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Although from an English point of view the visit of Kim Hughes's Australian side was memorable, for the tourists themselves it must have been one of almost unbearable frustration. Having come, more than once, to within an ace of making sure of at least a share of the Cornhill Test series, they lost it in the end by three matches to one. England thus retained the Ashes, which had not been officially contested when the two sides had last met - on an ad hoc basis in Australia in 1979-80.
Feeling in need of a rest from cricket, Greg Chappell did not make the tour. When Australia were losing the third Test by 18 runs and the fourth by 28 runs, his absence made all the difference. The Australians were also deprived through injury, for the last three Test matches, of the bowling of Geoff Lawson, whose support of Dennis Lillee and Terry Alderman in the first three had been a telling factor. They missed Rodney Hogg as well - he too, was dogged by injury - and after a debilitating attack of viral pneumonia early in the tour Lillee, though his figures scarcely suggest it, was obliged to nurse his strength. In the end, Mike Whitney, a virtually unknown New South Welshman - in England to play league cricket for Fleetwood and making an occasional appearance for Gloucestershire - was brought in to reinforce the party.
For all that, it was the brittleness of Australia's batting that let them down. Needing only 130 to win the third Test at Headingley, they were bowled out, on an admittedly awkward wicket, for 111. In the fourth Test at Edgbaston, when, on a much better wicket, they needed 151 to win, they could make only 121, in spite of having been at one time 105 for four. Next, at Old Trafford, they allowed themselves to be bowled out in their first innings for 130 in 30.2 overs.
On other occasions, as at Headingley in their first innings, when in difficult conditions they scored a remarkable 401 for nine declared, and at Old Trafford in their second innings, when they made a splendidly defiant 404, they showed themselves to be capable of altogether better things. When the series was over no-one saw fit to dispute Hughes's opinion that the difference between the sides was represented by one man - Ian Botham - whose remarkable feats once he had been relieved of the England captaincy, will become a part of cricket's folklore.
Arriving later than any of their modern predecessors, except for those who stayed on in England after the World Cup in 1975, the Australians, owing to the endlessly wet weather in May, came to the first of the three matches for the Prudential Trophy, on June 4, very short of cricket. When, to general surprise, they won this limited-overs series by bowling better than England, they began to fancy their chances of regaining the Ashes. Victory in the first Test at Trent Bridge, decided by Australia's much safer slip catching and an even draw at Lord's meant that by the time of the third Test they were full of confidence, justifiably so, it seemed, until Botham delivered the first of his hammer blows.
The chief successes of the tour were Lillee and Alderman with the ball and Allan Border with the bat. The first two, both from Western Australia, where Lillee had been Alderman's mentor, took no fewer than 81 Test wickets between them. At 32, and having been far from well, Lillee was seldom anything like as fast as in the middle seventies. Such was his control, however, and his craftsmanship, that it was not until the later stages of England's second innings of the fifth Test that he was played with any sort of comfort. If this was Lillee's last tour of England, as in all likelihood it was, it was one of great distinction.
Alderman's selection for the touring team had caused some surprise. He had yet to play in a Test match and there were certainly those who would rather have had Jeff Thomson as Lillee's opening partner. But, reckoning that Alderman would be well suited by English conditions, the Australian selectors were proved entirely right. His 42 wickets in the Test series established a new record for an Australian against England. He revealed great stamina, bowling for hour after hour with an economical run-up and a well-oiled action, and made the most of whatever there was in the atmosphere or the pitch. At the end of a magnificent tour, Alderman said how much he owed to Lillee. In fact, they were complementary to each other.
Bowling slow, orthodox left-arm, if with no great powers of spin, Ray Bright served a useful purpose. Lawson was developing well when his back let him down. Graeme Beard, slow-medium and capable of a good off-cutter, was underused; he could consider himself unlucky not to be picked for the Old Trafford Test. Partly because of the modern trend and partly because of the pitches, which encouraged the use of medium-pace, another spinner, though lending variety to the attack, would have been unlikely to have had much bowling.
