Allan Border, born July 27, 1955, was for years the only link Australia had to greatness. Border plodded along alone amidst men of limited ability and experience. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who moulded a team of stragglers into a world class outfit, and along the way became the first man to score 11,000 runs in Tests.
It re-starts with AB…
It is perhaps the most poetic happenchance of cricket that Allan Border’s initials read AB. But for the little matter that neither poetic nor happenchance resonates with the image of the man or his batsmanship.
Yet, when Australian dominance over world cricket crashed and clattered in a morass of mediocrity, it was Allan Border who held aloft the most basic character of the proud cricketing country, provided the fundamental platform to support an extremely brittle team, and re-scripted the story of success from an almost blank slate.
In many ways, the entire structure and syntax of Australian cricket was redefined, the basic alphabet revisited and rewritten before the saga of triumphs could resume, and all this was started and sustained by AB.
He first formed a plinth of largely utilitarian run making, to help carry Australia through the barren star-less years of World Series Cricket. He was one of the few able to hold on to his place when the big names drifted back from the parallel universe of alternative circuit. Through the years that followed, he matched them run for run, if not stroke for stroke,
And then came the day when in synchronised unison three big stars turned off the heat and light that had propelled the fortunes of Australian cricket. The holes left in the framework of Australian cricket rendered the journey of the next several years into a saga of stumble and stutter. And Allan Border stood like a colossus over the country’s cricketing fortunes, carving its destiny with his hand steady on his bat and the reins of the team. From that day of the exodus of the greats at Sydney, when Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh strode into a brilliant combined sunset, Border carried the team virtually on his shoulders for years. Till a clutch of youthful batsmen and bowlers were mentored into maturity and the side transformed into a world class unit by the time of the Ashes series of 1989.
It was a period of patient, painful rebuilding. Australia struggled as they had never done in the long history of the game. They were almost always humiliated, at home and away, losing even to their Trans-Tasman neighbours in back to back series. Except for a one-off Test against Sri Lanka and a three Test affair against New Zealand, they won absolutely nothing during these troubled years. And all the while Border guided a team of men, limited in ability and experience, through the excruciatingly rigorous trails of international cricket. He lost often enough, yet his grumpy face, stubborn bat and indefatigable approach creating a secure base for future supremacy.
This period also saw his perpetual frown and habitually set lips spread themselves into the most brilliant of smiles as he proudly lifted the Reliance World Cup in 1987. It also saw him score 3863 runs in 46 Tests at 56.81 with 12 hundreds, in a style that had detached itself from the minimal frills of his early days, with a bat that always looked like a tradesman’s tool. From the time of retirement of Greg Chappell to the epochal emergence of a gamut of new generation players, Border was Australia’s sole link to greatness during those morose years.
The last few years of his career were earmarked for reaping the immense harvest of the many, many seeds sowed through the backbreaking years. Some of them did reach fruition. The Ashes, surrendered while charting the nadir of their cricketing course, was regained, and retained and retained again. The Indians, who had the temerity to bring them down to their knees in the Aussie backyard in 1985-86, were mercilessly crushed. The Pakistan side was overcome. The Kiwis were pulverised.
Yet, some dreams remained unfulfilled. The long unbeaten run of West Indies was almost ended at Adelaide, but Australia was stopped by the lowest possible of margins. He was no longer around when the Caribbean juggernaut was finally brought to a halt by Mark Taylor’s men in 1995. Life is like that.
Border had turned Australian cricket around, kick-starting the dominance that was to follow for over a decade. And along the way, he had slog-swept Dipak Patel to the deep midwicket boundary at Christchurch to become the highest run-getter in Test cricket. Border matter-of-factly maintained that the record was only due to his having played so many Test matches. Never was he one for exaggerated reactions.
The first steps
One of four brothers, his father involved in the wool business, Border heralded from Cremorne, a tranquil, fashionable northern harbour side suburb of Sydney. The family soon moved to Mosman, and backyard cricket with his brothers John and Brett became a passionate endeavour. When he was not batting or bowling, Border would be surfing in the seas. School was just another opportunity to perfect his cricket. Graeme Hole, Ian Craig and Peter Philpott had already walked out of the North Sydney Boys’ High and into the Australian dressing room. And Border was to follow, and tower above all the Old Boys.
