The captain nobody recognises
Tuesday, October 8, 2002 If you were given three words to sum up the cricket career of Graham Yallop, who turned 50 yesterday, what would you say? Australia's Lousiest Captain? Solid And Reliable? Dodgy Against Pace? A Bit Boring?
There is a dollop of truth in them all. Yallop could be dull; if Dean Jones set the pulses of Melbourne grandmothers racing like a couple of shandies over lunch, then Yallop was the comforting mug of Milo who put them back to sleep. He was decidedly more at home when the spinners were on. He was also, especially at his 1983 peak, the epitome of rocklike solidity.
And yes, he was a fatally flawed, forlorn captain. Not because he led Australia to a 5-1 Ashes defeat in 1978-79 - that could have happened to anyone. But because he was unimaginative, tactically unsophisticated and lacked the respect of his players. And because he had predicted they would win 6-0, in the dumbest press conference any Australian captain ever gave.
Three is an appropriate number because Yallop's career divides neatly into three stages: before World Series Cricket, during World Series Cricket, and after World Series Cricket. More than anyone, Yallop suffered from the chaos of that time. He was used and abused at every turn. He is not the only Australian batsman of the last 25 years to have been mistreated by selectors, senior players or both: Craig Serjeant, Peter Toohey, Dirk Wellham, David Hookes, Robbie Kerr, Kim Hughes, Tom Moody and Stuart Law might all have similar grizzles. But Yallop was the first, and arguably copped the rawest deal, of them all.
First, the facts. At 23 he made his Test debut against the 1975-76 West Indians. Several of his new team-mates, irked that their good buddy Rick McCosker had been left out, promptly ignored him - shades of what would happen 16 years later to Wayne Phillips, another rocklike Victorian, whose captain Allan Border was so infuriated by Geoff Marsh's omission that he declined to take the field at the start of play. Phillips never played another Test; Yallop lasted another nine years. It is a testament to his character, and much else besides.
Yallop did not have to loiter long in that sullen dressing-room. He was thrown to the wolves at No. 3 - ahead of both Chappells - on the rather spiteful grounds that that was where McCosker batted. He made the most of his misfortune, not only retaining his place for the last three Tests but averaging 44 for the series. Then, inexplicably, he was dumped - for the first time but by no means the last.
Yallop played five Tests over the next three years until suddenly, with Australia's best players lost to Packerland, he was appointed captain. They were desperate times, to be sure, but most observers suspected John Inverarity, wily and versatile, would have been a more astute choice. So it proved.
Yet as Yallop's authority imploded his batting held up. He started and ended the series with centuries - the last, 121, out of a team score of 198 in which nobody else topped 16. It mattered not a jot. Yallop lost the captaincy and, once the Packer players returned, he lost his place too.
And so it went on throughout the early 1980s. Yallop drifted in and out of the team with the breeze, usually to plug a middle-order gap when Greg Chappell didn't fancy touring. He hit 167 as an opener at Calcutta in 1979-80 and was dumped one Test later. He caressed 172 at Faisalabad and found himself on the outer two Tests afterwards. He stood tall with 114 at Old Trafford in 1981, and was again abandoned two games later. He batted like clockwork for two days and 268 runs in the Boxing Day Test of 1983-84. Two Tests later his international career was over.
Yallop was hardly blameless in all this. Mike Brearley, the captain who inflicted that 5-1 humiliation, wrote mockingly of how Yallop used to "slide his back foot to and fro in a grandmotherly shuffle" while the bowler charged in. "More than most Test players," said Brearley, "Yallop can range from the inept to the masterly." In his final Test, in November 1984, Yallop succumbed to the West Indian mean machine for 2 and 1. He looked for all the world like a man who would rather be somewhere, anywhere else.
On balance, however, history tends to judge Yallop unfairly. Everyone remembers how an undermanned Australia were annihilated 5-1. Almost everyone forgets how that same undermanned Australia, leading by 142 runs on the first innings at Sydney, nearly levelled the series 2-2. Even that naïve bit of pre-series punditry was excusable; Yallop was apparently "bewildered" when he saw his "flippant" 6-0 prediction reported straight-faced in the morning papers. He would not have made the same mistake twice.
Too much, too, is made of Yallop's susceptibility against speed, of how Kim Hughes once shepherded him away from Bob Willis's bowling - even though Yallop never asked him to, and even though Richie Benaud later said Hughes's actions were "as curious a captaincy decision as I have ever seen". Too little, meanwhile, is made of just how fluent, at ease and downright attractive Yallop could be against the finest spin bowling.
He scored better than a century every five Tests. He never went more than six Tests without a hundred. He averaged 52.42 - better than Neil Harvey, Ian Chappell, David Boon and Ricky Ponting - when batting at No. 3. And in his last seven Tests he amassed 655 runs at 72. It went unnoticed at the time but Yallop bowed out with a bang matched by precious few in history. He deserves better, surely, than to be known as the ex-captain nobody recognises every year at the Allan Border Medal ceremony.
On the very first page of Lambs To The Slaughter, his 1979 account of his captaincy nightmare, Yallop gallantly announced: "I should be bitter, but I am not." He fooled nobody. The subsequent chapter headings - "Sacked", "The First Killing", "Skinned Alive", "Slaughtered" - gave the game away, hinting at the anger and hurt he must really have felt.
"My name is now eternally entrenched in the record books as the man who led this country to that ignominious hiding against England," he wrote. Almost a quarter of a century on and those words ring as true today as ever.
Graham Yallop in three words? Unlucky Uncelebrated Unmissed seem to fit best, more's the pity.
Chris Ryan is a former managing editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and a former Darwin correspondent of the Melbourne Age.