trying to destroy him at the moment but I am simply analysing him and his technique and telling the viewers what I would do if I was bowling against him.
"The trouble, I find, with broadcasting is that people really don't think it's a job and don't take it seriously. The autograph hunters who lie in wait outside the broadcasting areas don't seem to appreciate that there are times when you have to say no, because we are going to work. I love it, but it is still a job.
"I had no idea, until 12 months after I stopped playing, how on edge I had been as a cricketer. It's all part of being competitive, of course, but suddenly I was no longer agitated about signing autographs. I am a black-and-white sort of a person but I have never agreed with the fact that as a player I was supposed to be public property. At the cricket ground, yes - and I remember lining up 150 kids and signing autographs for every one of them - but in a bar I was in my own time. These days, I get together with some of my mates, like Dougie Walters, and they can't believe it. "Oh!" they say. "So 17 years on, you actually sign autographs, do you?"'
I jumped to the obvious conclusion. "So you are a nicer man now, Ian?"
"I think it was always there," he said, smiling. "But the trouble was that when I was captain, it took me two hours to take my cricket kit off at the end of the day. I was always at boiling point and it took me some time to get back to 98.4 degrees. Now I'm well below boiling point all the time. "But I always made time for a drink with the opposition after the day's play, no matter what. It really is such an important aspect of cricket, and I loved it. It was all part of coming down from that feeling of being stressed out. I always went into the opposition dressing-room when it was our turn and never had a problem mixing.
"If I had had a run-in with someone I always had a beer afterwards. It's so important to sit down and have a laugh about it. We were helped by having Walters in the team, who always brought people's personalities to the fore. If Tony Greig and I had had a blue, Walters would make a comment as we sat there together afterwards, like "How could you two be so stupid?" We would have a laugh and it would be from that level that we would start again the next day. Fallouts were never allowed to fester or keep bubbling away under the surface.
"I understand why modern cricketers find it difficult to socialise quite so much these days - they play so much more cricket than we did - but some of the Aussies I know enjoy sitting and having a beer. The problem is that they tend to choose who they drink with when, in fact, it should be the teams you don't know so well that you should be sitting down with."
Speak to any number of cricketing pundits who claim to be in the know, and they will all maintain that it was Ian Chappell, and his team of the 1970s, who started the dreadful business of sledging. One extremely well-known former Australian cricketer forcibly repeated the allegation to me over lunch the other day. It is an accusation which Chappell has become tired of fending off.
"It's a joke to hear what is supposed to have happened when I was captain," he retorted. "First, if people thought I had to abuse batsmen to get them out, they're fooling themselves. I had plenty of faith in my bowlers to get the batsmen out without sledging them.
"Third, I really hated batsmen indicating to umpires that they had edged the ball if there was an lbw appeal, that sort of thing. I would let 'em know in no uncertain terms.
"I will admit that perhaps I could have done things a bit differently. I remember after I had been reported for swearing - at myself, incidentally - during a Sheffield Shield match, an official came round to see me at my home and asked why I couldn't be more like Doug Walters. I told him I was trying to improve in certain areas but I had my own nature and I was not going to change that much. It's like cricket: you can try and work on certain weaknesses, but you are the batsman you are."
On to Thommo and Lillee. They are two very different characters and, together, they formed arguably the deadliest fast-bowling partnership there has ever been. Surely with those two in your team, all you had to do as captain was turn up and tell them which end to bowl from?
"Actually, I was only captain with both of them in the side for 10 out of my 32 Tests. Dennis was in the team much more than that, but I did not have them together very often. 'Dennis was such a very quick learner, both on and off the field. He fell victim of a couple of practical jokes early in his career and it wasn't long before he was pulling the pranks himself. The atmosphere of being in a team brought out the best of Dennis and produced a side of him I had not seen before. 'I describe Dennis as a captain's dream and a batsman's nightmare. I never once remember him asking me for a defensive field-placing. He didn't mind if I put in a mid-off, say, but he would never actually approach me for that. He thought about nothing other than taking wickets. He also never thought about averages or figures; he wanted to take wickets for his team and for Australia.
"The funny thing was he always looked almost apologetic when he was applauded from the field by his team-mates. The Centenary Test was a prime example of that. He had won the match for Australia with an injured back and was chaired from the ground, but he looked embarrassed. His face said it all.
"He was also easy to wind up. All you had to do was to say that something was impossible - like climbing that flagpole over. there, for instance. Next thing, you would look over and Dennis would be shinning up the pole!'
"Thommo was the easiest man to captain. He used to say the most terrible things - but to himself. He terrorised batsmen, but he never sledged them. He would go crazy at himself instead. "You tart, Thommo!" he would shout if he bowled a wide one.
