A thriller turns 30
Christmas for many cricket-lovers in Australia means just one thing: clearing the decks of turkey and mince pies in time for the Boxing Day Test on December 26. I've spent a few festive seasons in the unaccustomed heat of Melbourne, amused at the shop-window scenes of snow and wondering how many kilos the Santa in Myer, the massive department store, has sweated off under his thick red robes.
One of the best Tests I ever saw was the Boxing Day match at the MCG during Bob Willis' reign as England captain, and it came as rather a shock to the system to realise that this is the 30th anniversary of that great game - in 1982-83 - which Australia nearly stole, after their ninth wicket went down with 74 runs still needed.
England were 2-0 down going into that fourth Test, but looked set to reduce the deficit - and keep alive their hopes of retaining the Ashes, won so thrillingly in 1981 - with the New Year Test in Sydney to come. Australia, set 292 to win, lost their ninth wicket late on the fourth day, with just 218 on the board. Not long now, thought the Poms present, as the No. 11, Jeff Thomson, moseyed out to join Allan Border, who had been so out of form that his place was in serious doubt.
Keen to bowl at the last man, Willis started spreading the field to allow Border singles. He turned down a lot - 29 in all, according to Bill Frindall - but still the runs kept ticking down, and Thommo, no doubt affronted by the suggestion that he wasn't much of a batsman, got in behind everything when he was required to face. By the end of play, Australia's last pair had scored exactly half the 74 runs they needed, Border was back to something like decent form, and everyone had to come back next morning.
The fifth day dawned bright, and my dad confidently expected me to give the cricket away - "Could be just one ball" - for a day at the beach. But of course the cricket won and, with admission free, I was joined by around 18,000 other eager beavers.
Willis kept the field out to Border, and the target was soon under 30. Then less than 20. And then single figures. Border had passed his half-century, and the man at the other end still looked rock solid: "It was one of the very few times I had seen Thommo restrain himself with the bat," said Border. "He was terrific, thoroughly responsible."
All along I'd been expecting England to win, but suddenly I wasn't so sure - and you could see from the body language that England's players weren't so sure either. Finally it boiled down to four to win, just one shot, just one edged boundary. For the first time, I thought Australia were going to win.
Back came the inevitable Ian Botham, for a final tilt from the Southern End, opposite the pavilion. Turned out that "only four to win" had scrambled Thomson's brain a little, and he went for his first expansive shot, aiming to get them in one go, from an inviting-looking ball that curved away slightly. The resultant thick edge flew to second slip, where Chris Tavaré, as if in a trance, parried the ball upwards and over his head. Amid 18,000 collective gasps, Geoff Miller nipped round behind him from first slip and completed the catch. England had won!
"I remember throwing my arms jubilantly in the air," wrote Willis, "and then running blindly off." And as the rest of them left the field, something happened that I have never seen before or since. Everyone around me stood up, and shook the hand of the spectator nearest them - because they were there. As it turned out, there was the place to be: stay-at-homes watching on TV didn't see the climax live, as Australia's Channel 9 was late returning from an advert for spanners. A friend of a friend vowed never to use that particular brand again: I suspected that for a couple of years he used his teeth instead.
Even before this remarkable finish, it had been an absorbing Test. Peculiarly, each of the first three innings occupied precisely a day; equally spookily, all the totals were within ten runs of each other (England 284 and 294, Australia 287 and 288). The first day had been notable for Tavaré, usually the blocker par excellence, repeatedly clonking Bruce Yardley into the vast open spaces of the MCG outfield on his way to 89, at about double his usual rate. Not just the English contingent was disappointed when he cut Thommo to gully - and was well held by Yardley - 11 short of a hundred. It made you wonder what Tav might have achieved in his Test career if he hadn't been persuaded early on - or instructed - to become a sort of Boycott Mk II.
On the second day I celebrated when Norman Cowans trapped John Dyson lbw. In a club game not very long before, "Flash" Cowans had put me in at short leg when he bowled; pointing at my glasses, I had pretended not to hear as he exhorted me to get closer and closer in. So a celebration seemed appropriate.
It took the form of a dash to the pavilion bar - which meant I missed his next-ball dismissal of Greg Chappell, caught on the boundary. Luckily for me, for this match the MCG had replaced the lovely old scoreboard with its first big replay screen, so I was soon able to savour that one (and a cold beer) too. The fourth day turned out to be Cowans' finest in a Test: in only his second match, he got Chappell cheaply again and finished with six wickets.
After this fairytale finish, there wasn't quite another one in Sydney, where a draw confirmed that the Ashes would be changing hands after all. But actually no one who had been in on the end in Melbourne minded very much.
Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013