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The return of Bob Simpson

When the 41-year-old former captain came out of retirement to lead Australia against India

Bob Simpson drives on his way to 176, Australia v India, 2nd Test, Perth, December 18, 1977

Bob Simpson drives on his way to 176 in Perth, in what was his fifth first-class match in a decade  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

India's tour of Australia in 1977-78 was completely overshadowed by the arrival of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket (WSC), unleashed on the world six months earlier, which left the home side fielding a virtual third XI under Bob Simpson, a 40-something captain who had retired from the game a decade earlier. Despite that, the series proved exciting and Simpson's comeback triumphant.
In May 1977, news broke that media mogul Packer, frustrated by his inability to secure TV rights for cricket for his fledgling TV channel, had decided to organise games of his own. Capitalising on the low amounts cricketers were paid, particularly in Australia, he signed up more than 50 players for his enterprise.
With his "circus" - as the establishment and media dismissively labelled the venture - taking place in parallel to the Australian season, it meant that the national selectors sat down in October 1977 with almost two dozen of their more likely choices unavailable.
The Australian Cricket Board (ACB) did all it could to frustrate WSC, barring it from all major cricket grounds, and going to court to prevent it referring to games as Tests or from calling their side Australia.
Packer believed that given the national side was bereft of all the leading players - and most second-string ones as well - the public would turn their backs on the official Test series. The establishment feared the same.
A divided Australian team had lost the Ashes in England in the summer, and few seemed able to predict who they would pick to face the Indians, let alone who would lead them. Craig Serjeant, a 26 year-old batsman who had made his debut that summer, was one of the favourites, if only because he was one of the few established cricketers not to have signed for Packer. The other leading candidate was John Inverarity, a 33-year-old allrounder who had played the last of his six Tests five years earlier.
So the announcement that Simpson, a 41-year-old who had retired from the game in 1968, had been hauled out of retirement to lead the side was met with shock but almost no dissent. Indeed, journalists at the press conference at which the news was made public broke into spontaneous applause.
Among those close to the game there was a general belief Simpson was still good enough. "He has a wonderful batting technique," Keith Miller said, "and is fitter at the moment than he has been for years."
Simpson, who had been made the offer the previous month, had been a top player and had led Australia 28 times after taking over the captaincy from Richie Benaud in 1963. He averaged 48 with the bat in his 52 Tests and was a brilliant slip fielder and useful legspinner and had continued to play regularly after retiring and had scored a hundred for grade side Western Suburbs at the start of the season.
The ACB made clear it was not expecting miracles. Praising Simpson's "experience and technical knowhow" it added: "Irrespective of the runs he may make Simpson will make a significant contribution to Australian cricket in the coming season."
Simpson was an old-school leader and wasted no time in saying he felt that the Australians had become undisciplined. In England the side had come under fire for their slovenly appearance and attitude. "It starts in getting the players proud to represent their country," he said. "I'll be looking to restore some of the lost guidance."
And whatever the board felt, he had no intention of not pulling his weight in the side. "I wouldn't have made myself available if I didn't think I would get runs. I have never surrendered my wicket easily. I have always considered it my obligation to my team, myself and spectators to get runs.
"Undoubtedly the success I have enjoyed in grade cricket in the past, and this year, made easier my decision to come back. If I had not been scoring runs, I would not have considered a return just as a figurehead."
He admitted he had been approached "almost every year" to resume for his state in the decade since he retired, repeatedly declining as he felt New South Wales were good enough without him. But with Packer players missing from the Sheffield Shield, things had changed. "The special conditions this year have made it necessary for an experienced player to be at the helm."
At the beginning of November, Simpson returned as captain of New South Wales, the side he led to their last Sheffield Shield title 12 years earlier. He had three matches before the first Test to find his feet.
In Perth, NSW lost to Western Australia by four wickets. Simpson made 14 and 5 and took three wickets. He then led his side to a nine-wicket win over South Australia, making 66 in his one outing. His final game was against the Indians, where he scored 58 and 94. He had proved he had not lost his ability with the bat, especially against spin.
India headed into the first Test with wins in all four of their matches against the states; on two previous tours of Australia they had never beaten a state side. But they were aware the opposition they had been facing were weak.
Australia's squad contained six uncapped players. Simpson aside, they boasted 36 Test appearances between them, of which 22 belonged to Jeff Thomson - he had signed for Packer but subsequently changed his mind. Only Serjeant, named as vice-captain, Thomson and Kim Hughes survived from the XI that had played Australia's previous Test at The Oval three months earlier.
In the fortnight before the opening Test, WSC had launched to poor attendances and a generally lukewarm response. The first Test between Simpson's almost unknown Australia and India in Brisbane was nervously watched by both the ACB and WSC, as it directly clashed with Packer's Supertest in Melbourne. The official Test was a cracker and attracted 32,000 to the Gabba; the Supertest drew a little over 13,000.
In Brisbane, Simpson was dismissed for 7 in the first innings, falling to the spin of Bishan Bedi. In his last Test before this one, in January 1968, he had been dismissed by Bedi, also for 7. Australia gained a slender 13-run lead on the first innings before Simpson made a vital 89 second time round. India, chasing an improbable 341 to win, fell 16 runs short.
The second Test, in Perth, was no less exciting. India took an eight-run first-innings lead - Simpson's six-and-a-half hour 176 keeping them at bay almost alone - but lost by two wickets as Australia chased down 342 with 22 balls remaining. Again, crowds were larger than expected.
India kept the series alive with comprehensive wins in the third and fourth Tests, but Australia, anchored by Simpson's 100 and 51, won the decider by 47 runs on the sixth day. Nevertheless, India made 445 in pursuit of 493, the highest losing total in the fourth innings of a Test; when they were 415 for 6, a remarkable win was still on the cards.
Simpson's return had proved more successful than anyone had dared hope. Not only had he forged a winning side from a batch of youngsters, he had done so by leading from the front with 539 runs at 53.90. Financially, a thrilling Test series had won out over WSC's garish, hyped Supertests.
But the tide was about to change. Shortly before the final Test, almost 25,000 watched a WSC limited-overs game under floodlights. Packer, with white balls, coloured clothing and a variety of gimmicks, had found what the public wanted. Cricket would never be the same again.
  • Simpson led Australia to the Caribbean immediately after the India series had ended. He was unable to repeat the success. Australia went down to a 3-1 series defeat, and Simpson scored 199 runs at 22.11. "He found himself leading a side of striplings in the Caribbean against the full might of a hostile, Packer-affiliated West Indian attack," John Woodcock wrote. "Never having shirked confrontation, he was prepared to die with his boots on, as he might well have had to." At the end of the tour Simpson again retired.
  • World Series Cricket continued into 1979, when it reached agreement with the ACB over broadcast rights
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