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How 'schoolboy' prep brought Cup history

08 November 2017
Our voices

Reflections on the meticulous planning and revolutionary cricket that guided Australia to the 1987 World Cup title

@ARamseyCricket
@ARamseyCricket

Andrew Ramsey is the senior writer for cricket.com.au. He previously wrote for the Guardian, The Australian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and the author of The Wrong Line.

The 1987 World Cup that reached its unexpected denouement 30 years ago this day – having been conducted under the ambitious marketing slogan 'Cricket for Peace' – represents a crucial junction in the game's ever-hastening evolution.

The first occasion that the premier short-form showpiece had been staged beyond its British birthplace, the month-long tournament co-hosted by polarised neighbours India and Pakistan was the last to be contested by players clad in Test match regalia using the traditional red ball in daytime fixtures.

On This Day: Australia win the 1987 World Cup

Fuelled by India's unforeseen triumph over the hitherto dominant West Indies in the final at Lord's four years earlier, it also marks the moment when the Asian sub-continent succumbed to the spell of limited-overs cricket, a seduction that brought the radical redrawing of cricket's power and politics in the decades since.

And in a finale whose enduring visual is England captain Mike Gatting's disastrous attempt to reverse sweep at a crucial moment of his team's run chase, Australia's seven-run win signalled a rebirth of the victor's faltering cricket fortunes.

A triumph achieved against odds of 16-1 at the Cup's outset and dismissive assessments from judges such as Pakistan's former batting great Zaheer Abbas ("schoolboys, mere club cricketers" he sniffed at them) that wrote Allan Border's unheralded but unfazed young men into cricket folklore.

But often overlooked in the paupers-to-princes tale that has grown around Australia's first world championship outfit - that was recognised earlier this year when all squad members received belated winners' medals - is the planning and painful preparation that underpinned that unlikely success.

And while much of that drive came from recently installed coach Bob Simpson, the unwavering willingness that the 14 hand-picked players brought to realise that distant goal cast a template for the era of ruthless professionalism that grew in its wake.

That process began at selection when Simpson, who held significant sway with the panel to the extent that he could identify 'project players' whom he believed capable of lifting Australia from its malaise of mediocrity, orchestrated some bold calls.

'87 World Cup winners handed medals

"At Simpson's insistence the Australians began to approach the limited-over game with greater intelligence, discipline and sophistication," journalist Mike Coward, who covered the event and cricket throughout that epoch, wrote in his essential chronical 'Rookies, Rebels and Renaissance'.

Off-spinner Tim May was preferred to exuberant all-rounder Greg Matthews who had sealed Australia's sole shining moment of the recent past, the tied Test result against India at Madras (now Chennai) a year prior to the World Cup.

Also overlooked was mercurial young wicketkeeper Tim Zoehrer in favour of the more staidly dependable Greg Dyer, while the inclusion of emerging batters Tom Moody and Mike Veletta (also a back-up keeper) at the expense of experienced duo Greg Ritchie and Dirk Wellham marked the end of the latter pair's international careers.

Mike Veletta was a key man for Australia at the 1987 World Cup // Getty

Of greatest surprise was the naming of burly South Australia all-rounder Andrew Zesers ahead of regular seamer Simon Davis, a signal that Australia's one-day strategy was leaning towards players more able to contribute in multiple facets.

Next came the exhaustive, exhausting fitness and training regime that Simpson and the team's physiotherapist Errol Alcott introduced in the belief that if Australia wasn't the best team in the 10-team tournament, there was no reason they should not be the best prepared.

"Our training was incredibly intense, reflecting a desire to simulate match conditions so we could acclimatise to the heat and be technically sharp and peaking at the right time," all-rounder Steve Waugh recalled in his autobiography 'Out of My Comfort Zone'.

While it might seem rudimentary in comparison to current sports-science practices, the testing of players' fluid loss at training session at their training base in Madras – a location that carried pleasantly familiar memories after the tied Test – to maximise hydration efficiency was revolutionary for its time.

 

The 1987 World Cup was a breakout tournament for a young Steve Waugh // Getty

 

So too was the focus on fine details, in an era when many still believed that the best exponents of one-day cricket were simply Test players exhibiting a bit more urgency.

