Way back when

A thriller turns 30

Exactly three decades ago today, the classic Melbourne Test of 1982 wound to a dramatic close

Steven Lynch
The catch that ended it

The catch that ended it © Getty Images

Christmas for many cricket-lovers in Australia means just one thing: clearing the decks of turkey and mince pies in time for the Boxing Day Test on December 26. I've spent a few festive seasons in the unaccustomed heat of Melbourne, amused at the shop-window scenes of snow and wondering how many kilos the Santa in Myer, the massive department store, has sweated off under his thick red robes.

One of the best Tests I ever saw was the Boxing Day match at the MCG during Bob Willis' reign as England captain, and it came as rather a shock to the system to realise that this is the 30th anniversary of that great game - in 1982-83 - which Australia nearly stole, after their ninth wicket went down with 74 runs still needed.

England were 2-0 down going into that fourth Test, but looked set to reduce the deficit - and keep alive their hopes of retaining the Ashes, won so thrillingly in 1981 - with the New Year Test in Sydney to come. Australia, set 292 to win, lost their ninth wicket late on the fourth day, with just 218 on the board. Not long now, thought the Poms present, as the No. 11, Jeff Thomson, moseyed out to join Allan Border, who had been so out of form that his place was in serious doubt.

Keen to bowl at the last man, Willis started spreading the field to allow Border singles. He turned down a lot - 29 in all, according to Bill Frindall - but still the runs kept ticking down, and Thommo, no doubt affronted by the suggestion that he wasn't much of a batsman, got in behind everything when he was required to face. By the end of play, Australia's last pair had scored exactly half the 74 runs they needed, Border was back to something like decent form, and everyone had to come back next morning.

The fifth day dawned bright, and my dad confidently expected me to give the cricket away - "Could be just one ball" - for a day at the beach. But of course the cricket won and, with admission free, I was joined by around 18,000 other eager beavers.

Willis kept the field out to Border, and the target was soon under 30. Then less than 20. And then single figures. Border had passed his half-century, and the man at the other end still looked rock solid: "It was one of the very few times I had seen Thommo restrain himself with the bat," said Border. "He was terrific, thoroughly responsible."

All along I'd been expecting England to win, but suddenly I wasn't so sure - and you could see from the body language that England's players weren't so sure either. Finally it boiled down to four to win, just one shot, just one edged boundary. For the first time, I thought Australia were going to win.

Back came the inevitable Ian Botham, for a final tilt from the Southern End, opposite the pavilion. Turned out that "only four to win" had scrambled Thomson's brain a little, and he went for his first expansive shot, aiming to get them in one go, from an inviting-looking ball that curved away slightly. The resultant thick edge flew to second slip, where Chris Tavaré, as if in a trance, parried the ball upwards and over his head. Amid 18,000 collective gasps, Geoff Miller nipped round behind him from first slip and completed the catch. England had won!

Two in two: Cowans gets Greg Chappell again, on day four

Two in two: Cowans gets Greg Chappell again, on day four © Getty Images

"I remember throwing my arms jubilantly in the air," wrote Willis, "and then running blindly off." And as the rest of them left the field, something happened that I have never seen before or since. Everyone around me stood up, and shook the hand of the spectator nearest them - because they were there. As it turned out, there was the place to be: stay-at-homes watching on TV didn't see the climax live, as Australia's Channel 9 was late returning from an advert for spanners. A friend of a friend vowed never to use that particular brand again: I suspected that for a couple of years he used his teeth instead.

Even before this remarkable finish, it had been an absorbing Test. Peculiarly, each of the first three innings occupied precisely a day; equally spookily, all the totals were within ten runs of each other (England 284 and 294, Australia 287 and 288). The first day had been notable for Tavaré, usually the blocker par excellence, repeatedly clonking Bruce Yardley into the vast open spaces of the MCG outfield on his way to 89, at about double his usual rate. Not just the English contingent was disappointed when he cut Thommo to gully - and was well held by Yardley - 11 short of a hundred. It made you wonder what Tav might have achieved in his Test career if he hadn't been persuaded early on - or instructed - to become a sort of Boycott Mk II.

On the second day I celebrated when Norman Cowans trapped John Dyson lbw. In a club game not very long before, "Flash" Cowans had put me in at short leg when he bowled; pointing at my glasses, I had pretended not to hear as he exhorted me to get closer and closer in. So a celebration seemed appropriate.

It took the form of a dash to the pavilion bar - which meant I missed his next-ball dismissal of Greg Chappell, caught on the boundary. Luckily for me, for this match the MCG had replaced the lovely old scoreboard with its first big replay screen, so I was soon able to savour that one (and a cold beer) too. The fourth day turned out to be Cowans' finest in a Test: in only his second match, he got Chappell cheaply again and finished with six wickets.

After this fairytale finish, there wasn't quite another one in Sydney, where a draw confirmed that the Ashes would be changing hands after all. But actually no one who had been in on the end in Melbourne minded very much.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013





  • POSTED BY Tim on | January 2, 2013, 5:06 GMT

    I was flying a Cessna 402 from Katherine NT to a town called Borroloola and was listening to the coverage on Radio Australia on the morning of this test. As I got closer to the 'Loo the result got closer too. Eventually I had to do a few laps around Borroloola waiting for a result in case AB or Thommo found the winning runs whilst I was on approach. Sadly Thommo got out and I had to land. (Definitely had my priorities right!) The local cop and a few others were not the least bit worried about me doing circles around the town. "Nah there's nothing wrong. Tim'll be listening to the cricket" Mick the cop was heard to say.

  • POSTED BY Chandra on | January 1, 2013, 2:58 GMT

    @Rajiv I believe that is because Australian teams played positive cricket and that gave them a chance to be in more exciting games than most other teams. Other teams would have shut shop in a lot of chases or resorted to negative tactics to deny run scoring rather than focus on picking wickets.As someone who followed australian cricket quite a bit in the later part of AB era and all of Mark Taylor era, they played this brand of cricket before they had a team which would most often than not end up winning the close games. Or win them by turning them into not so close games.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | December 31, 2012, 11:35 GMT

    I was too young remember this. But have you noticed how Australia always feature in close run chases. They have lost Tests by 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 18 runs? And in the 3 occasions a team has followed on and gone on to win, Australia have always been on the wrong end! And Australia were involved in both Test ties! Aussies love close encounters!

  • POSTED BY John on | December 31, 2012, 11:07 GMT

    I remember watching this game and I also remember the frustration of watching England make no attempt at all to dismiss the out-of-form Border while concentrating all their efforts on Thomson, thus allowing Border to play himself back into form. He went on to score 89 and 83 in the final Test that England needed to win in order to retain the Ashes. I'm really not a fan of the tactic of not trying to get both batsmen out, regardless of their abilities.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | December 31, 2012, 10:27 GMT

    was a great game and there was an article in the Melbourne Sun that Australia should have won when David Gower escorted a Jeff Thomson shot across the boundary instead of getting a single to keep Border off strike. There was no television in the Mornington Peninsula, we all had to huddle around a radio - fantastic. then the batteries went flat.............major drama

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | December 31, 2012, 5:14 GMT

    Who has "mince pies" at Christmas? Were they Four and Twenty, or Sargeant's ? This Lynch fella is clearly from Altona/ Werribee

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | December 31, 2012, 4:40 GMT

    Not quite true about the television coverage. It was live, just not on chanel nine. the ABC (australian broadcasting commission) also televised test matches back then. I watched it live, spanners or no spanners. Commercial free.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | December 31, 2012, 4:11 GMT

    Another example of why the MCG Boxing Day Test is one of, if not the, biggest day of the international cricket calendar. You can't manufacture sporting tradition and passion like this.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | December 30, 2012, 23:12 GMT

    I went to the first 2 days of this test and have very similar fond memories.

    It really was one of the greatest test matches ever played - hard to imagine we could expect such 1 year after that EPIC between Australia and West Indies. Certainly the Tavare innings was one 'out of the box'. The other extrarodinary aspect of this test - apart from each of the 1st 3 days coinciding with a complete innings (and the 4th innings being 1 wicket short of the same) was how many players hit their first ball for 4.

    The first-ball dismissal of Greg Chappell highlights how over-inflated the averages of the modern batsmen are. It was one of the most sweetly timed hook shots I've ever seen/ heard at the MCG only to be caught by Allan Lamb leaning on the fence. Nowawdays it would be 6 and he'd be 94 runs short of another ton !

  • POSTED BY John on | December 30, 2012, 20:11 GMT

    This is one of my great memories as an 11 year old - I went to the 4th day and saw Australia chase 292 - the late David Hookes played really well but was dismissed by a remarkable running catch by Willis and it was then that I thought England would win. My Mum took me (her first ever day of Test cricket) but when 9 down there was a rain delay and we went home. I got a great shock that it was still going when we got home and the deficit was 37. I never thought I would see anything so tense again - and then came Edgbaston 2005 !!!!

  • POSTED BY Peterincanada on | December 30, 2012, 16:49 GMT

    Not only a great game but a great series. The Oz spearhead was Lillee and Alderman and both were injured in the first test at Perth and were done for the season. Thomson and Rackemann were called up for the second test to join Lawson and Rackemann was injured and replaced by Hogg for the third. It goes to show that even in the so-called good old days bowlers broke down. It turned out to be pretty much the last hurrah for Thomson and Hogg.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | December 30, 2012, 14:55 GMT

    On the window, Commbank Port Melbourne. Customers brought in beers. Not much commerce on Bay Street, that morning. Who put the tv out? Brilliant. That hollow feeling at the death....

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | December 30, 2012, 14:54 GMT

    I remember listening to the game on the radio while pretending to be asleep in bed. A really fond memory.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | December 30, 2012, 4:14 GMT

    Brilliant, brilliant game. One of the fondest memories of my childhood, definitely.