October 2005

Taken to the wire

Interviews by Nick Hoult
Jeff Thomson, Geoff Miller, Bob Willis and Geoff Lawson recall the Boxing Day Test of 1983, in which England won by three runs

A rebel tour the year before had weakened England and they went to Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test 2-0 down. Australia would regain the Ashes with even a draw. On the fourth day England looked to be heading for a comfortable win until a last-wicket stand between Allan Border and Jeff Thomson. For some of the players scars have only just healed

Jeff Thomson: "It was one of the all-time low moments in my life" © Getty Images

Jeff Thomson (Australia fast bowler): I could not talk about it for years. It was one of the all-time low moments in my life.

Geoff Miller (England spin bowler): It was the best and most exciting Test match I ever played in.

Bob Willis (England captain): It all boiled down to the captain's tactics against the last pair.

Geoff Lawson (Australia fast bowler): We thought we had lost going into the last day. It was great. You didn't have to take any of your gear to the ground; you just wandered down there.

After winning a key toss Willis opted to bat and England made 284, with Chris Tavaré and Allan Lamb scoring half-centuries.

Miller: It was a strange time because we were 2-0 down but still held the Ashes. We knew we had to win in Melbourne but the pitch was not conducive to scoring runs and all the innings scores were about the same.

Kim Hughes top-scored with 66 and there were half-centuries for David Hookes and Rodney Marsh as Australia took a three-run first-innings lead. But the umpiring throughout the tour had incensed England and Willis was again angry in Melbourne.

Lawson: There was not much between the two teams the whole series and Melbourne was a close game. Norman Cowans bowled fast - Shaun Tait reminds me of him a little, technique all over the place, let it go and bowl it sharp. He got some people out.

England had to set a winning total. They made 294 and Australia needed 292 to win. At 71 for 3, two to Cowans, they were up against it.

Willis: They were a better team than us; there is no doubt about that. They had a better batting side and a better bowling side but we were determined to hang in. In those days Melbourne was low and slow and it was going to be difficult to score that kind of target.

After a century partnership between Kim Hughes and David Hookes Australia collapsed to 202 for 8, when Lawson was out, and were in deep trouble.

Lawson: I got bounced out by Derek Pringle, caught at fine leg. The way they bring the ropes in these days it would have gone for six as­ it was right on the fence at Melbourne. When I went out there I think we needed about 100 and I thought I'd play some shots and see what happened.

Border was under pressure after a poor series but was determined to stick around. Even when the last man Thomson came in with another 74 needed for victory, the Australians had not given up hope.

Thomson: When I went out to bat there was no pressure on me. Everyone expected me to play a stupid shot and get out. AB had not been having the best of times but I played with him for Queensland and we were good mates. I went up to him and said: "Let's beat these fruits."

Lawson: I think that was the start of AB being a great player under pressure. He was like Steve Waugh. When the game got into a bad period he played his best. It started with that innings.

Miller: Batting last was always going to be a problem and we thought we had done enough. We had got rid of the quality batters and we thought if we bowled a straight one, it probably wouldn't get up and Thommo would miss it.

England decided to give Border singles to get Thomson on strike. It was a controversial tactic from Willis as Border was able to chip away at the target.

Willis: It was the captain's call. I had given up on my senior players after they persuaded me to bowl first in Adelaide. The captain takes the rap no matter what happens.

Thomson: The rest of the blokes in our dressing room thought I would have a slog and get out. But it didn't happen that way. I can still picture the England side's growing anxiety. They had stupid fields, bowled badly and everything was in the batsmen's favour.

Lawson: There were some strange bowling changes and field placements; they looked a bit rattled out there. Edgbaston this series reminded me of it; there were some poor fields.

Thomson and Border were hardly troubled as they batted out the fourth day. At the close they were 37 short of victory, halfway there.

Thomson: I was never worried while I was batting and it was never much of a drama for me. But all the blokes in the dressing room were drinking while we were batting. When I got back they were all pissed.

Lawson: Thommo fancied himself hanging in there. He is no mug; he can bat OK and it wasn't a case of, if the ball is straight enough, it is good enough. When you are nine down with 40 odd to get, you think you have a chance but it will take something unusual. You are resigned to probably losing the game. But AB and Thommo never looked like they were going to get out. ­ A crowd of 18,000 turned up on the final day. It could have lasted one ball but they got a thrilling session.

Lawson: We didn't do any warm- up, just a few throw-downs to AB and Thommo. It was a very strange morning. Then all these people turned up. Thommo was very relaxed but he's always relaxed. He can't be any other way.

Thomson: All the boys had to be wearing the same gear and sitting in the same positions they had been the day before. It also meant they were drinking again.

Miller: Thommo was riding his luck a bit and they were getting pretty close to the target. We didn't really have much of a team talk. We said that they had got halfway there, so they could do it.

Border was allowed to bat with freedom while Willis and Cowans, despite his six wickets, could not make the breakthrough, even with the new ball. Willis turned to his champion allrounder.

Miller: Ian Botham came on. I was at first slip and I said to Chris Tavaré, who was at second slip, that we had to move forward because it was a low-bouncing pitch. We moved up a couple of yards but we forgot about the new ball.

Lawson: I only thought we had a chance to win when they got it down to about five. Thomson: They had Norman Cowans, Bob Willis and Ian Botham. Instead of trying to make things happen they just expected them to happen.

With four runs needed Botham had Thomson on strike.

Thomson: I was not worried about getting out. I looked up at the board and we needed only four to win. I thought I would get a single, so AB could hit the winning runs. How stupid is that?! Botham could have bowled a full toss on leg stump.

Botham pitched one outside off stump and Thomson nicked it.

Thomson: It was a half-tracker and a bit of an away swinger. A bad ball really. I just tried to push it out for a single rather than smash it. All I did was get an edge.

Miller: We were fairly close at slip for a new ball and it just flew straight at Tavaré. He got a hand on it and it hit him and popped up. It was a difficult catch for him but it just looped up for me.

Lawson: I walked downstairs with Rod Marsh. We couldn't watch the game but we could hear what was going on with the crowd noise and radio commentary. We heard: "He's nicked it, he's been caught, no he's dropped it," then a couple of seconds later "No, he has caught it." We thought we'd at least tied because, if he has dropped it, it's gone for a few runs­. Emotions changed very quickly then.

Australia had lost by three runs. It was the closest Ashes Test since 1902.

Thomson: I was spewing. I had lost and I couldn't believe it. I was so angry because I had decided what to do with that ball before seeing it. It really wound me up. I went into the English dressing room and lost it. I gave them a real mouthful and told them they were going to pay for it at Sydney. That was not like me. Beefy was a good mate. I bet they all thought "what a dickhead."

Willis: You never give up and you never think it has gone.

Lawson: The Edgbaston Test this summer was very similar. ­You think that, if you have a bit of luck and things go your way, you can win those games. When a five-day game goes down to a couple of wickets or runs, there is no telling which way it will go. That is why it is still such a memorable game.