Sunday, November 28, 2010

Great Memories: Australia at Home in 1974-75

Ben Roberts

Arguably Australian crickets favourite home Ashes series is the 4-1 victory over England in 1974-75. Regularly punctuated by savage assaults from Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, the series has become as renowned for the uncomfort experienced by batsmen as for the result of the cricket played. Was there something more however to Australia’s victory (and England’s loss) than simply the hairy chested colonial brutality of Messrs Lillee and Thomson?

England arrived in Australia as holders of the Ashes. They had won them on their previous visit in 1970-71 thanks to their own hostile paceman Jon Snow. In between times the English had retained the urn in the home series against Ian Chappell's emerging team, despite being pushed all the way.

Brave decision making at the toss by Ian Chappell, electing to bat on an uncertain Brisbane pitch, displayed the intent of the Australian side who ultimately won by 166 runs. Hostile but wayward bowling by Australia in the English first innings allowed Tony Grieg to get the only century for the match. Despite the hostility of Thomson and Lillee, the leading wicket taker was the more medium than fast Max Walker, with 4 wickets. After Chappell declared the second innings leaving England 333 to win, the Australians bowled more directly. Thomson fired out six Englishmen including the first innings centurion Grieg.

England, brow-beaten after the first test and in need of reinforcements, turned to a pair of 42 year olds Colin Cowdrey and Fred Titmus on a lightning fast Perth pitch. Cricketing gentlemen Cowdrey staunchly responded to the fast bowling onslaught with the typically British stiff upper lip and cunning experience. Despite this, the English batting crumbled throughout the match and Doug Walters and Ross Edwards drove home the advantage by scoring centuries (Walters famously within one session). Australia's first innings of 481 was almost enough as they went on to win the test by 9 wickets.

The Melbourne test was the closest of the series. The match finished in a draw with Australia 7 runs behind and England only requiring 2 more wickets. All four innings, England 242 & 244 Australia 241 & 238 for 8, were a challenge for the batsmen. For Australia Ashley Mallett took 6 wickets for the match. The English's own aggressive fast bowler Bob Willis had 5 wickets in the first innings and Grieg claimed 4 wickets in the second.

What might have been considered 'normal service' resumed in Sydney. The Australian batsmen set up the 171 run victory with 405 and 4 declared for 289. Greg Chappell top scored in both innings with 84 and 144; Ian Redpath supporting him in the second with 105. Except for Alan Knott with 82 in the first, the English could only produce a series of starts in both innings. Consistent performances from all Australian bowlers continued including Mallett again, with 4 wickets for 21 from 16.5 overs in the second innings.

Lillee finally broke through in this test. After eight innings where he consistently returned 2 wickets he dismissed four batsmen in each innings at Adelaide. The major news from the match was the loss of Thomson after the first innings. As an example of the different times, Thomson was playing a social tennis match on the rest day when he injured his shoulder. Australia's regular English nemesis throughout the 1970's, Derek Underwood, took 7 wickets in Australia's first innings and 11 for the match. But with the English batsmen continuing to struggle (again Knott standing out with 106 in the second innings) Australia won easily by 163 runs.

With Thomson out injured before the match and Lillee injured after just 6 overs Walker shouldered the load after Australia had collapsed to be all out for 152 at Melbourne. Peter Lever took 6 wickets for England. Walker bowled 42 (eight ball) overs in the English innings, finishing with his career best figures 8 for 143. Fletcher and Denness took advantage of Lillee and Thomson's injuries and made big hundreds in England's only innings of 529. The Australians fought hard in the second innings, Greg Chappell making his second century for the series, but it was not enough and the Australians went down by an innings and 4 runs as the series concluded.

Most cricket historians enjoy documenting the terror in which Thomson and Lillee, with 33 and 25 wickets respectively, reaped on the English. I believe such a focus too much overshadows the performance of two Australian bowlers in Max Walker and Ashley Mallett. The returns of both of these bowlers, Walker 23 wickets in six tests and Mallett 17 in five, indicates that Australia's second line of attack provided little respite for beleaguered English batsmen.

Both Walker and Mallett were constants in the Australian side throughout the 1970's and have records that speak highly of their ability. More recent recollections of Walker's irreverent media career hide his cricketing return of 138 wickets in 34 tests. Mallett, a student of the game trading in Australia's least popular or conditionally assisted form of bowling, off-spin, took 132 in 38.

Australia had five players to England's four making greater than 300 runs for the series. But removing Denness and Fletcher, who made over half their combined runs during the favourable conditions of the sixth test, the English had only two. Greg Chappell led the way for Australia and for all batsmen with 608 runs for the series.

Except for the final test England did not pass 300 in an innings. The English side was by no means a weak line up. Names such as Amiss, Edrich, Luckhurst, Fletcher and of course Cowdrey were of some note however had little effect during the series. The ageing Cowdrey showed great courage in the second innings of the Perth test with 41, however that proved to be the best that he could do.

I have spent a lifetime of cricket-watching suffering with Tony Grieg at the microphone. Despite him being difficult to stomach in commentary he once was a genuinely good test all-rounder. For this series Grieg led the English batsmen with 446 runs and was equal leading wicket taker, with Willis and Underwood, taking 17 wickets.

Australia dominated with the ball but were ably backed up with the bat. The English, shell shocked, clearly underperformed. Forgotten was the relentless nature of Ian Chappell's captaincy. Chappell led solidly from the front with the bat and asked much of his team, including batting first on an uncertain Brisbane pitch. Despite their great performances Lillee and Thomson admit that even they were not exempted from criticism from Chappell at times.

At some point during every Australian home Ashes series the ghosts of 1974-75 will be revived and regardless of the present state of play Australian fans will bask in the glory of that victory each and every time.

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