Allan Border April 12, 2010

The man who stood by Australia

A stern, stoic resister, Allan Border was the keeper of his country's flame during their darkest hour. And he ensured that they would be just fine once he left

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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Michael on April 15, 2010, 7:42 GMT

    What's the score? is border still in? - so true. ahh the memories. border is a living legend and very humble about his greatness - not many people reach the pinnacle of world sport and remain so, so "normal". i love the bloke, met him once and he was really well mannered to me, he went up a notch when he was already held in the highest regard. my first bat was an AB 5 star, way too heavy for me as as kid but i wanted that bat - had a good middle when i found it though. i remember when he was all over the paper cas he was actually going to wear a helmet v the windies in 89 - wow, dominated cricket in the 80's in his baggy green and white floppy against some of the most fearsome bowlers ever. always be my favourite player. australian cricket is forever in AB's debt good article cheers

  • Mark on April 13, 2010, 22:40 GMT

    AB was certainly one of my childhood heroes and what a man he was to carry the Australian team of the 80's.If you wanted someone to bat for your life AB would be the man.Legend!

  • Luke on April 13, 2010, 5:30 GMT

    My first criket bat was a Duncan Fernley AB 5 Star. I absolutely worshipped Border as a kid. He typifies giving it your all, every time. Coming into Aus cricket at one of its lowest points and taking them to the brink of brilliance. The 1989 Ashes will forever be in my memory for the way Aus played. The best balance we've ever had. Thankfully AB got to feel the joy of such a series before he retired.

  • R on April 13, 2010, 3:36 GMT

    AB was my childhood hero, and played the game at a time when it was exciting for an Australian fan to watch. He did so much for the game in Australia and the resulting glory years were built on the back of his hard work. I always found a strange dualism in how Bradman fell for naught, and AB failed to conquer the Windies by one run in '93. Perhaps it is better this way, so we remember them as humans first, fantastic cricketers second. He may not have been a master tactician or man-manager, but through sheer determination formed a disillusioned side into the mentally tough outfit that went on to shatter the record books. Thankyou Gideon.

  • Cricinfouser on April 12, 2010, 23:42 GMT

    Thanks for the tribute to a great leader and player. It was especially interesting to see his average go up in his later career as there was a lean period towards the end.

    The ACB got it right when they chose to make the top award for Australian Cricket the Alan Border Medal

  • Jayant on April 12, 2010, 15:10 GMT

    finally i read something that suggests Gedion Haigh can write something positive as well, but i still want to see him writting with a neutral mind about cricket ...! But no doubt, AB was and is one of the greatest leaders in the cricket.

  • Syed Awad on April 12, 2010, 13:31 GMT

    Finally the article I craved for.

    Every team goes through its bad phases, but the 80's shrouded like black wings around Australia. And when they were on their knees, he brought them to their feet. AB not only restored dominance, he left a legacy of hard, uncompromising and passionate cricket that is seen in the eyes of the debutant who gets the baggy green. By pulling his weight and demanding the best, he moulded Australia into a juggernaut that became unstoppable at its peak.

    So next time the question is raised, Who was the greatest cricketer to play for Australia? Look at them in the eye and say no sir, it wasnt Warne, nor was it Bradman. It was AB.

  • Kumar on April 12, 2010, 11:34 GMT

    Wonderful article. During his playing days, especially against India, I hated him, his guts, his graceless batting. But looking back, I think Border did more than anyone else to bring Australian cricket from its almost-dying state to the verge of world cricket dominance. And I am sure all the captains who followed - Taylor, Waugh, Ponting - would appreciate standing on the shoulder of this giant. For influencing and inspiring generations that followed, Border truly shares the stage with Kapil, Imran and very few others.

  • Bill on April 12, 2010, 10:37 GMT

    I wouldn't call him a great captain - he did have a good nose for weakness but he was too often incapable of experimenting to make something happen. That said, he was by some distance the mentally toughest individual to step onto a cricket field in my lifetime. Such a contrast to the arrogant playboys who strut around today.

  • N. on April 12, 2010, 9:11 GMT

    AS a young fella growing up in Australia in the 80's, AB was my cricket hero! I literally worshipped the ground he walked on as did all of my friends who followed cricket.... He really was "the man" for me. I would rush home from school, hoping that he was still in batting so that I could watch him on TV... It is so true that people asked the score and then whether AB was still in! If he was in, there was always hope for the Aussie team... It pains me that he is not always given credit for what he did for the Austarlian Cricket Team. He carried us for so many years and moulded the attitude the team has now which paved the way for later successes. I am glad that he has been recognised for his achievements by being selected in the all time Australian XI on Cricinfo, ahead of players who played in more successful teams against less powerfull bowling attacks... Also his selection as 12th man in the Aussie team of the 20th Century was a great recognition of this great Aussie...

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