"He would also get extremely homesick, which would set in after a week or two on tour. He's such an outdoors man, with his sailing, fishing and shooting, that London, for instance, had no appeal to him at all. He tended to have a few pints very quickly immediately after the close of play and be in bed by 10 o'clock. That seemed to be his way of dealing with it.
"He immersed himself in the music of Status Quo. I remember on a team bus in England the card players and beer drinkers were at the back of the bus, the non-drinkers at the front and Thommo was in the middle, on his own, blaring out Status Quo as loudly as he possibly could. 'One day on tour we were in an hotel having a sing-song around a piano. I was amazed to look beside me and there was Thommo, singing away, knowing every word. It turned out that he used to have an old pianola as a child and he and the rest of the kids would gather round and sing songs together.
"I had captained him once before, in 1972-73 when he had played against Pakistan at the MCG. Thommo took 0 for 110 and only told me at the end of the match that he had been bowling with a broken foot! During that game, Ian Redpath came up to me and said: "This bloke is what we need in the team." I said "Who do you mean?" and he replied "Max Walker!" I said "You gotta be joking: Thommo's the man."
"He was wild, but he was quick. In those days of eight-ball overs, he would bowl maybe four legcutters every over. They were much slower and would trickle through to the wicketkeeper. The first time I batted against Thommo I was standing at the non-striker's end and he bowled one of these dribbly things. I thought "If he drops it short, he's going to go."
"So I got down there, and he bowled a short ball. I got ready to hook, and it slammed into my bat before I had really picked it up. It was one of his fast deliveries - it was quickly suggested to him that he give the legcutters up!
" hadn't seen him much since that Test in 1972, so when we arrived in Brisbane for the opening Test of 1974-75 I checked in to the hotel and phoned Rod Marsh, because Qeensland had just finished playing Western Australia and Thommo had taken a stack of wickets. I asked Rodney what Thommo had been like. "Frighteningly quick!" he said. "He bowled me a death ball. All the right-handers had been having terrible problems against him, but I seemed to be OK because his angle took the ball away from me and I could slash him over the slips. Then he aimed a short ball at the leg stump. It flew up towards my face and, I kid you not, it slammed into the middle of the bat handle right in front of my eyes!"'
Apparently, in those helmetless days, the England team did not take Thommo's warning particularly seriously. During the opening Test, Australia scored 309, with the tailenders, including Lillee, making valuable contributions. Foolishly, in the course of the innings, one of England's pace bowlers bowled Lillee a bouncer. Chappell remembered what happened next.
"Wen Dennis came off the field I noticed that he was holding his bat upside down, which I thought was rather odd. He stormed into the dressing-room, hurled the bat across the room and uttered the immortal line: "Just remember, they started this ... but we'll damned well finish it."
"illee came roaring in downwind, and I told Walker to loosen up to come into it. My plan had been for Thommo to come on with the wind after Lillee. But, during the over, I remembered how Thommo had once described his unusual bowling action. "I just shuffle up and ... WANG!" he said - which in a way was quite true. He ambled in from a short run and then let fly with that catapult action of his.
"So I changed my mind and brought Thommo into the wind, because it did not affect him. He bowled at the speed of light and the psychological effect it had was amazing because the English batsmen were watching this and thinking "If he can bowl at this pace into the wind, what on earth is he going to do with the wind behind him?"' A look of unmistakeable relish spreads across Chappell's face as memories of that torrid series flood back. He was as hard a competitor as you could ask for: hard, but definitely fair. He also has much greater charm and more of a sense of fun than his critics would ever give him credit for.
But he is a true-blue Australian and, as far as sport is concerned, Aussies have only one thing on their minds: beating the Poms. Ian Chappell had more reason than most to enjoy watching England's batsmen being battered, broken and bruised by his fast bowlers. His grandfather was Vic Richardson, the Australian vice-captain during the infamous Bodyline tour of 1932-33.
"At one point during that series," Chappell recalled, "Vic turned to Bill Woodfull, the captain, and said: "Go on! Lets give it to them back!" - but Woodfull refused because he believed it was unfair. Forty years on it was rather ironic to find myself facing England in the same sort of aggressive atmosphere. I chose, like my grandad would have done, to stick it up them.
"I always remember something he said - and Vic didn't talk very much about cricket to me - "Never think you are coming up with new tactics, Ian. It's a cyclical game and rather like an old suit. If you hang on to it long enough it'll come back into fashion one day. Likewise, if you've got the firepower, hand it out, because you can bet that when you haven't, -you'll get it from those that have."'
This piece first appeared in the September 1997 issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly.