Andrew Strauss's decision to open the attack at Lord's with a spinner raised more than a few eyebrows and a fair amount of muttering from the mass of former captains in the Sky commentary box. It's a tactic by no means unknown, but in the modern era it's rare.
Thirty years ago Australia's Graham Yallop
took the decision to open up with two
spinners, leading to a heated exchange with Mike Brearley
, England's captain. The problem was that Yallop opted not to take a new ball but to bowl with the old one Australia had used in the first innings.
In 1978-79, the Australian board, at the time engaged in a bitter battle with World Series Cricket, had pinned its hopes on crushing Kerry Packer's rebel tournament with a traditional gripping six-match Ashes series. However, with almost two dozen of Australia's leading players throwing their lot in with Packer, what amount to Australia's 3rd XI were comprehensively outplayed from the off, and the public soon tired of the one-sided offering.
Australia were not only beaten on the field, they were deeply divided off it. Yallop was not everyone's preference as captain, and although Rodney Hogg almost single-handedly carried the attack with 41 wickets, he was barely on speaking terms with his skipper. Asked why he seemed to get on well with Brearley, Hogg replied: "I wasn't getting on too well with my captain, so I thought I'd get on well with theirs."
By the time the teams reached Sydney for the final Test, Australia were 3-1 down and all but disowned by the public. Yallop won the toss, batted, and made a battling 121 as Australia were bowled out for 198. England replied with 308, and on a pitch increasingly taking turn, dismissed Australia second time round for 143; Geoff Miller took 5 for 44 and John Emburey 4 for 52. England needed 34 to win and had almost five sessions to do so.
As Brearley and Geoff Boycott prepared to go out to open, the umpires - Tony Crafter and Donald Weser, both standing in their first Test - informed them that Yallop had requested, and been given, an old ball. Brearley was unimpressed, telling them: "I'm sorry, I'm having none of that."
Crafter and Weser went back to speak to Yallop. He insisted that he wanted to open up with Bruce Yardley
and Jim Higgs
, his two spinners, and wanted to do so with an old ball. The umpires agreed and told Brearley that there was nothing in the Laws to prevent it.
"You can do no more than protest," Brearley wrote in The Ashes Retained, his account of the series. "[But] we said that if that were allowed then any captain could bowl with an old ball with the string hanging down. I was fuming inwardly ... but this argument made equally little impact on the umpires. I didn't want to get too worked up immediately before batting, so I shrugged and carried on padding up.
"The advantage of an old ball was that the spinners could grip the ball from the start," he continued. "There is no chance for the openers to score a few runs and get their feet moving against the new ball."
Doug Insole, England's manager, was sure Brearley was right, and as the innings got underway after a six-minute delay, he skimmed through the Laws, eventually finding Law 5, which stated that "subject to agreement to the contrary, either captain may demand a new ball at the start of the innings".
Out in the middle, Brearley had made a good start, cutting Higgs for four as England reached 12 for 0. On the Hill, a lone trumpeter sounded the Last Post.
Insole was in a quandary. Should he go out and inform the umpires they were wrong or let the game continue? He decided that the risk of restarting the innings and then having Brearley or Boycott dismissed for 0 was not worth the hassle. Had England been chasing a higher target, he might have gambled.
With three needed, Boycott tried to hit Higgs over the off-side ring but only succeeded in spooning the ball to Kim Hughes at extra cover. Derek Randall scurried to the middle only to recoil in horror as he reached the crease: someone had placed a plastic snake there. Minutes later Brearley skipped down the pitch to drive Yardley over midwicket to seal the win.
Questioned in the post-match interviews about the dispute with the umpires, Brearley said there was little he could do other than refer to the matter in his report, but he emphasised it was "a storm in a teacup" in the last half-hour of a very long series. As for Yallop, he was gracious in defeat, and only commented that "the umpires gave me an old ball and we went through the motions".
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The Ashes Retained by Mike Brearley (Hodder & Stoughton 1979)
The Ashes '79 by David Frith (Angus & Robertson 1979)
Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa