“I feel a bit nervous. I feel a bit mad. I feel like a good time that’s never been had. I feel a bit fragile. I feel a bit low….” I wonder did Skyhooks know they were singing about the likes of Amiss, Fletcher, Edrich, Cowdrey and Denness facing up to Lillee and Thommo in the mid seventies.
A friend recently lent me the 1974-75 Ashes series highlights. What a treasure it is. For me, the main reason is that Thommo was in his prime – pre any injuries. And Thommo was a very, very special bowler. If you have any doubts about who was the faster ever, watch the footage. Sure, there were no speed guns but I’d argue that they are not necessary! Jeffrey Robert Thomson humbly asserts that he was the fastest ever. I have to agree. “I feel a little edgy. I feel a little weird…”
Jeff Thompson isn’t the only great player in that series – there were many. The Chappells, Walters, Lillee, Marsh, Knott, Edrich, Greig, Underwood, Willis and Cowdrey (past his best, granted). It is widely acknowledged that cricket today owes a great debt to World Series Cricket (WSC). The teams of 1974-75 and then 1975-76 were the reason WSC happened. The Australian team at the time were world beaters. England and the West Indies also had fine teams. The Australians in particular not only had the results on the board, but were full of charisma. I’ll draw the line at charm but there was personality, fierce competitiveness, larrikinism and irreverence by the bucket load. All of that equated to popularity. And popularity in a less innocent guise is marketability. Enter Mr Packer. You probably all know about Packer’s battle with the ABC and the ACB over TV rights, so I won’t bore you with details. Packer would not have fought and won the battle for any mob of also rans.
Watching the footage was thought provoking in many ways. So often, a great contemporary team will be compared with one from the past. Which stacks up the best? Who would have beaten whom?
How often is the analysis done form memory, legend, folk lore and myth? How often do we actually go back and have a look, to judge with our own eyes? Of course, the further you go back, the harder this becomes until it is actually impossible. Oh, to have hours of clear, colour footage of Trumper! So often, we decide that what is best is what we are familiar with. And that is what is most recent in our memories. Perhaps comparing highlights (ie the best on offer) is not a true comparison but I think it is a good start.
Along these lines, I recently added to my collection the series highlights of 1960-61 (Australia versus the West Indies, including the Tied Test). This must be one of the greatest series ever. The vision is ordinary to say the least, but still a treasure.
As you would expect, the footage of 1974-75 was miles ahead of 1960-61. It is in colour. However, it was an eye opener to be reminded that there was still just one camera being used. Not one from each end. One camera. Slow motion replays were only just coming into use and while they were useful, when compared to the super slow motion, high definition technology now available, they don’t seem too exciting now. Of course, there was no third umpire – he would have been left without eyes most of the time.
Let’s put aside technology, long hair and burners (or “mutton chops” to use the colloquial of the period) and Richie’s suits for a moment. There are still plenty of obvious differences. The fences were white, wooden pickets and were pleasingly unadorned with advertising. The sight screens were white lattice and were as naked and pure as the fences. There were no boundary ropes – some of the boundaries were very long. There were grassy hills at most grounds, colourful wooden bench seats and no dominating light towers. Looking at that list, I have to suggest that the grounds were more pleasing to the eye in those days.
More subtly, both umpires where Australian and the overs were eight balls. Hitting the fence or the sight screen on the full resulted in just four runs. There was not a manager sitting in the dressing room. Most of the players had day, or at least, winter jobs. Protective devices were less prominent, most notably helmets which were completely absent. “I feel a little insane. I feel a bit dazed. My legs are shrinkin’. And the roof’s been raised.”
Thomson was frightening. Truly frightening. I have watched Brett Lee bowl for many hours. There is no doubt in my mind that Thomson was significantly faster. In the highlights, there were many several instances of a bouncer going clean over Marsh and with a few bounces, crashing into the fence. And not just at Perth. Thommo’s slinging action was spectacular. Growing up, I saw Thomson bowl probably more than I’ve seen Lee and I am still fascinated by his action. Thommo was a magnificent, natural athlete. So much of his speed was brute strength. Aside from Thomson (33 wickets at 17.94), Lillee, back from his first major injury, was magnificent (25 wickets at 23.84). Fast, classical, belligerent and skilful.
At the moment, we look at the likes of Ponting, Dravid, Tendulkar and Lara as the best. We wonder who, over the ages has been better. Bradman, obviously. I’m so glad to be reminded of Greg Chappell. For elegance, it’s hard to put any current batsman ahead of him. From the stance to the on-driving and cover driving with prefect timing, he was a true stylist. He scored 606 glorious runs at 55.27 with two centuries and seven half centuries.
I have often thought of Mark Waugh as the ultimate natural. And eye player with few peers. He’s often been compared to Walters and I’d say M Waugh was a better slipper. I only started watching Walters towards the end of his career. Even in 1974-75, he we was past his best, but his strokeplay was still phenomenal. What really struck me was that with some quick footwork, he could pull just about any ball short of a yorker!
I have never thought of Tony Greig as a special cricketer. I always thought of him as a mercenary, an entrepreneur and opportunist. A tall man with a big mouth, who likes to stir up trouble, especially with Bill Lawry. He signalled his own boundaries and would turn to the crowd and demand applause when he took a catch on the boundary. But I have to tell you that his batting in the 1974-75 series was a stand out for England. He spoke with his bat as well as his big mouth. Perhaps it was a purple batch, but in that series at least he was belligerent, defiant, hard-hitting, exciting and inspirational.
Marsh and Knott may not be Gilchrist but they were both marvellous players. In recent times, the Australian tail has done some serious scoring. It should be noted that Chappelli’s tail was often wagging. Walker, Jenner, Mallet, Lillee and Thommo could all swing a bat. The slips cordon of Chappell, Chappell, Walters, Redpath and Mallet was sensational. And of course, they had to be.
I’m not going to announce a “final verdict” on the standing of the team of 1974-75. It’s just fantastic that we have the opportunity to relive their on-field performances. All they really lacked was a top line spinner and a few litres of peroxide.