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Posted on 29 Oct 2019 in Non-Fiction |

MICHAEL SEXTON Border’s Battlers: The furnace of Madras, the tied Test, a defining moment for Australian cricket. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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This 1986 Test match in India was a turning point on the path to reviving Australia’s cricketing fortunes.

A single match has been the subject of a number of remarkable sporting books with a historical focus. Mark Frost’s The Greatest Game Ever Played (golf), Larry Engelmann’s The Goddess and the American Girl (tennis), and there are several from cricket, of which the latest is Michael Sexton’s Border’s Battlers.

Sexton has recently written elsewhere of the approach from his publisher to provide 70 000 words on the second tied Test match played at Madras (now Chennai) in 1986, and how boring this might be if a microscopic approach was used ­– crafting 50 words to describe each of the 1488 runs, or 2000-plus words for each dismissal, would not only stretch his imaginative powers but also the patience of his readers. Instead, he has chosen ‘to turn the telescope around and, looking through the other end, to see the game as a moment in a larger drama’, thereby providing the historical context and observing Australian cricket at a time when it was still recovering from the advent of World Series Cricket, the retirement of major stars, the loss of a number of current players to rebel tours of South Africa, and struggling under the leadership of Allan Border, who was yet to find his feet as captain. Sexton’s thesis would be that the game in Madras was a significant precursor to Australia’s win in the 1987 World Cup in India and its Ashes win over England in 1989, leading to its dominance of world cricket from the mid-1990s into the early years of the 21st century.

The story opens in New Zealand in early 1986 with Border, the despondent Australian captain, having lost the first of four One Day International matches at Dunedin on the back of defeat in a three-Test series 0-1. Although the Australians would level the ODI series 2-2, their first game elimination in the first Austral-Asia Cup in Sharjah saw Border escape for a season of county cricket with Essex, under the astute captaincy of Keith Fletcher.

The strength of this book is evident from the outset as it is no one-sided account. Lengthy profiles of Indian heroes Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev set the tone for the discussion of India’s tour of England the same year, when they defeated the home side 2-0 in a three-match series. As Sexton reminds us, Dev was the youngest bowler in Test cricket history to reach both 100 wickets and the 200-wicket milestone, but he was also an explosive batsman fit to share the company of other famous all-rounders like Ian Botham, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee. As captain his aggression changed the Indian mindset and he led his country to victory in the 1983 World Cup before the Test success in 1986. As young Indian left-arm spinner Maninder Singh put it, ‘he was the best psychologist we had’.

Tours of India always provided a challenge for the Australian team and as part of his scene-setting Sexton reflects on those of 1959-60, 1969-70 and 1979-80 led by Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry and Kim Hughes respectively. All sides had difficulties to contend with – hepatitis in the first instance with opening batsman Gavin Stevens fortunate to survive, riots in Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) in the second, and dodgy umpiring – which led to an important observation by leg-spinner Jim Higgs on Hughes’s tour:

While wandering around a village on the Bay of Bengal he saw a sign painted on the wall of a fishermen’s tenement. The way he saw it, it offered a way to negotiate a tour of India: ‘To lose patience is to lose the battle.’

He raised the camera and snapped it. The adage was shared about and became something of a mantra for future Australian tours.

As the game in Madras was due to begin, Australia’s side was unstable and the decision about who would bat at number three was almost a toss of a coin between Dean Jones and Mike Veletta. Given what would come to pass, it is understandable that Jones receives a lengthy profile at this point, detailing his development in a feisty cricket club culture at Carlton, and his virtual pigeon-holing as a limited-over batsman after making a good debut at Port-of-Spain in 1984. Part of his transformation came because he was willing to seek advice: from Essendon football coach Kevin Sheedy on how much he wanted Test success; from Lindsay Hassett, who told him to his use quick footwork to attack the Indian bowlers; and from Ian Chappell, who cautioned him against using his vast array of shots too soon in an innings. As Sexton tells it, newly appointed coach Bob Simpson recognised in Jones ‘a world-class batsman trying to break out’ but it wasn’t until Border called Jones to his room for a drink and told him that he wanted him as his number three batsman for the next two years that the player left ‘feeling ten feet tall’.

When the match begins at the Chidambaram Stadium the atmosphere is quickly conveyed – the stench of the nearby Buckingham Canal, the intense heat and high humidity. As one who attended the 2004 Chennai Test between Australia and India, I can certainly vouch for the smell and the heat in the stands, if not the middle. But Sexton adds the shortcomings: archaic ceiling fans that merely pushed the hot air around in the dressing rooms, and the lack of refrigerators and bottled water. Despite the best efforts of physiotherapist Errol Alcott, three players — Craig McDermott, Jones and Ray Bright — were suffering from diarrhoea.

As the game unfolds David Boon scores a century on the first day, but Dean Jones’s epic 210 takes eight and a half hours over two days and he is so distressed that he vomits at the wicket on a number of occasions, and towards the end of his innings is losing control of his bodily functions. In the heat of battle Border lacks sympathy for Jones but in hindsight is embarrassed to think he might have killed his player. At the conclusion of his innings Jones blacks out in the dressing room and is rushed to hospital by ambulance for rehydration. Australia declares its first innings with 574 runs on the board and is almost in a position to force a follow-on on the third day until Kapil Dev changes the tempo of the innings on the fourth morning with a brilliant 119 runs (138 balls 21 fours). Australia declares at the end of the fourth day with a lead of 348 but this unlikely target is eventually reduced until a mere four runs are required from the last over with one wicket standing. Somewhat strangely Ravi Shastri takes two runs from the second ball and then a single to tie the game, leaving his partner Maninder Singh to score one run from three balls against the bowling of off-spinner Greg Matthews, who has bowled 40 overs that day. It’s history how, from the second delivery, Maninder is fired out lbw by the bowler’s end umpire who, in Sexton’s memorable phrase, ‘shot his finger straight into the air as if trying to puncture a cloud’. Of Mala Mukerjee’s fabulous photo which captured the final moment, and which adorns the cover of Border’s Battlers, Sexton provides a striking analysis:

The beauty of the scene is the spectrum of emotions captured in a single frame. There is no question of V. Vikramraju’s decision because his arm is straight, his outstretched finger like a fixed bayonet. Next to him Ravi Shastri is signalling to his partner to wait, still believing there is one ball to come. Maninder Singh has turned his back and is casually looking towards the square leg umpire while Tim Zoehrer is exploding past him with his gloves raised in celebration. Like Zoehrer, Geoff Marsh is charging down the pitch from his position at short-leg. They are racing towards Greg Matthews who is dancing away with his arms spread like the wings of an aircraft. The other character captured is Allan Border crouched at silly point. He is looking at the umpire in disbelief.

Michael Sexton has brought a magical game to brilliant life through interviews with the stars on each side – Border, Dev, Gavaskar, Matthews, Jones, David Boon, Steve Waugh and Shastri – as well as a number of lesser lights. Before posing his questions, however, he had done his research, reading daily newspapers as well as cricket biographies, histories and tour accounts, all giving him a broad vision from which he has created a compelling picture not only of the match but of the time.

A year later the Australians returned to Madras to start training in arduous conditions before the World Cup began. They then defeated India by one run at the same ground, New Zealand in a rain-affected match, Pakistan (when Steve Waugh took 18 runs from Imran Khan’s last over), and England in the final game. As Border raised the World Cup he stated it was ‘the beginning of a new era for Australian cricket’. The new era was not immediately forthcoming but Australia was on its way.

Michael Sexton Border’s Battlers: The furnace of Madras, the tied Test, a defining moment for Australian cricket Affirm Press 2019 PB 288pp $29.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is The Towns: 100 Years of Glory 1919-2018.

You can buy Border’s Battlers from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.