With jaw broken but head unbowed
"I thought a bit too much was made of it," Rick McCosker says.
"If you look at the record book , I made 4 in the first innings, and 25 in the second. And I didn't field a ball in whole match. So I didn't do much at all."
Except that when his turn to field came, McCosker was in hospital, nursing the jaw that a bouncer had broken on the first morning of the centenary Test. He spent a day and a half in hospital, getting the jaw wired so he could go out if needed. He came back to the MCG and watched from the change room. In the third innings of the match, he went out to bat, his face and head covered in bandages, the baggy green perched on his head, holding the thing together. Helmets weren't an option.
McCosker hooked the first bouncer bowled at him for four. For the tenth wicket he added 54 with Rod Marsh, who scored a century. The pitch had flattened out considerably, and Australia would need every run they could get. They eventually won by 45, the same margin and the same result as in the very first Test, played at the MCG 100 years before.
It is one of the most inspirational tales in cricket, of being on the pitch when you should be in bed. A tale from the days when your only defence against the bouncer was hooking or getting out of its way. You didn't head-butt bouncers back then; you would die if you did.
McCosker won't look back at those six days any differently, though. He tells a good story, but he doesn't embellish it.
It was courageous, it was important, but that's the job. "One of the Indians would have done that," he says. "One of the Englishmen would have done that. Randall in his innings, he got sconed by Lillee. He just got up and continued to bat. So you just do it."
McCosker grew up in the bush, in the mining town of Inverell in New South Wales. Never coached, he learned cricket when playing against his father's mates. Those were the only games you got in the bush. The older folk didn't bowl slow at the kid. He developed a strong back-foot game.
He went to Sydney at the age of 21, a banking job in hand, and a vague ambition in the back of his head that he might play for Australia one day. It took him about six years to graduate from grade cricket to the New South Wales side. His first hundred he scored against Lillee, and he followed it up with another in the same match.
Not a flamboyant batsman, McCosker was a quiet personality in a dressing room full of "rowdy" characters. Two years into his Test career he found himself opening the innings in the biggest Test of the era. The match to mark 100 years of Test cricket was watched by 218 Test cricketers live. There were great performances: the youth of Hookes and Randall, the Western Australian bloody-mindedness of Lillee and Marsh. McCosker put in one to match them.
The days leading up to the game stand out for him "I assume you were down in Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test," he says. "You know what it's like. The atmosphere. That's what it was like for a couple of days before the match started. Melbourne was buzzing. All the cricketers, all the past cricketers and current cricketers, English and Australians, were staying at the Hilton hotel, which is just across the MCG. There were functions. There were cocktails. There were dinners. Amazing just to be in a room with guys that had been just names before. Bradman, Arthur Morris, Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall - those guys. Peter May. Ted Dexter."
It all built up to a tense first morning. Nobody wanted to slip up in front of so many special guests. England inserted Australia. Ian Davis, McCosker's opening partner, didn't survive long. The pitch had moisture, which was playing tricks. Nervous energy all around.
McCosker thinks he was too keyed up. "When you are an opening batsman, you know when the bowler is going to bowl a bouncer," he says. "They have just got the look in their eye. I knew Bob Willis was going to. Unfortunately, because I knew, I was ready, probably more than ready, and I had already played the shot before the ball actually got to me. You should never play the hook shot at the MCG on the first morning of a Test match, because there is always a bit of moisture in the wicket. You are never quite sure of the bounce. I broke that unwritten rule. And I broke my jaw." To make things worse, the ball went on to hit the stumps.
McCosker says he didn't feel anything at the time. It was numb. All he heard was this awful noise inside his head, and all he saw was the Englishmen celebrating and blood everywhere. He walked off. Didn't need a stretcher.
He went into the change room and lay down. The doctor told him it was just bruising. "But the bruise kept getting bigger and bigger," he says. "Blacker and blacker, and the face just got up like a balloon. Started to hurt a bit." An orthodontist close to the team, who was at the game, said he'd better get an x-ray done. The jaw turned out to be broken in two places.
McCosker didn't come back from hospital that night. "An orthodontist guy came and took the plaster cast of the top teeth and the bottom teeth," he says. "Then he went away and made a sort of a silver splint. And he put that in the mouth, and so all that did was basically keep it together. That's why I had all those bandages, just to keep it all together so it didn't move up or down, and try and sort of set it in a place."
