Bobby Simpson, undoubtedly one of the most versatile men linked to cricket, was born February 3, 1936. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a figure who had served Australian cricket for four decades in every possible way.
He played 62 Tests, scoring 4,869 runs with a highest score of 311, took 71 wickets with a best of 5 for 57, and was an outstanding slip fielder who took 110 catches. Additionally, he was an outstanding captain who came back to bail them out when they were severely crippled by Kerry Packer. Still not content, he came back as the coach who led the Australian resurgence of the mid-1980s, and helped Australia regain both the Ashes and the Frank Worrell Trophy, and win the World Cup.
Despite all this, when we talk about cricket’s greatest all-rounders — the most versatile cricketers of all time — we seldom name Bobby Simpson. With an easy stance and graceful strokeplay, Simpson was easily at his best when he took the attack to the bowling. Aided by a strong physique, Simpson could hit the ball really hard — especially when he square-cut — though his lazy elegance often came into being when he drove immaculately through the V. His concentration levels were supreme; he ran very hard between the wickets; he was a wily bowler, often experimenting with his googlies; and because of his fitness, stamina, flexibility, anticipation, nimble movements and safe hands, he is often considered as one of the best slip fielders of all time.
Bobby Simpson was an early bloomer. He made his way through school and grade cricket very fast, and made his first-class debut for New South Wales at the age of 16 years and 354 days, and was the second-youngest cricketer to make his debut for the state. On his arrival to the dressing-room, Arthur Morris asked him where his nappies were.
During his tenure for New South Wales (NSW), an incident occurred which helped define one of Simpson’s finest aspects of cricket. He came out as a substitute fielder, and NSW captain Keith Miller told him to stand at the slips instead of manning the ropes — the traditional territory of substitute fielders. Simpson took two outstanding catches that day, and never looked back. It was roughly at this period that he developed his leg-breaks as well.
Four years later he moved to Perth to work as an editor in a newspaper, and found himself in the Western Australia side. He kept on scoring runs, and was eventually picked for the 1957-58 tour of South Africa. It turned out to be a rather ordinary debut, but he impressed everyone with his superlative slip fielding (he took 13 catches).
It was then that Jim Burke retired from international cricket. Neil Harvey suggested Simpson to try his hand as an opening batsman to make his way back to the Test side. Simpson had decided to take the risk, went back to domestic cricket, and made it a point to prove his abilities: he had an amazing run of 98 (against Victoria), 236 not out (and 6 wickets — against NSW), 230 not out (against Queensland), 79 (against South Australia) and 98 and 161 not out (against NSW) in Sheffield Shield, scoring 902 runs from 6 innings at 300.67. Thus the second major attribute was added to his repertoire.
He had to be picked again, for the unofficial tour of New Zealand. He scored 418 runs in 4 unofficial ‘Tests’ at 69.67, and it finally seemed like he had arrived. He was picked once again, this time for the historic 1960-61 series, where he scored 4 fifties and a 49, and picked up 6 wickets. There was a noticeable change in his outlook at this point. Though he had retained his aggressive style, he had curbed down his strokes, and suddenly seemed to have an insatiable appetite for runs; he had cut down his hook, swaying from the line and letting the ball go.
Simpson had arrived. When the mighty West Indians toured Australia for the historic 1960-61 series, Simpson shone in their tour match against Western Australia: he scored 87 out of 140 and an unbeaten 221 out of 444 for 6, in addition to 2 crucial wickets. He was an obvious choice for the Tests. He scored 4 fifties and a 49 in the series, in addition to 6 wickets and 13 slip catches.
At this point of time he returned to NSW, and was then picked for the Ashes. Despite an ordinary series with the bat, the tour was crucial for Simpson in two aspects: due to Richie Benaud’s shoulder injury Simpson bowled a lot of overs throughout the entire tour, thereby emerging as an all-rounder. And in the fourth Test at Old Trafford, he opened batting for the first time with his would-be partner Bill Lawry, putting up 113 in the second innings (after bowling out England with figures of 4 for 23).
His partnership with Lawry would flourish in the years to come. Though utterly contrasting in styles, they formed the opening pair on which Australia thrived in the 1960s. They understood each other very well, and responded to each other’s calls without a hesitation. Between them they amassed 3,600 runs in 64 innings at 59.01 with 9 century-partnerships.
Captain of Australia
And then, suddenly, with the simultaneously retirements of Harvey and Alan Davidson, Simpson found himself as the vice-captain of NSW, and more importantly, the Australian Test side. He celebrated his promotion by scoring 359 — his career-best — against Queensland.
With Benaud absent due to an injury in the second Test against South Africa at Melbourne, Simpson was asked to lead Australia: he had played only 22 Tests, had scored 1,219 runs with no hundred and had picked up 22 wickets – definitely not good enough to captain a strong Test side based on merit: however, the selectors realised that he had leadership qualities, and thrust the responsibilities on his shoulders. After the series, Benaud retired and Simpson was announced the leader of an inexperienced side.
That first Test hundred
It was the 1964 Ashes that marked Simpson’s arrival as a batsman. Having scored over 40 hundreds at first-class level, he was still searching for that elusive Test hundred. It was at Old Trafford that he finally reached there — with the small matter of 311. Australia needed to cling on to their 1-0 lead to retain the Ashes.
At the pre-match dinner at the Stanneylands Hotel, Simpson had announced that he would win the toss and bat for two days. He won the toss, and when asked for a drink before he went out to bat, he told Rex Sellers “I’ll have a Coke, and I’ll have one when I come in tonight, too.” He had kept his words. For two days on the trot.
As Simpson within touching distance of his maiden Test hundred, he grew anxious. As he leg-glanced one to fine-leg, he had his heart in his mouth — dreading that the ball would be stopped, or worse, “some fieldsman had swooped from nowhere to pick up an impossible catch.” When he saw that he had actually managed to cross over, he was finally relieved: he told himself “Thank God that’s over; I can now get on with making some runs.” He had indeed kept his words.
He added 201 with Lawry and 219 with Brian Booth, and put the Test out of England’s reach. Australia held on to their lead, and retained the Ashes. In the process he became the first Australian since Don Bradman to score a triple-hundred in a Test in England, and 762-minute essay was the longest first-class innings by an Australian. Despite retaining the Ashes, the press — especially the British — criticised Simpson heavily for his negative tactics.
Bobby Simpson of Old Australia sweeps a four past Godfrey Evans (do note the muttonchops) of Old England during a match at The Oval © Getty Images
The batting form continues
He continued with his form on the twin tours of India and Pakistan. At Karachi he scored 153 and 115, thereby becoming only the third captain to score two hundreds in the same Test — after Bradman and Alan Melville. He ended 1964 as the leading scorer with 1,381 Test runs — a new world record for a calendar year. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1965 as a result.
The centuries now continued to come: in Bridgetown in early 1965 both Simpson (201) and Lawry (210) scored double-hundreds, putting up 382 for the first wicket — a record for Australia — against Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs. It was in this series that Simpson kept on complaining perpetually about Griffith’s action.
Back home, Simpson missed the first and third Test due to illness. England went on to defeat Australia by an innings in the third Test. Under pressure upon his return in the fourth Test, Simpson put up 244 with Lawry, scored 225, and led Australia to an easy innings victory. The series was leveled.
Simpson’s last years were as productive, if not more, than the earlier days of his career. He stood amidst the ruins as South Africa beat Australia 3-1; he scored 483 runs from five Tests at 48.30, took 10 wickets at 31.10 and pouched eight catches. In the only Test that Australia won, Simpson scored a 153, and then took 4 wickets.
In his last series — against India at home — he finished on a high, scoring 294 at 58.80 with two hundreds, taking 13 wickets at 16.38 and seven catches from the three Tests he played. Australia took the four-Test series 4-0. He was rested for the third Test after scoring hundreds in each of the first 2, but was brought back in the final Test at Sydney to play under Lawry. Though he failed with the bat, he spun out the Indians, taking 5 for 59 in the fourth innings and 8 for 97 in the Test — both career-best performances.
The Meckiff controversy
Before Kerry Packer and his purse invaded the world of cricket, Simpson had brought new alternative ways of income for the cricketers: he had found sponsors for the Australian team, and had got both Australian and West Indian cricketers to endorse products like shampoos and deodorants.
In his book Captain’s Story, Simpson wrote somewhat harshly on bowlers with suspect action. Ian Meckiff, whose career had ended prematurely due to the same reason, sued Simpson; there was a five-year long litigation that was finally settled by Simpson apologising to Meckiff and settling things out of court.
When the World Series finally hit Australian cricket, all its stars — barring Jeff Thomson — deserted the national side. Simpson, then almost 42, had not played First-Class cricket for a decade. He was recalled to lead a team of rookies against India.
In the topsy-turvy series that followed, Simpson led Australia to a 3-2 win. He led from the front, scoring 539 runs at 53.90, taking 4 wickets and 6 catches. He scored two hundreds — 176 at Perth and 100 (along with a 51; he did this with a broken finger) at Sydney — becoming the oldest Australian to score a Test hundred at home.
He played another series, this time against the mighty West Indies — on their own grounds. West Indies won the series 3-1, and Simpson had a disastrous tour himself (though he still kept on taking those slip catches, setting a new world record of 110 catches). In the tour match against Barbados he scored 102 at the age of 42 against a line-up comprising of Wayne Daniel, Sylvester Clarke and Vanburn Holder.
He wanted to lead the home Ashes next year. His young brigade, whom he had united to form a coherent, somewhat formidable outfit, wanted him to lead them. However, the Australian Cricket Board did not want his services anymore, and he was replaced by Graham Yallop.
The long career had finally come to an end.
Simpson took over the charge of a depleted Australian side as the coach after several star cricketers had quit. Just like his last phase as Test captain, he had a bunch of newcomers. Allan Border, their captain, was the only cricketer of any kind of experience.
Going into the World Cup 1987 Australia had not won in any of their last 14 Tests, and had not won a single series in three years. However, Simpson instilled strong senses of discipline, fitness and professionalism in the side, and as time went by, things began to turn around.
First came the World Cup – where Australia won as rank outsiders; home victories against New Zealand and Sri Lanka followed; then the Ashes was regained by a thumping 4-0 margin on English soil. Australia beat Sri Lanka and Pakistan at home, but lost 1-2 after a stiff fight in West Indies. Australia regained the Ashes by a 3-0 margin, and then thrashed India 4-0 at home. Then, when West Indies toured Australia, the home team went 1-0 up, but Curtly Ambrose won two Tests for them, reclaiming the Frank Worrell Trophy.
It seemed that Simpson’s Australians would never be able to go past the Caribbean juggernaut. Once again England were thrashed 4-1, and stiff contests with South Africa were drawn. By the time Border retired in 1993-94, Mark Taylor had appeared to take the legacy forward: Simpson and Taylor finally managed to obtain that Holy Grail — the Frank Worrell Trophy — from West Indian soil. Australia’s ascent to the top was achieved under Simpson.
After more victories against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Simpson had wanted to go out on a high note in the 1996 World Cup. They eventually lost to a rampant Sri Lanka in the final. Simpson handed over the baton to Geoff Marsh, who took on his legacy further: from the best side in the world of the 1990s they went on become the indomitables of the 2000s. The paving stone for this journey was laid by Bobby Simpson, who had taken over — and transformed drastically — a team whose backbone seemed completely broken in the mid-1980s.