It wasn’t Boxing Day, but close to it. The 1972-73 MCG Test between Australia and Pakistan began on December 29, and the game proved to be one of the most remarkable Australian victories in Test history.
Ian Chappell won the toss and Australia batted. In the wake of marvellous centuries by Ian Redpath (135) and Greg Chappell (116 not out), Australia made 441 for 5 before Chappelli declared.
The MCG wicket was a road, grass cut so short you would swear the curator has been at it with a razor-sharp scythe – the closest of close shaves. It was as hard as Scrooge’s heart and simply oozed runs at the cost of the best bowlers.
Australia had two debutants – the ocker Melbourne-based Max Walker, whose “arm over right ear’ole” big inswingers and complementary legcutters had the cricket world talking, and Jeffrey Robert Thomson, a fast bowler with an approach that would have won the hearts of all those who watched the ancient Games in Athens all those years ago. Thommo was a magnificent athlete but he held a secret that was not made public until after the big event.
The Pakistanis made merry with the Australian attack. Sadiq Mohammad, an exciting left-hand opener, scorched to 137 before Dennis Lillee trapped him plumb in front. The other opener, Saeed Ahmed, got 50, Zaheer Abbas 51 before being run out, and Majid Khan belted 158 before he touched a clever legcutter from Tangles and wicketkeeper Rodney Marsh did the rest.
Lower down the order, Pakistan captain Intikhab Alam hit screamers over cover, one bounce into the crowd. Built like the village blacksmith of yore, barrel-chested with bulging forearms, he smashed the ball with Exocet-missile velocity. Some called his low-flying scorchers “skimmers” but we called them “crowd killers”. Had he used the big bats they use today, the crowd would have needed to wear crash helmets.
After a long, exhausting stint in the field, the Australians were left with tailenders Saleem Altaf and Sarfraz Nawaz batting on. Chappelli called upon Lillee. It was simply a case of bouncing them and hoping the tail fell quickly, or the opposition realising their bowlers might sustain injury and closing the innings. After a couple of Lillee bouncers, Intikhab declared at 574 for 8.
Thomson bowled reasonably well, but without his blistering pace. His 17 wicketless overs cost 100 runs. Walker bowled manfully, taking 2 for 112 off 24 overs. His two wickets were good’uns – Majid Khan and Saeed Ahmed.
Batting a second time, Australia made 425, this time Paul Sheahan and John Benaud making hundreds. Despite our two 400-plus totals, Pakistan needed only 293 for victory on the final day.
The wicket was still a beauty. We reckoned you could not have scarred the flint-hard surface with a hand grenade. The final day dawned bright and sunny, unusual indeed for Melbourne, which often turns on four seasons in a day. By the time we took the field, the ground was basking in the sun under a cloudless sky. Perfect.
Lillee opened the bowling and struck early, Saeed Ahmed mishitting a rising delivery and steering it straight to me at mid-on.
There was a larger story here. During the first Test, in Adelaide, the two Pakistani openers – Sadiq and Talat Ali – were having far too many mid-wicket discussions, sometimes even midway through an over. This would annoy any bowler, and Lillee was fuming.
The umpires seemed reluctant to intervene, so Lillee chose to take matters into his own hands. At the top of his mark at the River End, he yelled out loudly what sounded for the world like a chook call: “Book, book… beguerk!”
Marsh was heard to utter, “What the…” Chappelli was bemused, Doug Walters laughed.
I knew about Lillee’s chook calls, for one day at the WACA, I was privileged to meet Dennis’ grandfather, Len “Pop” Halifax, and almost immediately after we shook hands, Pop came out with: “Book, book…beguerk!”
That day at Adelaide Oval, Lillee’s utterances unnerved the Pakistanis. They must have thought he was talking in code: a bouncer to come, or maybe a yorker, perhaps an inswinger or a legcutter.
Confusion. A Lillee win, I thought.
The Lillee chook calls had been famous for a while. In fact, before he was nicknamed FOT, which came into being when his Western Australia captain Tony Lock once said he was bowling like a flippin’ old tart, he was, for a time, called “book-book”.
Lillee figured if the Pakistanis were speaking in a foreign tongue, so too would he speak in his own special way, confusing the Pakistani batsmen – and most of his team-mates.
In Melbourne, during the chase, Saeed hit one back to Lillee and the fast bowler threatened to throw the ball at the batsman. Saeed took evasive action, staggered and fell backwards. One ball later he was out.
Three Pakistanis were run out, which most likely cost them victory. After a first-innings score of 574, any side does not expect to lose the Test match. Pakistan obviously had a brain fade. The next morning a Melbourne morning newspaper had a brilliant headline. Across the back page was one word: PANIKSTAN.
Thommo’s match figures – 0 for 110 (he was taken out of the attack in the second innings after two fruitless overs) – were a true reflection of how he bowled in his first Test. However, we didn’t know that he came into the match with a broken bone in his left foot. That Thommo played the Test match with such an injury was typical of the era. Winning Test selection was so precious, you played no matter what. If you pulled out with injury, and whoever took your place performed with distinction, you might never get another chance.
After that poor Test debut, Thommo’s career nosedived. He lost his state spot, and it was not until the start of the 1974-75 season that he returned a different bowler. The England team of that summer soon found out how good and how fast this man could be.
Walker had a terrific debut. In the second innings he took 3 for 39 from 14 overs. In the third Test, at the SCG, he won the game for Australia after Pakistan were cruising at 83 for 3 chasing 159. Tangles took six cheap wickets. His figures read: 16-8-15-6.
Poor Pakistan lost the series 3-0 even when they were in good positions to win two of the matches.
The current Pakistani team has the talent and the grit to make up for so many losses down under in the past. The Brisbane Test proved they have the steel and the will. They lost the match but they won the hearts and minds of every thinking Australian cricket fan.
Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers’ Doctor