The man who stood by Australia
When he came to write his epic narrative account of Australian politics in the 1980s, Paul Kelly called it The End of Certainty, encapsulating the period's reforms, realignments and reverberations. To a history of Australian cricket in the 1980s, the same title could be fixed. After a hundred years in which Australians had come to expect a top-two position in global cricket as of right, they found themselves rooting for a middling team: callow, fragile, susceptible even on home soil, ranks thinned further by rebel-tour recruiters.
Throughout these austerity years, one presence was constant. When Allan Border took his first faltering steps in first-class cricket, Australian cricket was in rude health. But within a year, plundered by Kerry Packer's private enterprise, its vulnerabilities had been exposed. And although Packer's depredations had the effect of expediting Border's progress to international level, their after effects lingered. For the next decade, the scar left by World Series Cricket was apt to itch and ache and weep when the patient was under stress.
To Border, more than any other player, would be left the task of repairing what, especially against West Indies, was sometimes irreparable. His career record attests the tenor of the times: he was on the winning side 50 times in 156 Tests, on the losing side in 46. He played, moreover, in 60 draws. An old Australian joke runs that draw(er)s are for swimming in; in Border's time, they often seemed the best that could be done and expected.
It was tough. It could be gruelling. On 48 occasions Border batted with Australia either responding to a first-innings of 400, trailing by 150 on first innings or following on. But the times also probably rather suited Border, leeching from him reserves of deep concentration, organisation and obstinacy. At the end of his career, he might have wished to start again: Australia's painstaking investment in youth was about to fructify, and a period of dominance impended. But nobody plays against their predispositions for 15 years. Interestingly, he was significantly more effective away, when Australia needed him more often, than at home, when his team tended to be more comfortable. He averaged 45.94 in his own country, 56.57 in others; he never made a Test hundred at the SCG, but he compiled a couple in Madras. For the role of stern, stoic resister, Border was sent by Central Casting.
To a generation of Australians accustomed to the overdog role, it is hard to flesh Border out. A stocky 177cm, he approached the crease with a businesslike bustle. There were no showy rituals or preparatory mimes, just one two-handed shake of the bat with a flex of the forearms when he was about halfway out, as unconscious as a boxer touching gloves. His technique was genuinely ageless. "His straight backlift is controlled,' wrote that closest of observers, Ray Robinson, in 1979. "His level-eyed stance, once side-on, now shows his left toe-cap. His low-grip makes less use of handle leverage than Kim Hughes, but forearm power makes him one of the most effective drivers and back either side of the stumps." As an identikit portrait of Border at the end of his career, it could hardly be improved on.
Above all, he was versatile. Against fast bowling, Peter Roebuck once likened him convincingly to a boulder; against slow bowling, he moved nimbly, with eagle eyes and twinkling feet. In a boom-or-bust batting line-up, he was as reliable as a bank cheque. His average as player was 50; his average as captain 51. His average up to the age of 30 was 50.35; his average thereafter was 50.74. He was one of the top three scorers in 129 of the 265 Test innings in which he batted. Conditions, climes and other considerations seemed immaterial: his 68 first-class hundreds were achieved on 33 different grounds. If you recall the era in Australia, you'll remember how news of the cricket then passed around. The first question would be: do you know the score? The second would be: is Border still in? If the answer to the second was yes, then even the grimmest answer to the first was somewhat mitigated.
To a world that identifies Australia with jagged aggression, it is also hard to explain Border's demeanour. When Australia toured England unsuccessfully under his captaincy in 1985, captious judges found fault with his friendliness toward the likes of Ian Botham and David Gower. Border was nettled. "Victory has nothing to do with being ultra-aggressive towards opponents," he claimed. "I've been through both experiences, seen both attitudes… If you're being outplayed, you're being outplayed. Hard luck but fact." Yet even an Englishman, Chris Broad, in his golden summer of 1986-87, found the Australians' reticence strange: "The problem for the Aussies was that the captain Allan Border and his deputy David Boon were both quiet blokes and said hardly anything on the field."
More than any other player, however, Border made such remarks into quaint curios of a bygone age. On the Ashes tour of 1989, Australia's on-field dominance had an acrid verbal edge. "I've been through all sorts of downs with my team, but this time I thought we had a bloody good chance to win," Border confessed to Gower afterwards. "I was prepared to be as ruthless as it took to stuff you." This became the prime directive of Australian teams thereafter; likewise was friendliness identified with failure. Twenty years after Border was chided for his pacifism in 1985, Ricky Ponting copped similar criticisms as his team turned the Ashes over.
In Border's defence, it could be said that he was no tougher on opponents than on his own team. From a shy and retiring sort who looked after his own game, he became as captain a martinet, demanding absolute commitment. That could be traced to a night in a bar in Sharjah in April 1985, just months after his unruly succession of Kim Hughes, where he had solemnly laid out objectives for his captaincy, without realising that several of the nodding heads had already done similar nodding over contracts to tour South Africa. Border remained bitter even with the four who withdrew from the tour - Murray Bennett, Wayne Phillips, Dirk Wellham and Graeme Wood - and had to be persuaded to accept them as members of his team in England. They underwent a pre-tour interrogation as unsparing as anything Gower had to cope with: Wellham, who emerged from his "white as a ghost", thought it an "outrage", and said he would "not forgive Border his stupidity". Nine months later Border spontaneously laid his captaincy on the line during a one-day series in New Zealand, pouring forth his frustrations at an impromptu press conference by the practice area at Lancaster Park. "They're going to have to show me whether they really want to play for Australia," he groused. "And whether they really want to play for me." Seldom has Australian cricket so been hostage to one man's humours.
Yet through a rocky period that followed Greg Chappell's picking and choosing of tours and Hughes' unhappy role as his locum, Border was also sustaining the idea of the game as a passion rather than a profession. Grittily, grumpily, he restored in his country a sense of the honour inherent in national representation, eroded by decades of animosity between players and the Australian Cricket Board. He was available and chosen for all 30 of the tours in his 15-year career. He learned he had become a father while wearing his pads, awaiting his innings during an Australian collapse at the SCG - which was curiously fitting, as he had a tendency to watch cricket as anxiously as an expectant father, compulsively handling his "worry ball". His thoughts made easy reading on the field too, hands seemingly always trending towards his hips to form that famous "teapot" pose.
The turning point in his captaincy was in India, where Australia was a decidedly unfancied participant in the 1987 World Cup. The transformation in his leadership turned an old cliché on its head. Previously, he had led from the front, valiantly but unavailingly, because there was nothing much to follow him; here he led from behind, with the aid of a sharp and sagacious coach, Bob Simpson. The only survivor of Australia's previous World Cup campaign, where a talented but disunited team had disintegrated under pressure, Border absorbed all its lessons; henceforward, he would go on learning.
What he and Simpson were not destined to accomplish was victory over West Indies, although they went closer than any other country, coming within two runs of the Worrell Trophy on Australia Day, 1992. Border, as has recently come to light, had also already achieved one unacknowledged victory over West Indies at the inception of his captaincy, in an episode where the respective ends of certainty, Australia's and Australian cricket's, intersected.
When Cricket Australia made its archives available for research a couple of years ago, its records revealed the efforts of Prime Minister Bob Hawke in the summer of 1984-85 to install Clive Lloyd as Australian cricket's guru, a position the government was prepared to fund. Hawke's infatuation was publicly manifested when Lloyd was honoured with the Order of Australia "for service to the sport of cricket, particularly in relation to his outstanding and positive influence on the game in Australia" - a rather masochistic honour, given that Lloyd's West Indians were even then beating Border's Australians black and blue. Privately the board nursed more misgivings, and waited for Hawke's ardour to cool, which it did; Australian cricket moved on, investing long-term in competence rather than charisma.
In an era so smitten with charisma, in fact, Border's complete lack of it was among his most appealing attributes. He did what came naturally. There were no ostentations or gimmicks; there was no testimonial or farewell tour. Instead, Border dropped back to Sheffield Shield for a couple of years after quitting international cricket, although not for fun; he was as grim and combustible with Queensland as he was with Australia, leaving a forceful impression on the young Matthew Hayden.
Australian cricket, meanwhile, went from strength to strength. In Border's last year of international cricket, a popular Australian troubadour, Doug Parkinson, recorded a sentimental ballad, "Where Would We Be Without AB?" The answer was: just fine, thanks. This, perhaps, was Border's signal achievement. Great players often leave great holes behind them; it is a very rare great player who effectively renders himself redundant. Certainty might have become a thing of the past in Australia; to Australian cricket, Border had helped restore it.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer