Allan Border still the greatest Australian batsman
No Australian cricketer has scored more runs for his country than Ricky Ponting. The Tasmanian has overhauled Allan Border’s Australian run scoring record in 22 fewer Tests, with an average six runs to the good, and boasts eleven more centuries to his name.
Yet Allan Border remains the finest Australian batsman of the last quarter century.
Granted, Ponting is Border’s superior in the one day format. But it is the pure form of the game that provides the ultimate test of the abilities of cricketers. A great cricketer’s greatness is established in the Test arena.
Border lacked the attributes displayed so dazzlingly by the other batting galácticos of his day - the swaggering hauteur of Richards, Greg Chappell’s grandeur, Miandad’s audacious creativity, Gower’s lissom elegance, the suppleness of Azharuddin, Lloyd’s hulking menace.
No one could ever write of Border’s batting, as Neville Cardus did of Frank Woolley’s, that it touched the senses as Mozart’s music touches them. If Woolley’s cricket was all ‘soft airs and fresh flavours’, Border’s had a granite texture.
John Woodcock, eminence grise of The Times cricket desk, wrote in 1985 that ‘Border has not so much a style as a modus operandi: he is utterly practical’.
Greatness reveals itself in many ways. Border batted with a hawk eyed tenacity that only Gavaskar of his contemporaries could emulate. When Australian cricket reached its lowest ebb Border gave the nation hope. Australia’s cricket team matters to Australians. Millions of countrymen and women follow its fortunes. Border went out and saved Australian cricket the only way he knew how, with courage and bravery and untiring defiance.
Batting is easier today than when Border played. Pitches are flatter, bats superior, boundaries shorter, bowling attacks poorer.
Applying a minimum of twenty innings as a criterion, only six men in the game averaged over 50 in the fifteen year period that Border was a Test cricketer. Eighteen men can boast of the feat in the years since Ponting’s 1995 debut.
Border took guard against Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Abdul Qadir, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Richard Hadlee, Bob Willis, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Muttiah Muralitharan and Allan Donald.
And the pace quartets of the West Indies. Always the West Indians. The finest aggregation of fast bowling talent in the game’s history: Holding, Roberts, Garner, Croft, Marshall, Patterson, Bishop, Ambrose and Walsh. Border looked the dogs of war in the eyes throughout 31 Tests, never flinching, always counter punching, so often the last man standing.
When Allan Border first came to national attention, most of Australia’s finest cricketers had defected to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. In Border’s first summer as a Test cricketer Graham Yallop led Australia’s lambs to the slaughter. Australia won one Test, England five. Border top scored for the first time as England won the Ashes at Sydney in January 1979.
Before the summer was out Border’s initiation continued against the Pakistanis. The newcomer was promoted to number three, compiling a maiden Test century battling the wiles of Imran and Sarfraz. Another century followed in his first Test abroad, in India.
Waiting in the long grass the next summer were the West Indians. Joel Garner, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Colin Croft constituted cricket’s most fearsome bowling attack. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Border donned a helmet for the first time.
These were years of factionalism in our national cricket team, of the captain picking and choosing his availability. Border cemented himself as the bedrock of the Australian batting order in Pakistan in 1980, batting for ten hours in Lahore for 150 not out and 153. In the 1981 Ashes series he survived for 313 runs and 738 deliveries over fifteen hours across the Old Trafford and Oval Tests, with a broken finger.
Following the departure of Chappell, Lillee and Marsh, Border was appointed Australian vice captain. First up, ten consecutive Tests against the West Indians.
Border’s magnum opus came at Trinidad in March 1984. The Australians were 3 for 16 on a damp green pitch when he entered. Experiencing nausea, dry retching at the side of the pitch, he was 98 not out when number eleven Terry Alderman was dismissed. In the second innings Border again ended up with Alderman, bringing up his hundred to save the match for Australia. Border reflected, ‘Critics have called this my finest hour. I prefer to call it my finest ten hours.’
Border then stood alone for seven hours in Antigua. When it was all over, man of the series Joel Garner went and shook hands with the man he had been unable to dismiss over five Tests.
Kim Hughes was a broken man by the time he resigned the Australian captaincy after the Gabba Test of November 1984. Australian cricket turned to Border.
When selfishness and avarice led men to undertake a rebel tour of apartheid South Africa, Border led those who remained the only way he knew. He just kept batting.
Australia lost to the English in 1985. Border batted for ten hours at Lords, then for a day at Old Trafford to save the match. Australia lost to the Kiwis in 1985/86. Hadlee took fifteen wickets at Brisbane, with Border batting for almost eight hours undefeated in the second innings.
These were the lowest days in the history of Australian cricket. ‘I don’t know what to do from here. We’ve just got to keep hanging in there’, said the captain after the rout at Brisbane.
That same summer against the Indians, he batted for two hours with the number eleven, and almost seven hours in all, to secure a draw. He batted for over eleven hours and faced 539 deliveries in making two centuries in Christchurch.
At the crease Border laboured where Ponting or Greg Chappell flowed. Is it any wonder he batted with painstaking care? At one point the national side had gone fourteen Tests without a win, an Australian record. In those days, Border was Australian cricket. He accepted the immense burden of being the outstanding player in a mediocre team. Brian Lara could not.
Border made runs wherever he batted in the order, with prolonged periods at numbers three, four, five and six. He averaged over 50 both before he turned 30 and after. He averaged over 50 both before he took the captaincy and after. He made 27 tours abroad, never missing an overseas tour in fifteen years, finishing with a better record away than at home.
Border the batsman was not always attritional. His innings on the first day of the 1989 Ashes series set the tone for the Australian ascendancy that winter. He could crack a square cut like no one in Australian cricket since Keith Stackpole.
Border’s greatness is easily underestimated because of his ordinariness. He resembled his public. Unpretentious. No frills. He was the factotum of the Australian eleven for fifteen years.
In 1994, when Border retired from international cricket, Stephen Waugh stated that playing with Border ‘has brought something out in me that might have taken longer or might never have come out’. The next year Waugh averaged over 100 in the Caribbean as the Australians finally overcame the West Indies.
In his combativeness, mental resilience, cast iron determination to sell his wicket dearly, desire to play every game no matter the location or opposition, Border established the template for the men who were to follow him as the pre-eminent batsman in the Australian eleven – first David Boon, then Stephen Waugh and now Ricky Ponting.
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