The sledge that sparked an Ashes dynasty

01 December 2017
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Documentary sheds new light on how words uttered by Prime Minister Bob Hawke spurred a generation of Australia dominance

About the Writer:

Andrew Ramsey is the senior writer for 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 barb that sparked Australia's 1989 Ashes renaissance and subsequently consigned England to almost two decades of humiliation was delivered not by a member of either of the historic rivals' camps, but by former Prime Minister and avowed cricket lover Bob Hawke.

The pivotal moment in the divergent fortunes of the two nations is revealed in the second episode of the three-part Ashes history documentary 'Forged in Fire' which screens on the Nine Network during the upcoming third Magellan Ashes Test in Perth.

With the film also detailing how a resurgent Australia outfit that produced a cavalcade of champions who kept the urn beyond England's reach with eight consecutive series wins effectively "bullied" England into meek and self-imposed submission, according to ex-England skipper Alec Stewart.

Forged in Fire: Episode 2 trailer

Having been torn asunder by the World Series Cricket split of the late '70s and then rocked by a rash of superstar retirements and the defection of senior players to rebel tours of South Africa in the mid-80s, Australia's Test team became a whipping boy for their historic enemy.

Australia's pain at handing back the urn in England on their failed 1985 UK tour was compounded when they were humbled at home in 1986-87, the series decided in a Boxing Day Test at the MCG that coincided with the final of tennis' Davis Cup at the nearby Melbourne suburb of Kooyong.

On the same afternoon that Allan Border's hapless outfit crashed to defeat by an innings and 14 runs, extending their winless run in Test matches to 14, Australia's Pat Cash launched a stunning comeback from two sets down against Mikael Pernfors to snatch the famous tennis trophy from holders Sweden.

England celebrate the Ashes-sealing wicket of Craig McDermott // Getty
England celebrate the Ashes-sealing wicket of Craig McDermott // Getty

As Border and his battle-scarred team contemplated another hammering in their MCG dressing room and Mike Gatting's men celebrated with champagne and celebrity guest Elton John nearby, the Australians tuned into the telecast of 21-year-old Cash's epic and ultimately fabled comeback.

Shortly after Cash clinched victory 6-3 in the fifth set, Hawke – whose affection for cricket was almost as legendary as his capacity to down a yard glass of beer – highlighted the bitter contrast between the efforts of the country's top tennis players and its Test cricketers.

Classic Ashes flashback, with Steve Waugh

"We were in the dressing rooms feeling sorry for ourselves, and the Davis Cup was on television," Border told 'Forged in Fire' which screens immediately after play finishes at the WACA Ground on December 14-16.

"Pat Cash was playing in the fifth rubber, and lo and behold Cashy gets up and wins, so we've won the Davis Cup.

"So there's huge celebrations from us.

"Bob Hawke presents the trophy and one of his throwaway comments was 'it's a pity there wasn't eleven Pat Cashes at the MCG today' … oooh'.

The victorious England side enjoy their 86-87 Ashes triumph // Getty
The victorious England side enjoy their 86-87 Ashes triumph // Getty

Border's bristling opening batsman David Boon describes it as a moment when the nation's Test team "lost the respect of the Australia public" and claimed he felt the sting of the then Prime Minister's observation as a "dagger in the back".

"AB (Border) just stood up and said 'right, I'm sick of being seen as nice guys and getting beaten everywhere we go - I'd rather win games and be seen as a prick," fast bowler Merv Hughes says in the documentary.

"It suited me down to the ground.

"That's how I play my cricket."

Test legends turn out for hotly-anticipated doco

As a result of Border's stance taken in the wake of Hawke's slap down, the team that Australia's most capped skipper led to the UK in 1989 resolved it would a take a harder edge on to the field, which meant no friendly chat with their England opponents no matter how well they knew one another.

The England players were perplexed as to why the touring team – which contained a number of members who had served stints as professionals in the UK county competition – were suddenly snubbing them to the point of snarling profanities whenever they were greeted with 'hello'.

"Mr Grumpy, he wasn't talking to anybody," former England captain Bob Willis describes Border in that 1989 series.

Boon noted that the blunt refusal among Border's team to show even a hint of cordiality made an impact on the home team, but it was England's collective response before a ball was bowled in the series' opening Test at Headingley that galvanised them into a force.

The proximity of the teams' dressing rooms at the Leeds venue meant that when the coin fell in England captain David Gower's favour and he inserted Australia – already written off by the UK press as one of the weakest Ashes squads to land in the Old Country – the tourists heard laughter coming from their opponents' inner sanctum.

Forged in Fire: Episode 1 trailer

"They started giggling – 'these convicts batting at Leeds'," Boon recalls.

"We took the English on in a way they did not expect, we went out and won by (210 runs).

"They stopped laughing then."

Steve Waugh hits out during Australia's win at Headingley // Getty
Steve Waugh hits out during Australia's win at Headingley // Getty

The thrashing that Border's emboldened men inflicted upon an unsuspecting England represented more than a cyclical shift in the teams' historic fortunes.

It signalled one of the most fundamental changes in Ashes history, as a succession of ruthlessly successful Australia outfits tormented England at home and away and a generation of England players became so scarred they became bereft of the means or spirit to fight back.

Border and his captaincy successors Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh ritually piled humiliation upon their Ashes foes that was inflicted by the likes of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillesipe, Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne whose 'ball of the century' at Old Trafford in 1993 came to symbolise the mesmeric spell held by Australia.

"You could hear it fizz as it came out of his (Warne's) hand, you could hear the flick of the fingers then 'zzzz'," recalls Gatting who was the victim of Warne's famous first Test match delivery in England despite being regarded as the home team's foremost player of spin bowling.

"He couldn't have pitched it any better, only knocked one bail off."

Warne, who admits in the documentary that his life changed in ways he could never have imagined because of that solitary delivery, then exerted a mental stranglehold over England for the next dozen years that saw him claim more Ashes wickets than any bowler before or since.

Stewart, England's second-most capped player behind Alastair Cook and widely rated as one of their most resilient characters, concedes that – such was Warne's genius – he became a virtual avatar at the perpetual mercy of the champion leg spinner.

And that Warne was part of an Australia cricket era that intimidated and belittled England to such an extent that the luckless outfits who went without an Ashes series win from 1989 until 2005 were cowed into submission without so much as a whimper of resistance.

Forged in Fire: Episode 3 trailer

"He was a once in a generation cricketer," Stewart said of Warne in 'Forged in Fire'.

"He controlled me.

"We allowed the Australians at times to bully us, whereas collectively we should have stood up for longer, and been stronger.

"And I was also trying to tell our players 'they're just like you and me, they're just normal blokes - respect them, but try and break down that aura'."

'Forged in Fire' screens on the Nine Network immediately following the end of each day's telecast of the Third Magellan Ashes Test in Perth on December 14, 15 and 16.

2017-18 International Fixtures

Magellan Ashes Series

Australia Test squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird, Chadd Sayers.

England Test squad: Joe Root (c), James Anderson (vc), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Tom Curran, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.

First Test Australia won by 10 wickets. Scorecard

Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Tickets

Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Tickets

Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Tickets

Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Tickets

Gillette ODI Series v England

First ODI MCG, January 14. Tickets

Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Tickets

Third ODI SCG, January 21. Tickets

Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Tickets

Fifth ODI Perth Stadium, January 28. Tickets

Prime Minister's XI

PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Tickets

Gillette T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series

First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Tickets

Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Tickets

Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Tickets

Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14

Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16

Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18

Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21