No. 34 November 6, 2010

The rise of Australia

In Madras in 1986 started a march that inspired awe in everyone who came across it

1986

When Bob Simpson and Allan Border joined forces in India in 1986, Australia were bottom of the cricketing heap. By the time they departed a decade later, Australia were top of the world - and getting ready for the Waugh era.

Simpson, in his autobiography years later, was frank about the mess they inherited: "Shotgun selection had been applied… long-term planning and philosophy were urgently needed… the work ethic was non-existent… the whole training exercise [was seen] as a bit of a joke." Then suddenly, almost overnight, there was hope.

Border was the ultimate tough guy, Simpson the first great professional coach. Border gave his men heart; Simpson ideas. Technical nuts and bolts were tightened. Fielding practice assumed a never-before-seen intensity. Old pros perceived as lazy and uncommitted were replaced by dedicated juniors who cherished the baggy green: David Boon, Steve Waugh, Geoff Marsh, Merv Hughes, Dean Jones.

That first Test together, in Madras, was tied - thanks to a Border-like bullishness from Jones and Greg Matthews. The shock 1987 World Cup triumph was based on two vintage Simpsonisms: "catches win matches" and "the team that runs most singles wins". By 1989, Border had moulded a team into his own cussed, unbending image. They murdered the Poms and the course for world domination was set.

By the end of the 20th century the Australian team led by Steve Waugh contrived spectacularly to eliminate the draw from Test cricket. Like the United States, after the cold war, Australia had no opposition. Stalemates were ruled out.

Waugh's Australians hastened the game. They made huge runs shamelessly fast from the time the openers took guard, which not only made their opponents feel inept but which also gave Australia more time than any team ever before in which to regularly take 20 wickets. Australia advanced, and the world followed.

Ricky Ponting kept the legacy going as long as he had the players who imposed before they could be imposed upon. Many fans today rhapsodise about Mark Taylor's daring and diplomacy, about Steve Waugh's ruthlessness and razzmatazz. Border, in retrospect, seems dour and unimaginative, Simpson too autocratic. But it all started there.

This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2003.