1971 December 16, 2006

The end of a Victorian hero

In 1971 Bill Lawry became the first Australian captain to be sacked in the middle of a series ... and he paid the price for negativity and daring to challenge the authority of the Australian board

Ashes captains: Ray Illingworth and Bill Lawry shelter from the rain at Melbourne. By the end of the series Lawry had been replaced © The Cricketer
The 1970-71 Ashes series has gone down in history as not only cricket's longest - there were seven Tests including the washed out Melbourne game - but also as one of the most acrimonious. It was also the first time that ABC had broadcast ball-by-ball television coverage throughout Australia. The final Test at Sydney marked the low, with Ray Illingworth leading the England side from the field after the crowd threw bottles and cans at John Snow.

In that match Australia were playing for the first time under the captaincy of Ian Chappell. Their captain for the previous six Tests, and for three years before that, had been Bill Lawry. But after a draw in the sixth Test at Adelaide, Lawry had been unceremoniously dumped by the selectors, the first Australian skipper to be sacked during a series. So badly was he treated that he found out from fellow opener Keith Stackpole, who had himself been told by a former team-mate.

This was no ordinary dismissal, however. Australia were only one down, and as Australia held the Ashes, all they needed was to win the last game against a tired England side to retain them. What is more, Lawry, a virtual fixture in the side since 1961, had not had a bad series with the bat, scoring 324 runs in five Tests at 40.50. On the face of it, it seemed a callous decision.

But behind the scenes, Lawry had hardly courted popularity either on or off the pitch. As a captain he had started well, retaining the Ashes in England in a disappointing series, but that was followed with a tremendous series win against West Indies in which he made three big hundreds. But then the rot set in.

On a gruelling tour of India and South Africa in 1969-70 the strain seemed to get to him. In India he repeatedly clashed with officials and the media, and in South Africa he added antagonising spectators into the mix. What is more, a non smoker and non drinker, he became more distant from his own team. "He became a virtual recluse," Jack Pollard wrote, "disappearing after each day's play." His form with the bat was also less impressive, with only 432 runs at 28.80 in nine Tests on the tour.

It was on that trip that Lawry took on his own cricket board head on. Unhappy at a punishing itinerary and poor conditions, he adopted an increasingly confrontational approach. Lawry eventually wrote a letter to the board outlining the organisational faults of the tour, a move he admitted caused him "a lot of strife". He added: "I think they took exception to that."

"As far as I am concerned, putting in that letter was the end of Lawry as captain," Chappell said. "Then it was just a matter of them getting rid of him."

The 1970-71 Ashes started with Lawry still under a cloud after a scathing report by tour manager Fred Bennett. As the series progressed, Lawry came under fire for some uninspiring captaincy with a safety-at-all-costs strategy. In the fourth Test at Sydney, England went ahead with a 299-run win, and his critics became more vocal. His own batting, which was committed but never spectacular - Ian Wooldridge, the English journalist, called him "a corpse with pads on" - had become even more stodgy. In the series he had batted more than 24 hours, averaging around 13 runs an hour.

In the fifth and sixth Tests Australia continued to lack enterprise. "It has hardly been possible to find a taxi driver in the last couple of months who has not thought that Lawry should go," wrote John Woodcock in The Times. At the end of the sixth Test, Keith Miller had called for the banishment of Lawry, Illingworth and the urn, so dire had the cricket become.

"He led the side like he approached an innings at the crease," Snow wrote in his autobiography Cricket Rebel. "Full of caution in a low-key style and unwilling to take the slightest risk."

With a win needed in the deciding Test, Australia's selectors had no qualms about ditching an ultra-defensive leader who had also been a pain in their collective backsides. Wisden noted that "he was negatively unimaginative but to drop him from the side for the vital last match was generous to England".

"I've no anger about being dropped," Lawry said. I hadn't been playing well in that series and I had no compassion when I was dropping players as a selector."

As Lawry found out the news third-hand, Chappell was told of his appointment. "It's unbelievable," was his first reaction. "I feel sorry for Bill ... he's been a good captain." But knew what was in store, as he later recalled. "I said to my wife, Kay, 'The bastards will never get me like that'".

Paul Sheahan, another who had played under Lawry, was equally appalled at the manner the situation had been handled. "The fact that no-one had the courage to tell him he was to lose his job as Australian captain was disgraceful."

England won the final Test, and with it the series and the Ashes, and the Australian side, which contained three other uninspiring changes, was simply not good enough. Lawry, meanwhile, had already been signed up as a commentator; a career that lasts to this day.

And if the board thought that replacing Lawry with Chappell would make their life easier, they were soon given a rude wake-up call. Chappell, who had been instrumental in leading a player revolt against the side playing an extra Test in South Africa in 1970, was very much his own man, and he soon showed he was prepared to take them on, gloves off. The seeds of what ended in Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket had been sown.

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The Summer Game Gideon Haigh (Text, 1997)
Australian Cricket Jack Pollard (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)
Cricket Rebel John Snow (Hamlyn, 1976)

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo