England's tour of Australia, under the captaincy of Mike Gatting, brought a timely and much-needed boost to English confidence after the tribulations of the previous months. Having flown from Heathrow in October carrying the prayers rather than the aspirations of their countrymen, following three lost series in succession - eight defeats in eleven Tests without a single win - they returned triumphantly in February not only with the Ashes safe till 1989 but also as winners of two one-day competitions in which West Indies were involved. It was an excellent performance, not least because at the outset England had given no sign of emerging from the pit. They lost to Queensland in the opening first-class fixture and were outplayed by Western Australia in the third on the eve of the First Test. Few, at that stage, would have given much for their retaining the Ashes against an Australian side which, during a hard-fought drawn series in India, had seemed capable of ending an equally depressing run of failure.
The recovery and subsequent success owed much to the efficient, friendly partnership of Peter Lush and Micky Stewart as managers, the confidence their encouragement gave Gatting, and the good team spirit that resulted. On and off the field it was a happy tour, in spite of an itinerary which could have been devised only by a group of men - the officials of both countries' Boards - who did not have to undergo it. Three trips to Perth raised the mileage flown internally to the equivalent of a trip around the Equator, while it was not until the thirteenth week that the team arrived in Sydney, favourite city of all touring teams and, with Melbourne, traditionally the focal point of cricket in Australia.
England's performance against Western Australia was woeful, and two of the state's new-ball bowlers, Bruce Reid and Chris Matthews, were in Australia's team across the continent at Brisbane three days later. When Allan Border won the toss and put England in to bat in helpful conditions for fast bowling, it required little imagination to see Australia going on to win and establishing an ascendancy that would take a lot of winning back. Instead, the opposite took place. Where on their form in Sheffield Shield cricket, Reid, Matthews and Merv Hughes, a bustling Victorian of lively pace, could have been expected to bowl England out for fewer than 250, the pressure of a Test exposed their inexperience. Lawson having surprisingly been named twelfth man, Australia's three fast bowlers at the 'Gabba had only nine Test caps between them; and when England scored 198 for two on a shortened opening day, the confidence they gained, as Australia's visibly declined, changed the outlook for the series.
Much of the credit belonged to Bill Athey who, having been forced on England as Chris Board's opening partner through Wilf Slack's lack of form (and Gooch's decision not to tour), batted with judgement and composure to score 76 off 68 overs. Tactically, however, Gatting's switch to No. 3 in place of David Gower, who had bagged a "pair" at Perth, was of as much significance. After the early loss of Broad, Gatting helped Athey add 101 at a significance. After the early loss of Broad, Gatting helped Athey add 101 at a time when the quick capture of a second wicket might have been all the encouragement Australia's bowlers needed. Coming when it did, in the first session of the series, Gatting's unselfishness ensured him of his team's respect; its success was an obvious fillip to his self-assurance. With the exception of a silly incident on the first day of the Victoria match at Melbourne, when he overslept and was late arriving - a discourtesy for which the manager, over-reacting to the media for the only time in nineteen weeks, "severely reprimanded" him - Gatting's first taste of captaincy abroad was one he will recall with pride and pleasure.
Crucial as the first day had been for England in exposing the superficiality of Australia's presumed improvement, a missed catch early on the second morning may well, in retrospect, have decided the destination of the Ashes. For after Allan Lamb, then Athey, had fallen without addition to the overnight total, England would have slipped to 198 for five had Gower been caught in the slips before scoring. Instead, with Ian Botham, having gone 21 Tests without a hundred, hitting his fourteenth for England, a destructive 138 off 174 balls, England went on to reach 456. When Australia narrowly failed to save the follow-on, the tourists won by seven wickets, taking a lead that was never to be threatened.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the tour was the unity within the team and the way they dovetailed on the field. Broad, with the bat, and Graham Dilley, Gladstone Small and Philip DeFreitas with the ball enjoyed outstanding personal success. But nearly everyone contributed and some, notably John Emburey and Phil Edmonds, the spinners, played a more important role than was suggested by their figures. Gower was fighting what looked to be a losing battle with his concentration early in the tour, a reaction possibly to being passed over as vice-captain. But his "life" at Brisbane proved his turning-point. Following 51 and 15 not out in the First Test, he made 136 and 48 at Perth, and scored 404 Test runs at 57.71 to be second in the averages. Gatting, who stayed at No. 3, scored 100 at Adelaide (Third Test) and a punishing 96 at Sydney (Fifth) which put England within reach of taking the series three-love until he was out in the second of the final twenty overs. He batted as he captained, without frills. His team knew where they stood with him.
It was in the Second Test that the left-handed Broad struck the prolific form that was to earn him the title of "International Player of the Season". His height, composure, concentration and sound technique were well suited to Australian pitches, and from the early matches he had batted impressively without taking full advantage of a series of good starts. All that changed at Perth, where his stylish 162 was the first of three hundreds in three successive Tests, an achievement equalled for England against Australia only by J. B. Hobbs, W. R. Hammond and R. A. Woolmer, the last-named in different series. Broad made 487 runs in the Tests at 69.57 and was a model of consistency in the one-day internationals; in fourteen innings he was out only five times for under 30, scoring another 559 for an aggregate of 1,046. Athey, though inevitably overshadowed, proved a determined foil, sharing two hundred opening stands in the Tests and in the field revealing as safe a pair of hands as any in the side, notably inside the "oblong" in the one-day games. Only a perfectly disguised yorker by Reid at Perth, bowling him for 96, denied him what would have been his first hundred in a Test.
