The year is 1974. The first cricket test of the Australian summer is about to get under way at the Gabba ground in Brisbane, with England defending the Ashes. Ray Illingworth, the victorious England captain on the previous tour, has set the tone by channelling Lance-Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army: the Aussies talk a good game, he says, but they don’t like it up ’em.
In the home dressing room captain Ian Chappell is leading a strategy and tactics session, outlining specific plans to combat each English batsman and bowler. He starts with their batsmen: “Amiss,” he says. “Bounce the c—.”
(By “bounce” he means deliver a barrage of bouncers, fast, short-pitched deliveries that rear up head high. Remember in those days there were no protective helmets or restrictions on the number of bouncers per over. Remember, too, that Australia had at its disposal possibly the most frightening fast-bowling combination of all time in the form of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” went the chant. “If Lillee doesn’t get you, Thommo must. By “c—” he means English person.)
“Luckhurst,” continues Chappell, “bounce the c—. Edrich: bounce the c—.” And so on, all the way down the English batting list.
The English bowlers are then subjected to analytical scrutiny. “Hendrick: slog the c—. Willis: slog the c—.” Chappell gets to left-arm spinner Derek Underwood. “Underwood.” Long pause. “This bloke can bowl.” Another long pause. “Ah, f— it, slog the c—.”
England were destroyed. Sports writing abounds with military metaphors, but this one isn’t entirely hyperbolic. In its review of the series, the cricketer’s bible, Wisden, declared: “Never in the 98 years of test cricket have batsmen been so grievously bruised and battered by ferocious, short-pitched balls.”
Chappell didn’t invent the Australian formula of attacking batting and hostile fast bowling backed up by predatory close catching and a “take no prisoners” attitude, but he took it to a whole new level, while simultaneously getting a larrikin kick from convincing traditionalists the cricketing barbarians were at the gate.
Successive Australian teams have followed the Chappell blueprint, sometimes to their administrators’ discomfort. Consciously or not, captains such as Allan Border and Steve Waugh have modelled themselves on Chappell, even if the Chappell-era term “sledging” (meaning verbal abuse of opponents) has been replaced with the pseudo-scientific “mental disintegration”.
We like to believe that inside every bully there’s a coward, but Chappell was fearlessly confrontational. Little wonder: when he was 10 he was drafted into his father’s Adelaide club side to cover for a no-show and held out against the opposition’s fast bowlers for 45 minutes; rather than pat the boy on the back, his father chided him for backing away from a short one.
When Chappell became a broadcaster and journalist, he didn’t hesitate to denounce his brother Greg, who succeeded him as captain, over the infamous underarm incident, or to criticise the towering figure of Sir Donald Bradman, which amounts to lese-majeste, if not heresy, across the Tasman. Latterly he has been an outspoken critic of his Government’s treatment of asylum seekers.
These days Chappell is part of the Channel 9 commentary team. (For some reason gifted mimic Billy Birmingham of 12th Man fame cannot nail his voice and delivery.)
Although the Australian team now taking on the Black Caps pale in comparison with the juggernaut Chappell unleashed, they will strive to live up to the legacy. The baggy green cap means as much to Australians as the black jersey does to Kiwis.
But Chappell’s influence may extend to the Black Caps. New Zealand coach John Wright is a friend and admirer, and he acknowledged Chappell as an invaluable source of advice when Wright was coach of India. And by Chappell’s own admission, the day he retired he ceased to give a damn about the outcome of cricket matches.