While in hospital, McCosker checked on the scores on radio. He kept dozing off. He was happy when England were bowled out for fewer than Australia. Lillee took six.
McCosker's two sons, four and two, came to visit from Sydney. They took a look and ran. That, he says, was the toughest part. "They thought it was pretty scary." He can't remember which of the players, Australians or Englishmen, came to visit.
By the second evening of the match, McCosker had been discharged from hospital. By the third morning, he was back at the MCG, watching the batsmen as they recovered from 53 for 3. At some time during the day, Greg Chappell, the captain, asked him if he wanted to bat. McCosker said he did. No second thoughts. Didn't he fear things might get worse?
"You don't think of those things," he says. "No, not at that stage. I suppose subconsciously, but at that time you had a job to do."
He wanted to be part of the occasion. "If you get kicked off a horse, you get back on again," he says. "Also because it was such a big match and such a big crowd, I wanted to be a part of it. And do something. Not just sit in the dressing room. Anyway, the guys would have been pretty sick of the sight of me in the change room. It was pretty ugly."
McCosker went in to bat at No. 10, at the final drinks break on day three, but he was ready much earlier. Chappell didn't want to risk it; he wanted to see if the others would give him a defendable total.
Out in the middle, David Hookes charmed the crowd, and Doug Walters fought a fight. Both scored fifties, but the pitch was flat. Australia needed more.
Marsh began to provide it. He made his way to his century, adding 33 with Gary Gilmour and 76 with Lillee.
McCosker had been ready to go in before Lillee, but the new ball was due at the time. "Dennis has never let me have the last of it," he says, "that he, a fast bowler, shielded me, an opening batsman, from the new ball.
"He did all right."
At the fall of Lillee's wicket, though, with only Max Walker left, McCosker put on the baggy green and walked out. Marsh told him he didn't have to do it; he asked McCosker to go back. McCosker told Marsh to mind his business, adding a few expletives. Kerry O'Keeffe - "not the fastest of runners" - ran for McCosker. O'Keeffe had also opened the innings in his absence, and he is still grateful to McCosker for that chance to open for Australia.
McCosker was expecting bouncers. This was Test cricket. He knew the English would be in a quandary: they would obviously want him out, but the crowd would give them stick if they bowled short.
John Lever bowled the first of them. The bowlers were pretty tired by then, and the pitch was flat, so it was a little different from the first innings. Still, this was a man part of whose jaw would forever be numb after that blow.
It wasn't predetermined that he would hook. "Mind you, it was only 130kph," McCosker says. "It was at the right spot and I hooked it for a four. It was just a reflex thing you did. I had no preconception about what I was going to do. If it comes along, if it's there, I was going to go for it. If it's too high I would let it go." This one was there. And he hooked it for four. The crowd first booed the English, and then went berserk.
They sang "Waltzing McCosker" during the innings. "It was one of the most wonderful things that ever happened," McCosker says. "Particularly because I come from New South Wales, and the Victorian crowd, generally speaking, don't like NSW players very much. They got really stuck into the Poms when they bowled the bouncer."
McCosker joined Marsh when the latter was on 70-odd. They went to stumps with Marsh 95 and McCosker 17.
Then came the rest day, which didn't help. The head began to hurt more. It also gave McCosker time to look at the papers. "[The pictures] were a bit sick," he laughs. That night he went to a dinner where Bradman spoke. He just had soup; it was all he could eat.
On the fourth morning, Marsh got to his hundred soon. "He would have done the same thing if it was the other way around," McCosker says. "We had a partnership that was 50-odd, and in the end we won by about 40 runs. So we knew it was pretty important."
It took the best of Lillee against a spirited chase led by the dashing innings of Randall, who won the Man-of-the-Match award. Lillee was chaired off the ground by his team-mates. Marsh sang "Under The Southern Cross I Stand" in the dressing room. McCosker couldn't have a beer.
Asked if he would have done the same in a lesser Test, or against a team other than the old enemy, McCosker says, "If it was against West Indies, I don't think I would have got up [from the hit]." He laughs. Then he thinks a bit, and says, "I don't know. I can never answer that. You just did those things."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo