Allan Border July 17, 2009

The quiet Australian

A no-frills colossus who gritted his teeth, got down to it and stayed around till the bitter end. A salute to Allan Border, with Ricky Ponting on the verge of overtaking him as his country's leading Test run-scorer

They called him AB, or Allan, never Al, none of the frills or forced panache of Capone, Gore, Green, Jolson, Yankovic or Pacino, not for this rock of the middle order who you'd trust with your last two dollars. An eight-year-old girl, Clare, did exactly that in 1985. She sent him a single green banknote and a few sorrowful lines about poor Kim Hughes. The reply came on a postcard:

Dear Clare,
Thanks for your letter. Yes, it was a sad day when Kim resigned the captaincy but I'm sure he'll return to the side sooner than you think. I've returned your $2 as it is not necessary. Good luck in the future.
Allan. xxxx

He was a man who did not relish fuss or any sort of over-the-top emotion, and the four X's at the end were most likely a contractual obligation with his Queensland beer sponsor.

Allan Border, they say, made 11,174 Test runs with only three shots. What they neglect to mention is that one of them - the square cut - was hit with such might that gold advertising boards all over Australia were left dented and in need of a trip to the smash repair shop. Scenting the tiniest hint of width he'd spring up out of his crouch, his feet on tiptoes, sneakers nearly brushing the stumps, scavenging every available centimetre. Then he'd yank back his arms - a businessman's backswing - and jab down hard. Four more for Border. More befuddlement for the bowler, who could have sworn it wasn't wide enough to take a swing at.

The Border square cut was as lethal a bowler-killer as any stroke in the more glittering kitbags of Viv Richards or David Gower. One afternoon in Sydney he square-cut his near-constant tormentors, Clive Lloyd's sinister pace quartet, into a pink and purple heap of seething indignation. It was a Benson & Hedges World Series Cup final. Border lost the toss, watched both openers almost lose their heads, and stumped out to bat in the third over. He wore a yellow helmet, no visor, and the black chinstrap dangled so low that in tense moments he'd lunge at it and slide it abstractedly between his tongue and his teeth. Anything loose from the bowler and Border chucked the kitchen sink at it - a kitchen sink that was not some modern miracle of carbon and titanium but a humble hunk of willow sculpted by a man named Duncan. "I don't know about you," said Richie Benaud when it was all over, "but I am just about wrung out."

Border plodded off, unbloodied and unbeaten, on 127. Australia won, a rare instance - Lord's, 1985, was another - of a Border masterpiece resulting in after-match champagne in the dressing room.

Scenting the tiniest hint of width he'd spring up out of his crouch, his feet on tiptoes, sneakers nearly brushing the stumps, scavenging every available centimetre. Then he'd yank back his arms - a businessman's backswing - and jab down hard. Four more for Border

And Border's masterpieces were many, though you don't hear it said often enough. By any rough, top-of-the-head reckoning there were at least nine more, starting with, at home, his grimace-a-minute 62 in the Boxing Day cliffhanger of 1982-83; his two-man anti-Hadlee rally with Greg Matthews at the Gabba in 1985-86; and, that same woebegone summer, his ballet-slippered 163 against India, 77 of them in partnership with a rabbit called Lizard in Dave Gilbert. Far from home, unblinking Border rearguards became almost annual: 98 and 100 in Port-of-Spain, 146 at Old Trafford, 140 and 114 in Christchurch, 113 in Faisalabad.

Border ended up not out on seven of those nine occasions. That precisely none of them culminated in an Australian victory was not his doing but the fault of fellow batsmen with holes in their defence, fielders with craters for hands, and bowlers with grand canyons between their ears.

He arrived in a fix, this squat son of Sheila and John, and a fix is where he stayed for almost as long as he played. He debuted in the ripped-up summer of 1978-79, when Australia fielded two teams. The man Border replaced in the Test side, Gary Cosier, was struck in the chest, fired out leg-before and never sighted again. Australia were two-down in the series, and four wickets down for not all that many, when out crept Border, in whites Palmolive-white and a moustache that altered little in 16 Australian summers. Calmly he stabbed a single past point to get off the mark.

It was exciting, and satisfying, but it was not quite Test cricket and he knew it. "Within the dressing room," Border noted recently, "people were looking over their shoulders all the time wondering, you know, when they were going to get the knife."

A year later he was in Brisbane for the first post-Packer Test, a member of the full-strength Australian XI, facing Joel Garner. The spectre of Big Bird flying in from the Vulture Street End told Border that this was the real thing. The pitch seemed shorter, his bat's middle smaller, and unless his hearing was playing tricks Viv Richards seemed to be chortling from the slip cordon.

"I'll show you, you mug," muttered Border through grinding teeth, on his way to scores of 1 and 7. But from that day on, bowlers knew that when the going got tough, Border was going nowhere.

All up, he averaged 10 more abroad than at home. He averaged more when he was captain than when he wasn't. Eight of his 27 tons were forged in the second innings after Australia had trailed on the first. Nine of his 10 fingers and thumbs were broken at some time, a couple of them several times.

Yet seldom was AR Border missing from an Australian team sheet. For the team meant the world to him.

Every new season's Channel Nine tour guide brought a fresh batch of player surveys. Border's answers never varied.

Likes? "Being part of the Australian cricket team."

Dislikes? "Losing."

Biggest disappointment? "Losing Third Test at Headingley, 1981."

Greatest moment? "Regaining Ashes, 1982-83."

Greater moments lay ahead, and under his own captaincy too, but Border's not-about-me-ism, his devotion to the team, lived on till the end of his cricketing days.

And beyond. In 2002 he walked 1075 kilometres in 31 days to raise money for sick children, timing his arrival at the Gabba to coincide with the tea break of an Ashes Test, when he'd cause least distraction.

"What, no speeches?" gasped a journalist trying to keep up with Border as he trudged up the Gold Coast Highway.

"Well, maybe a little speech," Border replied. "But nothing grand."

A month later some Wisden boffins unfurled a computerised ranking system that put Border fifth on the list of history's supreme batsmen - behind Bradman, Tendulkar, Richards and Border's own childhood hero, Sobers. "I'm probably a bit high," was Border's response. "That's my gut feeling."

He probably feels he's a bit high now, when he looks at the table of Australian Test run-scorers and sees himself all alone at the top. If Ricky Ponting must go past Border in this match, then it's good that it's at Lord's, and it would be even better if he did it with a silence-shattering square cut, followed by a gracious nod to the crowd, nothing more. Then he should scratch out his guard again and resume his innings, remembering always that the team's the thing.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, published in March 2009