Towelling collars packed with ice were introduced to help stabilise core body temperatures, sweatbands once considered a fashion accessory for tennis players were trialled, as was the use of long-sleeved shirts to reduce skin abrasions for fielders flinging themselves around the harsh sub-continental outfields.

Shorts replaced long tracksuit pants as the preferred practice garment, and in another innovation straight from the department of common sense, players were advised that bottled water made a far more suitable post-match replenishment resource than did cold beer.

In keeping with the philosophy of Simpson, rated as one of cricket's most gifted slips catchers as well as a peerless technical coach, fielding drills became as important (if not more so) as nets hit-outs.

He also took delight in pointing out to his inexperienced charges – only two of whom (Border and spinner Peter Taylor) were in their 30s - that nine out of 10 one-day internationals were won by teams that scored the most singles, making running between wickets another focus.

As a result, local onlookers along with rival teams shook their heads in disbelief at the duration and the vigour of Australia's training runs that featured Simpson hitting so many 'fly balls' to his squad that opener Geoff Marsh would later note "there wasn't a blade of grass in India that was safe from our fielding drills".

The match strategies that Australia employed also appear quaint and dated when viewed through a contemporary lens from the era of super-sprung bats, shortened boundaries and professional pay packets.

But at a time when the highest recorded ODI team score stood at 338 (30 years later it's blown out to 444) and the 300-run benchmark had been crossed just 15 times in 450 matches, it proved pragmatically effective.

Dean Jones was a key attacking player for the Aussies // Getty

It was built around Australia's preference for batting first, with opener Marsh nominated as the man who would bat through the innings and a total of 250-280 deemed defendable in most circumstances.

After the first 15 overs, Border's men looked to have advanced their score to around 50 or 60 with minimal loss, growing to around 100 by the midway (25th over) mark, with scoring then accelerating to six per over until the 40th at which point the last 10 overs should ideally net Australia 80-90.

In addition to more textbook Test players Marsh, Border and David Boon, Australia's batting featured the energy of Dean Jones, the hefty hitting of Waugh and Moody and the often audacious innovation of Veletta, whose nimble footwork and improvised shot making gave glimpses of the one-day game's future.

In the field, it was the role of new-ball pair Craig McDermott and Bruce Reid to make early inroads and thereby squeeze the opposition batting before all-rounders Waugh and Simon O'Donnell would bring – among other tools – the newly devised slower balls they had perfected through countless net sessions.

And while that's not quite how it played out on the day of the final – nobody had foreseen Border claiming the prized wicket of Gatting from the first ball he delivered in such eccentric circumstances – Australia's 50-over total of 5-253 was viewed as adequate if not imposing at the change of innings.

Gatting's reverse sweep would be a pivotal moment in the final // Getty

As was proved by the bowling group, to the unashamed delight of a crowd numbering between 40,000 and 70,000 (depending on whose figures are accepted) at Kolkata's Eden Gardens, the host nation had adopted Australia as their preferred team for two reasons.

Firstly, they had ended arch-foe Pakistan's campaign in a semi-final at Lahore.

And they were taking on England who, in addition to being India's old colonial master, had beaten the hosts in the other semi thereby quashing all local hope that Kapil Dev's men might successfully defend their title.

At game's end, the sweat-soaked and dust-caked Australians jogged a celebratory lap of the cavernous stadium as a volley of fireworks exploded in the late afternoon sky above the adjacent Hooghly River.

"I honestly thought I was in a Hollywood movie," Dean Jones later recalled.

"It was like 'The Natural' where Robert Redford has hit the ball into the lights and everything is going off."

 

Fireworks at Eden Gardens after Australia's World Cup win // Getty

 

In keeping with the seismic shift in cricket's future path that the tournament and its crowning game had delivered, it was welcomed in atypically Australian fashion.

"Right there and then, we knew this triumph could be the catalyst for an Australian cricket revival." Waugh wrote in his book almost 20 years later.

"But instead of crazy, over-the-top celebrations, we all but collapsed in the dressing room, totally spent after six weeks of intense commitment."