But, that had to wait. He did well enough in junior grade competitions, but responsibilities of livelihood came first. Border started work as a clerk in the film library of an oil company. Weekends were earmarked for cricket. And batting for Mosman, his technique was chiselled by sessions with former Test players David Colley and Barry Knight.
First-Class cricket was experienced for the first time in January 1977 for New South Wales. The initial innings were useful rather than spectacular — mostly fighting, sometimes attractive. There was a venture to England as well, to further his cricketing education, with outings for county second elevens and forays into league cricket. He batted in Gloucestershire, the shire of the Graces, and turned out for the county team against Oxford University. Some useful experience was scooped up for East Lancashire in the Lancashire League. A fierce hitter when he wanted to be one, he struck 13 sixes and 15 fours in a blistering 179 not out against Rawtenstall. But, soon, the English experience taught him to curb his aggression and put an extraordinary price on his wicket.
The maiden First-Class hundred followed in early 1979, a characteristically patient effort against Western Australia at Perth. And in three weeks he was playing in his first Test.
Sandwiched by nondescript faces
When Border emerged into the Test scene, the Australians, who for a hundred years had either soared over the cricketing scenes as singular sovereigns or coasted near the very top alongside other supreme sides, had suddenly plummeted towards the unfamiliar foothills of the game’s landscape. The sparkling glossy layer of talent had been torn off the face of the cricketing establishment, revealing a rickety frame. The big names of the game were turning out in the obscure sparsely attended World Series Cricket of Kerry Packer. The drab, de-glamourised national outfit was engaged in a one-sided tussle with a strong England team.
In the second Test of the series, Gary Cosier was struck on the chest, his suitability for the big league questioned with marks that showed on his battered torso. He did not play again. And Border found himself squeezing in to the non-descript middle-order in the third game at Melbourne, sandwiched between faceless obscure names like Peter Toohey and John Maclean. He scored 29 and a duck, the blob resulting unfortunately when he toppled over while playing the sweep and Mike Hendrick ran him out from backward short leg.
In the second Test of his career at Sydney, during an abject capitulation to defeat from a secure winning position, Border played two innings, of 60 and 45,which were harbingers of many such knocks through the next decade and a half. Both the innings were gritty, both fighting, both unbeaten, both single-handed with only the tail for company. And in the end, both futile.
By 1980, the stars were back, with the added sheen of lucre lending a sparkling glint to their shiny images. Chappell’s flashing elegance was back in the top order, as was the dashing debonair presence of David Hookes. Lillee and Len Pascoe started running furiously up to the bowling crease once again. Marsh was soon planting his stodgy self behind the wicket. The honest, hard-working brigade who had been summoned to the top to make up desperate numbers, were thanked and politely sent on their way to everlasting wilderness. Border was one of the few who survived. He had his reasons.
In his very fourth Test, he had hit 105 in the second innings at Melbourne against Pakistan — a knock amounting to six-and-a-quarter hours. Sarfraz Nawaz had then captured 7 for 1 to engineer a Pakistan triumph, but the potential behind the plodding approach had been evident for all to see. In his first overseas Test, Border had battled the guiles of the Indian spinners at Madras to score 166 in 4 minutes short of 7 hours before a powerful drive from Graham Yallop had been deflected on to the stumps by the bowler to catch him out of ground.
But then, in his first Test alongside big names, in ran Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft. Border battled the fiery pace for the first time and managed one and seven. He redeemed himself by striking 115 against England in the very next Test, but did little of note against the West Indian pace battery. All this would soon change.
Perhaps the legendary Lahore act underlined Border as an asset of lasting value. Australia lost the series in 1979-80, but in the third Test the left-hander stood staunchly in front of Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed to score 150 not out and 152. It is still the only instance of two 150-plus scores by a batsman in the same Test. The next season he switched over from New South Wales to Queensland, and played for them for the rest of his career.
Elevation to greatness
It was during the 1981 Ashes series that Border was first talked about as a great. The tour was famously unhappy for the Australians, their flights of fantasy hijacked by Ian Botham while on the brink of landing upon supreme glory.But, Border stood there, a giant in his motionless, fiercely focussed stance. The batting of the side was slippery, while only Border stood surefooted. He ended the series with 15 hours of defiance, all alone and unsupported, 123* at Old Trafford, and 106* and 84 at The Oval. It was an extraordinary saga of 313 runs, scored with a broken finger on the left hand and a chipped bat. The Old Trafford hundred was the slowest century by an Australian ever, a knock that spoke of supreme concentration and character. By the end of the series, he was proclaimed the best left-handed batsman in the world. The man who said this knew more about the art of no-risk batting than anyone else. His name was Sir Len Hutton.
By now, Border had 2,593 runs in 61 Test innings, at an average of 51.86. No, he was not an attractive batsman except when he sometimes danced down to spinners. But, he was one of the greatest. The next year he was named one of the Wisden Cricketers.
His story continued to be a monumental battle against odds, most often with the back rigidly fixed to the wall. At Melbourne in 1982-83, he was joined by Jeff Thomson at 218 for nine, with 292 to win against England. Border took them to the brink, with a gritty and gutsy 62 not out. Four runs were required when Thomson edged Botham and Chris Tavare parried the ball at slip for Geoff Miller to snap it up.
The final series alongside the three soon-to-depart greats saw him score back to back hundreds at Brisbane and Adelaide against Pakistan. And after the departure of Lillee, Marsh and Chappell it was destined to be a prolonged one man show.
The essence of Border was perhaps captured the best at Port of Spain in 1983-84. Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner and Wayne Daniel gripped the Australian hearts in the cold hand of fear. And Border stood unflinching in front of them. He batted 349 minutes in the first innings for 98 not out, and 279 in the second for 100 not out, the last 160 minutes in the company of Rodney Hogg and Terry Alderman. No other Australian batsman crossed 50 in the match, the first innings deficit was over 200. Border’s ten and a half hour vigil was not tarnished by any blemish. Somehow he eked out a draw for the visitors, getting his century off the last ball of the match.
The reluctant leader
It was in December 1984 that Kim Hughes resigned from captaincy in an emotional press conference with tears streaming down his cheeks. The reins of captaincy were thrust on Border. The Chappell brothers, Greg and Ian, had strongly advocated for his claims. Border himself was less than delighted. As was to be the tale of his early years, Australia suffered a 191-run defeat to West Indies at Adelaide in his first match as skipper.
There is the story of an eight-year old girl sending Border a letter with some grief stricken words about Hughes. And Border returned the small banknote she had enclosed, assuring her that he was sure Hughes would get back in the side soon.
In the summer of 1985, it was the time to embark on a quest for the Ashes. The series was lost 1-3 to a set of spirited Englishmen. Yet, Border was by far the best batsman of the team.
At Lord’s, he almost took on the task of scoring every run for the team. In the end he managed as much as 43 per cent of it. He came in at 24 for 2, and steadied the innings before another crisis at 101 for 4. And from then on he battled single-handedly, ending with a mammoth 196. There were several extravagant strokes in the innings that one seldom equated with the man. And in the second essay, as the team chased the small target of 127, he found himself gasping in the midst of another collapse at 65 for five. As expected, he took the side home with 41 not out. And at Manchester, with the series still 1-1, he batted 343 minutes for 146 not out in the second innings to save Australia from the jaws of an almost inevitable defeat, negotiating the turn of John Emburey and Phil Edmonds on a wearing fifth day track.
Another heroic effort followed in the home series of 1985-86 at Melbourne. On a surprisingly turning wicket, Australia were bowled out by the Indian spinners for 183 in the first innings. And Border batted 410 minutes in the second to score 163, as many as 115 of those minutes alongside last man Dave Gilbert. It was rain, aided by some peculiar approach by Indian batsmen, especially Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath, which ultimately saved the match for the Australians. But the showers came down only after tea. But for Border, the match would have been over before lunch.
Not always were his solo resistances able to save the day for Australia. He scored three hundreds against New Zealand, in the back to back series played at home and away, including two in the same match at Christchurch. But the other Australians had no answer to Richard Hadlee. Australia won 1 and lost 3 of the Tests. He scored two more hundreds when Mike Gatting’s men visited Australia in 1986-87, but England won the series with plenty to spare.
Allan Border… A limpet at the crease who once held the record for most runs in Test cricket © Getty Images
The World Cup triumph
Yet, the team was undergoing transformation. In the 1985-86 series against India, Steve Waugh made his first appearance. In India in 1986-87, David Boon became a force to reckon with. Bobby Simpson’s wise old head lent itself to the think tank as manager, starting a celebrated collaboration. The rebuilding process was underway.
In India, Border became part of the second-ever Tied Test in cricket history. In the blistering heat, he scored 106, declared in a combination of sporting challenge and underestimation of the Indian capabilities, and then shepherded his resources with extreme calm as the thrilling encounter ended with Greg Matthews claiming Maninder Singh leg before off the penultimate ball of the match.
A year later, in the same country, his smile flashed wide and brilliant. At Eden Gardens, Australia beat England by 7 runs to perch on the top of the world. Border played a key role, picking up the wicket of opposite number Gatting at a crucial moment during England’s chase. His performances in the tournament remained lukewarm, but the tactics on the field were supreme. Waugh was immaculately used in the death overs and Craig McDermott was given a 2-over spell in the middle of the innings to throw many a cruising innings off track.
The man at the helm had matured, and the team looked set to go around the bend. During the series in India, it was evident that Border was becoming one of the major modern day captains,with every strength and weakness of the opponents thoroughly analysed. He changed his field according to batsmen, with a mid-on always in place to cut off Dilip Vengsarkar’s famous on-drives, and the best fielder at mid-wicket for Mohammad Azharuddin.
The month following the World Cup triumph, Border celebrated by hitting his first double hundred in Test cricket, 205 against New Zealand at Adelaide.
The Miracle at Sydney
Yet, after a brief splash of bright Indian sun, the Australians resumed their litany of losses. They were defeated by against Pakistan in Pakistan and then West Indies routed them by huge margins in the first three Tests of 1988-89. Perhaps Border went to Sydney a disheartened man, the recent past a nightmare and future bleak. The pitch that greeted him was dull and lifeless, much like the cricket produced by Australia all these years. Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes pummelled Alderman and Merv Hughes, and the score soon read 144 for 1. And now, to supplement the inexperienced spinners in the side, Border gripped the ball himself.
He ran in, his standard round the wicket approach between the umpire and the stumps. He had never taken more than 4 First-Class wickets in an innings. And here, in an inspired zeal he struck, again and again and again — capturing 7 of the next 8 wickets. West Indies were bowled out for 224. Border had figures of 7 for 46. The scalps included Richie Richardson, Viv Richards, Carl Hooper and Gus Logie. And then he walked out to score 75, adding 170 with Boon. Australia gained a big lead. Finally, with Haynes cruising along past his century, he brought himself on again, getting the Bajan opener caught in the slips, and following it up with the last three men of the tail. His 4 for 50 gave him match figures of 11 for 96. And soon he was back at the crease to hit the winning runs.
Seldom is this performance glossed over. Allan Border is not remembered for his bowling. But it did mark the watershed moment after which Australia finally started winning. The captain had carried the batting alone for the last several years. He had kept standing amidst the ruins of the Australian innings, trying to reconstruct the debris into the winning side it had once been. He had led them to victory in the World Cup, in the limited-overs format where limitations of resources can be managed with manipulations. In Test cricket, the holes continued to remain gaping and the side had continued to lose. And now, with his bowlers unable to provide him the wickets, he had taken hold of the ball and bowled the strongest side of the world out twice. Could any man do more? His unasked question echoed around the country. Would someone step up now?
And several did. That same Sydney Test saw another left-hander making his debut, someone like Border made of more substance than style, of unflappable temperament and a supreme slip catcher. This was the man who would take over the reins of captaincy when Border would retire five years later. These were five years of upswing, of the return of Australia’s fortunes. Mark Taylor went to England and conquered all the grounds. Alderman brought down quarry after quarry in his favourite hunting ground. Steve Waugh stabilised into a batsman of grit and guts, the very virtues blueprinted by Border. As the nineties arrived, Hughes and McDermott started bowling like champions. The long bend was finally turned.
The turn of fortunes
Ashes was reclaimed in England, Border becoming the first Australian captain to win back the urn in England since Bill Woodfull had done it in 1934. There was a marked difference in the way he interacted with opponents than he had done four years earlier. This Border was ruthless, out there to win. After a decade of disappointment, he had tasted success and had a side bristling with talent. The transformation was striking.
More cricketers developed with time, ranging from very good to great. Another man from the Waugh family walked in to the middle order, born minutes after Steve. Within a couple of years a young, chubby, blonde leg-spinner started turning the ball by degrees never seen after the War. Apart from Mark Waugh and Shane Warne, there were solid toilers who suddenly struck golden phases of their careers. Bruce Reid produced match-winning performances, and so did Mike Whitney. One by one the foes fell.
Before the Sydney Test against the Windies, Border had led in 37 difficult Tests, winning just 6, losing 13, drawing 17 along with the famed tie. During the next five years, Border led 56 more, winning 26 and losing 9. The only series losses were against West Indies, and that too after titanic struggles.
Border himself quietly continued to deliver with the bat, not quite so frequently, not quite so enormously. But, he did keep producing moments of reminder to the world that he was still a batsman of great calibre.
True, as his side started winning and young batsmen became prolific; the left-hander did not produce a hundred for the next four years. The big knocks were not required from him. The price on the wicket remained high, cameos continued, spates of lower order fifties kept trickling along. The task of piling up huge scores was taken over by Taylor, Boon and the Waughs.
A spate of records
He filled up his time with other achievements. When he caught Rumesh Ratnayake off Hughes at Hobart in December 1989, he went past Greg Chappell as the world-record holder for the highest number of catches. A month later, at Melbourne against Pakistan, he overtook Chappell again, this time as the man to lead his country the highest number of times.
And at Georgetown in 1991, he took the ball again to spin out 4 West Indian batsmen in 9 balls. Border’s 19 wickets against the West Indies came at 24.31, a better average than Lillee, Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall had managed against the Caribbean batsmen.
When required by the team Border’s bat fired again. West Indies visited in 1992-93, and the captain led the way one more time, scoring 73 at Brisbane and 106 in a win at Melbourne. In the following match at Sydney, Border drove Carl Hooper towards mid-on to reach 10,000 runs, the second man after Sunil Gavaskar. He scored 74 in that innings, the match ending in a draw. Australia moved to Adelaide one game up. Border’s heart soared on the wings of his final ambition. After all these years, would he finally be able to beat the mighty West Indies? Two matches remained in the rubber.
They came this close to creating history. In the epic battle, Border’s great run with the bat in the series came to an end. He managed just 19 and 1. And then he watched with a palpitating heart, a lucky ball clutched in his hands, as McDermott faced Walsh, 2 runs to win, 1 wicket in hand. And his hopes crashed as Walsh won the exchange, getting the outside edge of the fast bowler. The series was levelled. Border’s lucky ball was hurled on the dressing room floor, his long saga of frustration surfacing yet again. And he got a pair at Perth as West Indies won by an innings and 25 runs to clinch the tense tussle.
The next Test was at Christchurch a month later. Border swept Dipak Patel to go past Gavaskar and perch on the summit of the batsmen from the beginning of Test cricket. Unfortunately,this feat was watched by just a handful of Kiwi fans.
Border returned to England for one last time, and Warne turned his first ball of the series past the entire expanse of Gatting to famously clip his off stump. England never recovered. And Border secured the Ashes with an unbeaten 200 at Headingley, three days before his 38th birthday.
There was one more hundred, his 27th, made in an innings win against New Zealand at Brisbane. In the mid to late 80s, the Trans-Tasman rivals had enjoyed their only period of advantage over the Australians. Now, Border stood in the slips as Warne, McDermott and a rookie Glenn McGrath bowled the Kiwis out and re-established the supremacy of the older cricketing nation. Australia were very near the top yet again, just as they had been before Border had walked into the side. Their cricket chronicle had come a full circle.
The last days
Border played two more series, the last challenge of his career, against the recently re-admitted South African side. Six Tests were contested, three at home and thee away, all keenly fought to the last inch. Border managed just one fifty in those 6 Tests, and both the series were shared 1-1.
On the last day of his career, Australia was required to bat out the day to save the Test. Border was back on familiar ground, doing what he was best at. He batted three-and-three-quarter hours for an unbeaten 42. It was his Test number 156, a record at that time. He ended with the highest number of runs — 11,174 at 50.56, with 27 hundreds and 63 fifties, the latter a record, most of them scored under tremendous pressure, often all alone with just the tail batting alongside him. His 156 catches were also a record at the time of his retirement, as was his 93 Tests as captain.
The square-cut and other strokes
The image of Border as is stuck in our minds is that of a defiant stodger, and an ugly grafter during the last stages of his career. Two world-class left-handers of that generation — David Gower and Border — could not have been more dramatically different. However, there was one stroke that Border played with rocking power and precision: the square-cut. He swayed and evaded, and often fended down the fast stuff hurled at him by the West Indian quicks. And then when the length and width allowed, back he hopped and down came the bat in a furious arc and the ball went crashing into the advertising boards beyond point. The stroke did not carry with it any suggestion of the supposed natural elegance of the left-hander. It bore the spirit of calculation of an experienced tradesman who knew how to cash in when opportunity presented itself. He was a very effective puller of the ball as well, and pitching short on his body was not exactly the best ploy for pace bowlers.
For all his tales of courageous feats against fast bowling, Border was a brilliant player of spin, perhaps the best in the world during his time. He could hit long and hard, and skip down the wicket to spinners of guile and class on his quick darting feet.
It was at Wankhede Stadium, 1986-87, and Border was performing the job embossed on his portfolio, batting out the last day to save Australia, against the threat of three Indian spinners, with a huge deficit looming over him. I remember a drive he played that day as he remained unbeaten on 66. Shivlal Yadav, with more than enough runs on the board to tempt the batsman without restraint, gave the ball inviting air. Down came Border, skipping along the track, the bat perfectly straight. The ball was punched down the ground, without any frill of follow through. The bowler could only watch it go past him like lightning. The boundary did not carry an iota of risk. Advancing down the wicket on a fifth day track, against a bowler turning the ball away from him, was a percentage stroke for Border. He was that good.
His bat admittedly did not flash as profitably in ODIs, averaging just about 30. He scored only 3 hundreds in 273 games, but one of them came against Holding, Garner, Marshall and Winston Davis at Sydney in 1985, a sparkling unbeaten 127 from 140 balls. But, while he under-bowled himself in the Tests, he rolled his arms over lot more in the shorter version of the game, and was a better bowler than he thought himself to be. His 73 wickets at 28.36 in ODIs remain more than impressive. He was canny enough to lure world-class batsmen into mistakes, as he demonstrated when he got Azhar caught in the deep in the final of the Benson & Hedges three-nation tournament in 1991.
On the field he was uniformly brilliant. In Tests, he started out in the wide third to fifth slip, the most difficult of positions. With experience and seniority he shifted towards the first slip and held everything snicked towards him. In ODIs, he generally patrolled the covers, with speedy pick-ups, throws and bullseye accuracy at hitting the stumps at either end.
The man who rejuvenated Australian cricket
In 1998, four years after his retirement, Border became a member of the selection committee. He was one of the main decision makers who removed Steve Waugh as ODI captain, and hastened the retirements of Ian Healy and Mark Waugh. Border had built the Australia into a champion side. He would not allow sentiments to drive the destiny of the team.
Since 2000, the best Australian cricketer of the year receives the Allan Border Medal. The Test series between India and Australia, the epic encounters of recent times, have been named the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, after the two pioneers beyond the 10,000-mark.
The Oval at Mosman, directly across the Border family home and where he played his early grade cricket, has been renamed the Allan Border Oval and remains the home ground of the Mosman District Cricket Club. There is another ground in Brisbane Named after him, and often used by Queensland as their home-ground along with The Gabba.
Border was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2000.
Australian batting history is a treasure-trove of exquisite riches. Victor Trumper, Clem Hill, Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Greg Chappell and Ricky Ponting are the names that trip off the tongue, to name but only the absolute giants. Border, with his rather unattractive approach and lack of style, may not get into too many all-time elevens.
Yet, he will be remembered as the man whose bat carried Australia through the period of stagnation, the only batsman among the plethora of Australian greats who batted all alone for most of his career. The man who rejuvenated Australian cricket.