Whitney was the kind of unlikely hero only cricket is capable of regularly serving up.
Whitney was the kind of unlikely hero only cricket is capable of regularly serving up.

The unlikely Aussie hero who saw off Kiwis’ greatest

In an extract from his book, The 50 Greatest Matches in Australian Cricket, author Dan Liebke remembers a classic Test between Australia and New Zealand, in 1987 at the MCG.

One that pitched a champion bowler Aussie fans loved to hate against a bunny of a tailender in which no faith was, justifiably, placed.

A match that both teams seemed to win and loose before a conclusion, and a hero, that few, if any, would have predicted ...

 

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Richard Hadlee was a predator, but he did not prey on Arnold Schwarzenegger (as in the movie Predator). Or Danny Glover (as in the movie Predator 2). Or Adrien Brody (Predators). Or an entire cast of B-list actors (The Predator).

He also did not prey on aliens (Alien vs Predator and Alien vs Predator 2: Requiem), although given that he took Greg Matthews's wicket on eight occasions, we may have to revisit that particular claim.

 

Richard Hadlee was the scourge of Australian batsmen and fans alike.
Richard Hadlee was the scourge of Australian batsmen and fans alike.

 

Hadlee preyed on batsmen. He preyed on them to such an extent that at the time of his retirement, nobody had succeeded in dismissing more of them than him. In 86 Tests, he took 431 wickets at an average of 22.3, establishing himself as one of the greatest bowlers in the history of Test cricket and, with apologies to Ewen Chatfield, New Zealand's greatest ever bowler.

Naturally, Australian crowds reacted to his breathtaking excellence by chanting, 'Hadlee is a wanker' at every opportunity.

Hadlee had 'earned' this epithet in 1985 when he'd taken nine wickets in an innings against Australia. The one wicket Hadlee hadn't taken had been Geoff Lawson, and he'd caught him instead. For variety's sake.

 

A barren run in the 1980s had Australian Test cricket captain Allan Border questioning his right to lead.
A barren run in the 1980s had Australian Test cricket captain Allan Border questioning his right to lead.

 

New Zealand had won that series 2-1. In a decade full of low ebbs for Australia, this was perhaps the lowest. Or perhaps the lowest was the return series a few months later, which New Zealand won 1-0.

Either way, these ebb-limboing defeats to New Zealand took their toll on Allan Border, who toyed with the notion of standing down as captain. Losing to the West Indies was understandable, expected even. Losing to England, while regrettable, was bound to happen every now and then.

 

The 50 Greatest Matches in Australian Cricket
The 50 Greatest Matches in Australian Cricket

But losing to New Zealand, where only a few dozen people were willing to turn their head away from rugby union long enough to even contemplate playing cricket? That was beyond the pale. No wonder Border had pondered relinquishing his role as skipper.

In 1987, however, Border was still captain. And Australia was 1-0 up in a three-Test series going into the final match. New Zealand held the trans-Tasman Trophy, but Australia were maddeningly close to claiming it by winning their first Test series in four years.

Since their defeat of Pakistan back in the summer of 1983-84, Australia had lost series to the West Indies (away and home), England (away), New Zealand (away and home). The closest they'd come to winning a series had been a pair of 0-0 draws against India (away and home).

With 247 needed for victory on the final day of the third Test, this was their chance to finally claim a trophy but because they were a 1980s Australian cricket side, they almost completely messed it up.

At 4/176, Australia were on target for a 2-0 series win. At 9/227 a session or so later, less so.

Hadlee had struck. Again.

Oh, sure, he had help. Chatfield and John Bracewell took the wickets of Mike Veletta and Steve Waugh.

Hadlee, though, removed Peter Sleep, Greg Dyer and Tony Dodemaide to leave Australia nine wickets down. In the process, he completed his second five-wicket haul of the Test. In a variant of the same process, he also equalled Ian Botham's record for the most wickets in Test match history.

 

Michael Whitney and Craig McDermott fight to the bitter end to save what looked a lost cause.
Michael Whitney and Craig McDermott fight to the bitter end to save what looked a lost cause.

 

Only one pair remained.

Craig McDermott and future host of the Gladiators television show, Mike Whitney.

McDermott was a handy lower order batsman. Over a 71-Test career, he averaged 12.2 with the bat. Whitney, on the other hand, was somewhat less reliable. In the two Tests he'd played prior to this one, he'd scored a total of four runs. At an average of 1.0.

How The Sun newspaper remembered the epic conclusion to the match.
How The Sun newspaper remembered the epic conclusion to the match.

Although he did once walk out from the pavilion with his team nine wickets down and hit Joel Garner for three runs off the final ball of a match to win a game for NSW, New Zealand fans saw Whitney as prey. Australian fans could only pray for Whitney.

With five overs remaining in the Test and New Zealand needing only a drawn series to retain the trophy, things looked grim for Border and his not-so-merry band of misfit cricketers.

And yet somehow, McDermott and Whitney survived four overs. One of those somehows was a dire refusal of a Danny Morrison lbw shout against McDermott in the second last over. The ball swung in and struck him on the back pad in front of the stumps, only to be inexplicably turned down by umpire Dick French. So that certainly helped.

Regardless of the impact of home town umpiring in getting them there, the Test was set to end with Mike Whitney facing one over from Richard Hadlee, in what was one of the greatest mismatches in cricket history.

One of the most compelling aspects of cricket is the sight of a genuine tailender facing a champion bowler. Most televised sports see athletes competing at an elite level against one another. While this makes for great competition, it is competition on a level that most fans cannot dream of attaining.

But the ineptitude of the tailender allows fans a glimpse into how they might fare were they to be thrust into the battle. Sure, even this glimpse is distorted, for the most hopeless of bunnies has still had more batting practice and training and is possessed of greater hand-eye co-ordination than the average viewer.

 

 

Whitney and McDermott leave the field at the MCG after an impossible job well done.
Whitney and McDermott leave the field at the MCG after an impossible job well done.

 

Nevertheless, it's the closest insight most of us will get.

As such, all of Australia was now Mike Whitney, facing that magnificent champion - and 'wanker' - Richard Hadlee, looking to deny him the wicket that would give him the world record and New Zealand a drawn series and retained ownership of the trans-Tasman Trophy.

The first ball was wide, outside off stump. Whitney pulled his bat away with exaggerated force, up and high over his head, as the ball sailed through to keeper Ian Smith.

Applause and cheering echoed around the MCG with Whitney's successful negotiation of the delivery. This would happen after every ball, so we'll take it as read from now on.

The second ball, straighter, fuller. This time, Whitney attempted to defend the ball, but missed and it again went through to Smith. Whitney took a step back and a deep breath before facing up again.

 

Whitney was the kind of unlikely hero only cricket is capable of regularly serving up.
Whitney was the kind of unlikely hero only cricket is capable of regularly serving up.

 

The third ball was a copy of the first, with again Whitney pulling the bat away high.

There was no option to leave the fourth ball, which was full, almost yorker length and angling in at off stump. Whitney, in panic, managed to inexpertly drive it away, out to the cover fielder.

Before the fifth ball, New Zealand captain Jeff Crowe brought his fielders in even closer. Again, Hadlee forced Whitney to play, but this ball was just back of a length and Whitney was able to defend it back to the bowler without much difficulty.

One ball remained. That final ball was full, aimed at middle stump. Whitney was right behind it, blocking it away, before scurrying back to the safety of his crease where he pumped the air in triumph.

He sprinted down the pitch to McDermott, who hugged him in joy.

As Whitney walked off the ground to the cheers of the crowd, the first to shake his hand and give him a congratulatory pat on the back was Hadlee.

God, what a wanker.

 

*Dan's must read book for all Australian cricket lovers, The 50 Greatest Matches in Australian Cricket (of the past 50 years) contains 49 more tales of breathtaking ties, impossible chases and devastating losses.

You can buy a copy here.

News Corp Australia


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