Thirty years ago Australian cricket needed a hero. In Greg Matthews they briefly found an unlikely one
Immediately after the retirements of Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh, Australia were blown away in back-to-back series against West Indies. The captaincy of Kim Hughes and a bunch of careers were the collateral damage. As if the situation was not dire enough, the subsequent announcement of a rebel tour to South Africa took away much of their bench strength. Lingering around was general dissatisfaction with the post-Packer peace between the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) and Packer's marketing arm, Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL). An Ashes capitulation in the English summer of 1985, less spectacular than 1981, but meeker, deepened the gloom.
By the time the next Australian summer came along, Greg "Mo" Matthews had played five Tests over two years for modest returns. Generally he was seen as a competitive but off-kilter talent, not quite strong enough to hold a spot with his busy batting or offspin, but an option in combination. As a batsman he was neither classical nor brutal, but effective; a shuffler who nudged, prodded and deflected amid calculated flurries of aggression. If his batting was about pragmatism, as a bowler he was sometimes the opposite: talented but perhaps too ambitious. After a day's play in Guyana on the 1991 tour to the Caribbean, where Matthews continued tossing the ball up only to see it disappear just as often, Roland Fishman, cricket novice and Matthews' confidante wrote in his book about the tour, Calypso Cricket: "He was sticking to his guns courageously, but that didn't mean he was using the best gun." His captain Allan Border said after that day that "he's sometimes too tactical for his own good". On the field was where he expressed himself best, a restless presence, often waving to the crowds, playing air guitar, a hyperactive whirl as a match carried on sedately around him.
He was also an outsider. He talked a lot, and when he did, it was unlike anyone else in cricket. An amalgam of Beat-era jive and '80s teenage slang, this was not the way Real Men of Australian Cricket spoke. Few got it. The visiting New Zealand side that 1985-86 summer dubbed him "Spaceman". Jeremy Coney, their captain, "had some form of mental block with me", Matthews said in an interview on Channel Nine's 60 Minutes. "I made many approaches for communication but he shunned me every time."
Matthews wore a earring and had a modern haircut; he was called a "punk" cricketer, never mind that punk had come and gone
In the first Test of that series, Richard Hadlee swept through a hopeless looking Australia (New Zealand would win the series 2-1). Matthews joined Allan Border for a second-innings partnership that only delayed defeat, but it was the manner of his batting and the exuberant celebrations upon reaching his hundred that caused Australia to take note. Matthews leapt for joy and blew a kiss to his girlfriend, run-of-the-mill in today's era of high-leaping, fist-pumping, crest-kissing theatrics, but relatively outré back then.
The century, Matthews said in a post-season Channel Nine interview with Ian Chappell, was "a form of relief, most of all tremendous excitement that I was considered one of the best players in Australia at that time and I'd proven the selectors right".
That summer was the perfect storm, one that brewed and spat out Matthews as the saviour of Australian cricket, and among its most eccentric ones too. From Matthews' debut to the end of the 1985-86 summer no fewer than 14 players made their Test debut. Border, the captain, was a lone hand in an interchangeable group of fringe players who seemed to be devoid of personality. Australia were playing timid cricket, with great uncertainty among their players. It was not an environment for a player as extravagant as Matthews.
Herky-jerky shuffler: Matthews nudged, prodded and deflected amid calculated flurries of aggression
© Getty Images
Herky-jerky shuffler: Matthews nudged, prodded and deflected amid calculated flurries of aggression © Getty Images
The Boxing Day Test that season, against India, propelled Matthews. India had comfortably the better of a drawn, result-less series and were in control of this Test from the first day. Reporting of the Test took two paths that explain why Matthews was about to be elevated to exalted status. "World's Worst" screamed a Courier-Mail headline on the morning of the fifth day, as Australia headed for a defeat that only rain and Border eventually staved off. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Bill O'Reilly asked whether Australia needed to search the world for someone they could beat: "I wonder what the Eskimos are doing next summer?"
To a banner that read "The Greg Matthews Stand" at the MCG, Matthews contributed a brave 54 not out on the first day. But it was his conversion to a second Test hundred the next day that confirmed him as Australian cricket's beacon. Matthews thought it his best innings, played as it was on a surface Wisden said was "well grassed but not green" and turned from the first day (India's three spinners took 17 of the 20 wickets). "AB has played something like 80 Tests and he reckoned that was one of the worst three Test wickets he'd played on. [To make a hundred] and for him to say that, gave me a tremendous thrill," Matthews said in the Chappell interview.
The afterglow was sweet and effusive. Next to an image of a celebratory leap, Terry Brindle wrote in the Australian, "Matthews alone among modern Test cricketers reaches out to hearts as well as minds". O'Reilly could hardly control himself: "Matthews is a hero in the eyes of every young Australian. I have yet to meet - and I meet many - one youngster who regards him with less than adulating eyes." Even a Courier-Mail editorial gushed the day after the century. "It is an absolute joy to see someone like Greg Matthews playing sport…. we need more like Greg Matthews." A headline in the Australian read bombastically: "Matthews the cure for cricket's depression."
Matthews talked a lot, and when he did, it was unlike anyone else in cricket, an amalgam of Beat-era jive and '80s teenage slang
The young had a new hero. Matthews wore a earring and had a modern haircut; he was called a "punk" cricketer, never mind that punk had come and gone or that his hair was barely spiked, and the music that he was into was David Bowie, the Style Council and Deep Purple. The kids bought it, partly because he was the only player other than Border at that moment worth believing in, and partly because Border looked and spoke like your dad. Matthews looked and spoke like the older rebellious teenager you wanted to be. The Australian quoted a child saying "he's like us".
In the one-day tri-series that followed, Matthews was given a rapturous standing ovation as he came to the crease in a group game that was all but lost. Australia made the finals, where, led by Matthews' five wickets, they defeated then world champions India. In front of 72,000 at the MCG, Matthews was crowned player of the finals and the Australian team spontaneously, and unprecedentedly, ran a lap of honour around the packed ground, with a sheepish Border riding on his team-mates' shoulders. It seemed the spirit of Matthews had gradually infected all of Australian cricket over the summer months.
Perhaps the most instructive way to look at the Matthews effect was how Channel Nine and PBL treated him. At the time, PBL looked after all marketing, promotion and broadcast deals of the game at a cost to the ACB; the same PBL that sat alongside Channel Nine in the Packer empire in its effective ownership of Australian cricket. Matthews was seen as the second coming, the greatest evidence of which was in that season's PBL annual yearbook, which was flogged on Channel Nine as the "ultimate Christmas gift".
The summer of Mo: after a gloomy Ashes in England, Australia got back the winning feeling in 1985-86 with a little help from Greg Matthews
© Getty Images
The summer of Mo: after a gloomy Ashes in England, Australia got back the winning feeling in 1985-86 with a little help from Greg Matthews © Getty Images
The 1986 edition featured no fewer than 25 glossy photos of Matthews. Tony Greig proclaimed him the "First of the New Breed" in a full feature. Richie Benaud offered praise in his season's summary; Ian Chappell bemoaned Australia's poor Test performances but "through it all the bouncy Matthews, sharp in the field, fighting with the bat, improving as a bowler, at least gave us something to smile about". If you were left in any doubt as to the hopes Channel Nine had pinned on Matthews, then the introduction, written by David Hill, then an executive producer and now international doyen of televised sport, would have erased that.
"… in years to come when someone asks you, 'Hey, when did Greg Matthews first really cement his place in the Australian team?' you'll be able to say, 'I just happen to have the book that can tell you all about it.'"
In the days when sportspeople usually appeared in sports slots, the flagship Channel Nine current affairs show 60 Minutes, then at the height of its popularity and influence, did a feature on Matthews. According to some accounts, this was one of the highest-rating episodes they had ever done. George Negus, arguably the best known journalist in Australia at the time, told viewers that Matthews had graduated to the status of folk hero in Australian sport. Mainstream Australia, if they hadn't already been seduced by Matthews mania, were being told by Negus that Matthews was the "outsider who had made it, the weirdo intruder into one of the most conventional sports in the world".
The 1985-96 summer was the perfect storm, one that brewed and spat out Matthews as the saviour of Australian cricket, and among its most eccentric ones too
He was, Negus reported, "a far cry from the cricketing heroes of past generations. The only thing comparable between Bradman, for instance, and Matthews is the volume of the ovation he gets when he walks in to bat." Many fans, he carried on, saw "Matthews as the wave of the future, lifting tired old cricket out of the doldrums".
Matthews took up an occasional reporting role with Channel Nine's Live at Five (wherein he was referred to as their "action man"), and there were a number of commercial endorsements. There was the frankly incongruous notion that the conservative Liberal Party were trying to woo him, and there was talk of him starring in a movie. It's not a stretch to say that as that summer closed, in a country that elevates sport more than most others, he was Australia's highest-profile sportsman.
Much of this was recapped in a premature authorised biography, Greg Matthews: The Spirit of Modern Cricket, written by Roland Fishman and published in 1986. It presented itself as a left-field take on a left-field figure, Matthews as the square peg to cricket's round hole. The most interesting parts were discussions with old team-mates and rivals, where, to his credit, Fishman provided some nuance to persona. Was Matthews' eccentricity calculated? How did his current free-spiritedness square with someone who had progressed through lower levels ruthlessly? Some asides give an idea of the hysteria that briefly surrounded him: Matthews rushing around to film Diet Coke ads, annoyed at articles speculating on his politics; his frustration at the offers to star in a film. "Next season, to make my job easier," he told Fishman, "I'm not going to need this hassle of people coming and gadding about a movie… It's a little funky, it's a little too deep."
Hair-care hawker: with Graham Gooch, promoting Advanced Hair Studio in 2007
© PA Photos
Hair-care hawker: with Graham Gooch, promoting Advanced Hair Studio in 2007 © PA Photos
Some unique glimpses emerged, such as his take on the meaning of life. "What do you think you are here for? To breathe the air? To have a good time? The bottom line is you are here to breed, to reproduce. SURVIVAL". So too his explanation of his vocabulary: "… some words I just like the sound of and start using them".
There were some serious thoughts too. Steve Waugh was a rookie at the time, effectively fighting for the same spot as Matthews. Waugh was described as having "more ability in his little finger than I have in my entire body". Matthews' predictions of greatness for Waugh were correct, but also revealing of someone who maybe didn't believe he could be great, that his outperforming of those who were or were going to be great was only temporary.
There were some sobering thoughts from the PBL chief Lynton Taylor. After talking of him as a possible millionaire cricketer and agreeing that Matthews was more marketable than Border ("… my research suggests he could be number one") he offered a warning. "What made his popularity were his performances. If Greg has a bad season, is dropped from the Australian team and becomes just another also-ran in the New South Wales team, he will be quickly forgotten."
History tells us that season and the subsequent off season in 1986 was the apex of Matthews' popularity. Within 18 months Taylor had been proved correct, Matthews slipping from folk hero to fringe cricketer. There would still be highlights, including his finest hour as a Test bowler. In the criminally under-celebrated tied Test in Madras, Matthews took ten wickets, including the last wicket, to tie the game. The eccentricities were also on show but perhaps the Madras furnace gave it a madder, harder edge. In searing heat that shipped players off to hospital, he wore two woollen jumpers in the field. He gave some demonstrative send-offs that today would have incurred code-of-conduct violations. In the Ashes that Australia lost later in the year, Matthews averaged over 50 with the bat.
Matthews looked and spoke like the older rebellious teenager you wanted to be. The Australian quoted a child saying "he's like us"
But he was dropped after the fourth Test, and though his ineffective bowling was a cause, perhaps larger forces were at play. The Bob Simpson era was kicking in, of risk aversion, discipline, conformity and hard bastard-ness - into which spacemen didn't fit. Simpson had been formally appointed as the first coach of Australia in 1986. If Border and Matthews were not alike, Simpson was even further right to Matthews' left-field approach; if Border was like your father, Simpson was like your grandfather.
There were rumours of a fine and disciplinary action on a subsequent Sharjah trip. Once Simpson was appointed, Matthews was judged differently. Simpson cast a large shadow that many nonconformists never recovered from. Matthews was perhaps the biggest individual loser. 60 Minutes didn't do any more stories, he faded from view as a Channel Nine personality, and the next few yearbooks barely mentioned him. Aside from a couple of one-day matches, Matthews didn't play for Australia from April 1987 to November 1990.
Over the years Matthews remained in the public eye through his off-field activities. He was among the first celebrities to sign up for hair replacements, appearing in a mass TV campaign. He was assaulted outside a nightclub. He drew the ire of the ACB when he was pictured crushing a pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes - a major board sponsor - for a magazine after quitting smoking.
Matthews didn't regularly run through sides as a bowler, but he saved his best for the tied Test in Madras, taking ten wickets
© Getty Images
Matthews didn't regularly run through sides as a bowler, but he saved his best for the tied Test in Madras, taking ten wickets © Getty Images
In between, there was a second coming as a Test player, where, again, he didn't bowl sides out but rarely failed to score runs. He averaged 70 in his return series, scored 79 in his last Test, passed 50 in six of his last eight Test innings, and finished his career with an average of 41.08. (Statistics can lie but Mark Waugh averaged 41.81, Geoff Marsh a tick over 33.)
Australian cricket wanted Matthews to be something that he was not. They focused on what he wasn't instead of what he was. Matthews wasn't a match-winning offspinner. He was an effective batsman whose bowling in the Test side was a bonus. Part of the incongruity of Matthews was that if his personality seemed to emerge from the future, his on-field skills were from the past. In that time of West Indian pace, spin was unfashionable and offspin especially was the un-sexiest of genres. Likewise his batting - batting was being redefined by ODI cricket, but Matthews was neither a brutal hitter nor a classical, orthodox batsman.
For all the plaudits directed at the Simpson-Border era, one can't help but wonder whether a worldlier, more considered leader like Mark Taylor would have made a difference. A leader who, for all Matthews' outward exuberance, could have been an amateur psychologist for that fragile inner confidence that Border and Simpson were either not equipped (Border) or inclined (Simpson) to deal with. Matthews, whom Taylor captained at state level, thought Taylor to be the best captain he played under.
Matthews politely, but animatedly, declined to speak to me for this piece. I got the feeling that if he ever opens up about his time in the Australian team, he will do it on his terms. He has since carved out something of a media career on the radio, still standing, a hero if only for a day.
Shannon Gill is a freelance writer who has worked across the Australian sports industry
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.