Small was held back by a jarred knee in the first month, and with Dilley bowling some of the best spells of his career, and Botham and DeFreitas supporting him sufficiently, he was a bystander for three Tests. But when he was given his chance at Melbourne, in the Fourth Test, when Dilley was unfit, Small bowled his out-swingers with pace and excellent control to collect seven economical wickets and the Man of the Match award. Dilley and DeFreitas, who bowled with greater fire the longer the tour lasted, were England's fastest bowlers. But day in day out, in first-class games, Small was the most accurate and had the best control. It was clear he had the attributes of a valuable third seamer, and he was a force with the new ball because of his ability to swing it. DeFreitas, at twenty the youngest member of the party, looked a natural cricketer - a quick, aggressive bowler with an awkward skidding bounce and a great fielder in the deep. His batting did not live up to the promise of a clean-hit 40 in the Brisbane Test but the innings left no doubt of his potential. Emburey, the vice-captain, encountered problems with the leg-side winds in the Second and Third Tests but battled through with typical persistence, completing the series with a fine all-round performance which deserved to save the Sydney Test. He and Edmonds, who also played in every Test, enabled England to keep control when wickets were elusive, sharing almost 600 overs at 2.08 runs each, a huge contrast in economy to the Australian spinners.
Statistically, Botham had a modest series, scoring only 51 in five innings after Brisbane and finishing his Test career abroad with an untimely first-ball duck in Sydney. But in contrast to the West Indian tour of the previous winter, he was an asset to the side. He gave his all in every match and went out of his way to encourage younger players, especially DeFreitas. Reduced to bowling medium-pace after tearing a muscle in his ribs at Perth, he returned with five for 41 at Melbourne to help Small bowl Australia out for 141, and he made such a good adjustment to his loss of pace that he more than held his own as a defensive one-day bowler. In the Benson and Hedges Challenge at Perth and in the first final of the World Series Cup at Melbourne, where he slammed Australia for 68 off 39 balls and 71 off 52 respectively, he produced the two most memorable displays of controlled hitting of the tour.
Only Slack, who had the ill luck to encounter two difficult late out-swingers in the Queensland match and was unable to take his one subsequent chance to make up lost ground, appeared neither in a Test nor a one-day international. James Whitaker, the next least called upon, had the satisfaction of winning his first Test cap at Adelaide, where Botham was unfit, as well as scoring a hard-hit hundred against South Australia on his first appearance in a first-class game on tour; while Neil Foster, who did not play in a Test, did a good job in the later one-day internationals. Bruce French, number one wicket-keeper when the team was picked, enjoyed the ironic consolation of ousting Jack Richards from the last three World Series Cup games after Richards had been preferred in the Tests because of his superior batting. Richards justified his elevation with 133 in the Second Test, and with a brilliant match behind the stumps at Melbourne, where by going two up England made certain of the Ashes. But when Richards lost his batting form, French seized the chance to show that, as a wicket-keeper, he was unmistakably the better of the two. His batting, similarly neat and tidy, looked to need only a tightening against fast bowling for French to be as valuable in England's tail as R. W. Taylor had made himself in Tests.
Australia ended the season on a note of hope by winning the Fifth Test, in which the 30-year-old Peter Taylor made a fairy-tale début, and by reaching the finals of the World Series Cup. But the absence in South Africa of five or six players who would have been pushing for inclusion in the Test team left a weakness in bowling that made them very vulnerable. Craig McDermott, their spearhead in England in 1985, was wrestling with conflicting advice concerning his best pace and method, and with Geoff Lawson out of favour with his captain and selectors, it left the 6ft 8in Reid, the fast-medium left-armer, as the only bowler of genuine Test class. Had England won the series 3-0, rather than 2-1, it would in fact have been a more accurate reflection of the disparity between the sides.
Batting was by far Australia's stronger wing. Geoff Marsh proved himself an adhesive opener of limitless endurance, and in Dean Jones and Stephen Waugh Australia had two youngsters of obvious class, both well equipped with strokes and always on the look-out to take the battle to the bowlers. After a poor First Test, Border was doggedly consistent and made two hundreds in the series; but as captain he lacked spark and the ability to inspire a young team much in need of it. Hard task as he had, he did not look the man to lead the Test team from its troubled run.
Overall, however, there could be little doubt that the responsibility for Australia's continued struggles rested squarely with their Board. Since the alliance with PBL Marketing was formed in 1979, the pursuit of money through a saturation of international one-day cricket, sapping players' stamina and leading to bad habits in technique, has too often seemed their main objective, if not the only one. A visitor's impression was that a wiser course might be the pursuit of excellence by giving greater encouragement to first-class cricket in the Sheffield Shield.
Test matches - Played 5: Won 2, Lost 1, Drawn 2.
First-class matches - Played 11: Won 5, Lost 3, Drawn 3.
Wins - Australia (2), South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria.
Losses - Australia, New South Wales, Queensland.
Draws - Australia (2), Western Australia.
Non first-class matches - Played 19: Won 14, Lost 4, Drawn 1. Wins - Australia (4), Pakistan (2), West Indies (4), Prime Minister's XI, South Australia Country XI, South-East Queensland Country XI, Western Australia Country XI. Losses - Australia (3), West Indies.
Draw - Queensland Country XI.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Queensland v England XI at Brisbane, Oct 24-27, 1986
Tour Match: South Australia v England XI at Adelaide, Oct 31-Nov 3, 1986
Tour Match: Western Australia v England XI at Perth, Nov 7-10, 1986
Tour Match: New South Wales v England XI at Newcastle, Nov 21-23, 1986
Tour Match: Victoria v England XI at Melbourne, Dec 6-9, 1986
Tour Match: Tasmania v England XI at Hobart, Dec 18-21, 1986
Tour Match: Prime Minister's XI v England XI at Canberra, Dec 23, 1986