As the team's captain, Hughes had a difficult time. His public relations were pretty good, and on the field he was always prepared to take advice from Rodney Marsh, his more experienced deputy. He is a lovely fielder and a fine cricketer, and in most respects he stood up well to the severe pressures of a hard, close and, for him, disappointing series. He should, however, have made more runs. For someone who had batted so brilliantly in the Centenary Test of 1980, a tally of 300 runs from twelve Test innings, with a top score of 89, was something of an anti-climax. Seven times in the Test matches he was leg-before, and if on some of these occasions the decision could just as well have gone the other way, a tendency to play across the line of the ball was of his own doing.
Border's only failure was in not getting enough runs when it mattered in the third and fourth Tests. He finished with 123 not out (with a broken finger) in the second innings at Old Trafford, followed by 106 not out and 84 at The Oval, and his 63 in the first innings of the first Test had a lot to do with Australia winning it. Quick on his feet, full of fight and with a sound technique, Border ended the tour with a Test average, from 33 matches, of over 50. He, Graham Yallop, Graeme Wood, Martin Kent and Alderman also held some glorious catches in the slips and gully.
Of the other batsmen Dirk Wellham, at 22 the youngest member of the party, had to wait until the last Test for his first cap, whereupon he became the first Australian for nearly 90 years to score a hundred in England on his Test début. Sturdy, pugnacious and well organised, he should have a fine future. Although insecure in the earlier Tests against Willis, when he pitched short, Yallop made a glittering hundred at Old Trafford. In view of his previous Test record, Wood's top Test score of 66 in twelve innings was not worthy of him.
John Dyson's 102 on the other hand, in the first innings of the Headingley Test, was the high point of his career. Marsh, whose wicket-keeping was always aggressive and seldom at fault - he passed Alan Knott's world record of wicket-keeping victims during the series - let England off lightly with the bat. Trevor Chappell, though full of pluck, was greatly exercised batting high in the order in the first three Tests. Steve Rixon, the second wicket-keeper, had few chances, owing not least to the nature of the itinerary, which allowed for only ten first-class matches outside the Tests.
On considerably better pitches, Australia might have won the series. As it was they shared in a summer's cricket which, after a slow start, had the country by the ears, and that, I hope, was some consolation for having come so near the promised land without actually getting there. Mr. Fred Bennett was a popular and long-suffering manager, and Mr. Peter Philpott, a former Test player, an active coach. This was the first tour on which an Australian side had travelled with anyone in Philpott's capacity. Mr. Dave Sherwood, an indefatigable scorer, was making his seventh tour of England.
Test matches - Played 6: Won 1, Lost 3, Drawn 2.
First-class matches - Played 17: Won 3, Lost 3, Drawn 11.
Wins - England, Sussex, Worcestershire.
Losses - England (3).
Draws - England (2), Derbyshire, Essex, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Kent, Middlesex, Northamptonshire, Somerset.
Non first-class matches - Played 8: Won 4, Lost 3, Drawn 1. Abandoned 1. Wins - England (2), Leicestershire, Scotland. Losses - England, Lancashire, Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk's XI. Drawn - Warwickshire. Abandoned - Surrey.
Match reports for
1st ODI: England v Australia at Lord's, Jun 4, 1981
2nd ODI: England v Australia at Birmingham, Jun 6, 1981
3rd ODI: England v Australia at Leeds, Jun 8, 1981
1st Test: England v Australia at Nottingham, Jun 18-21, 1981
2nd Test: England v Australia at Lord's, Jul 2-7, 1981
3rd Test: England v Australia at Leeds, Jul 16-21, 1981
4th Test: England v Australia at Birmingham, Jul 30-Aug 2, 1981
5th Test: England v Australia at Manchester, Aug 13-17, 1981
6th Test: England v Australia at The Oval, Aug 27-Sep 1, 1981