It is hard to think of many more jubilantly received, gaudily celebrated and entirely misleading sporting triumphs than England’s Ashes victory in Australia in 1986-7. It is a series that stands on its own, a victory that, on the face of it, seems to have pointed absolutely nowhere. Whereas pretty much every other Ashes tour of modern times has seemed to fit into a wider narrative of rise and fall, of the see-sawing of transparent and easily grasped eras of cricketing supremacy.
Not so with Mike Gatting’s piratical band of all-sorts and fading greats, who against all expectations retained the urn before the New Year with a victory at the Gabba that would come to resemble the final gloriously sonorous tock of some dying grandfather clock. Most victories in sport seem to point to some wider, happier, more glorious future. Or at least, they seem to point to more victories. But this one was instead the end of something, the last twitch of life in the old England, the cobwebbed, sozzled, trigger-happy hierarchies that would be flushed out in time by the march of central contracts, modern coaching structures and the ongoing Sky Sports-funded corporate management pyramid.
And so 1986-7 has become fixed in time as the Withnail Tour, the moment when even England’s rakishly stopped clock told the right time one last time. Here they come, that vagabond troupe of tiny-shorted charisma-artists conga-ing off the long-haul Qantas, bottle in hand, smeared in deep heat (“there’s none left for you …”) missing out Monday and coming up smiling on Tuesday morning in Elton John’s penthouse apartment with the urn in one hand and a hank of Phillip DeFreitas’s Diana Ross wig in the other.
If anything the tour has gone down as a kind of backs to the wall tale, an example of how team spirit and enduring class can confound expectation. In particular for the long-suffering professional sportsman – and in this case it must be said unhelpfully so – it has become a kind of stick with which to beat the nay-saying professional journalist. The main culprit here is of course the columnist Martin Johnson, who in the buildup to the first Test famously wrote: “There are only three things wrong with this England team. They can’t bat, can’t bowl and can’t field.”
Johnson may have based this not just on England’s risible warm-up performances, which involved being bowled out for 135 and 152 by state sides, but also the run of eight defeats in 11 Tests in the preceding year and a bit. But as clangingly, gloriously wrong calls go it remains a defining example of the genre.
And yet, the fact is Johnson was half-right. Or rather, he was pre-right. Dig a little deeper, sift through the minutiae of exactly how – and against whom – Gatting’s Gadabouts retained the Ashes, and what their legacy would be to those England sides that followed, and it starts to look as though Johnson’s only real crime was getting in there a year early.
From the end of the tour to the date they were finally, and indeed righteously trounced in the return Ashes series, England under the revolving captaincy of Gatting, David Gower, Graham Gooch, Chris Cowdrey and John Emburey won just one Test match out of 24 (at Lord’s against Sri Lanka). The prevailing orthodoxy here is wrong. History did not prove Martin Johnson – and by extension sardonic non-playing broadsheet hacks everywhere – wrong. History proved him right minus six months.
Along with many others, Johnson had reckoned without a final twitch of the dying hand of England’s big-ego greats of the mid-1980s. It was a haphazardly rich seam of talent. And really, looking at it now, this was a capable and well balanced England team. The five-man bowling attack at Brisbane for the opening Test was made up of Graham Dilley and DeFreitas with the new ball, supported by Ian Botham and the left-arm, right-arm spin of the dominant Embers-Edmonds axis. A middle order of Gatting, David Gower, Allan Lamb, Ian Botham and Jack Richards would all score hundreds in the series.
But beyond all of this, 1986-7 just looks like one of the more fondly memorable, more likable, more thrillingly large-scale Ashes tours, an anecdote-strewn final day in the sun for the traditions of the old-school England cricket tour: unstyled, booze-sodden, and amateurish in the best sense of the word. No doubt Andrew Strauss’s all-conquering 2010 tourists provide a more sustainable template, a tighter statistical model, a more uniformly vest-clad sense of corporate identity. But only one of these tours featured a Christmas fancy dress party complete with SS-uniformed ex-captain; a match-winning pace bowler jostled out of his hangover with half an hour to go before the Boxing Day Test; and quite so many archive photographs of people – many of them musical celebrities – pouring drinks over each others’ heads.
If two of the tour’s key themes were party-hatted japery and extreme match-winning performance, it is no surprise that both should come together in the person of Ian Botham. In between back twinges and outside activities Botham effectively decided the series, setting up both England’s Test victories with a brilliant, windmilling, floppy-mulleted hundred at the Gabba, and a spell of eerily irresistible medium-paced destruction at Melbourne. Albeit in the event these were really the end times for Botham, and for England the dawning of the long fallow period of post-Botham. Six years on from 1981, and often rather buried within the generalised decline of mature Botham, this was effectively Botham’s Ashes 2.0, a last glimpse of the beguiling talent still present within the personage of late-career Angry Beefy, a cricketer who always seemed to be engaged in sending a paunchily defiant ringlet-tossing V-sign in the direction of somebody or other.
This was a rather sullen cricketing great, contorted by fame and cricketing wear and tear, but still containing within him the essence of that wonderfully pure swing bowling talent of the pre-pop star period. Botham never took another five wicket bag or scored another hundred for England. After his tour-ending efforts in the decisive victory at Melbourne he only played one more Test abroad (five years later in Wellington at the height of the revolving door years: in the first innings he batted at eight below Dermot Reeve and David Lawrence).
But what efforts they were. England had batted slowly on the opening day of the first Test at the Gabba. Chris Broad, man of the series by dint of his three hundreds in five matches, would later write in his autobiography about the number of balls he and Bill Athey were able to leave on the opening morning, the tangible sense of a listing ship being righted, and the obvious frustration of Australia’s depleted and transitional attack. Broad made eight from 35 balls but, given the buildup, Australia had expected something more than 198 for two at the end of that first day.
They certainly hadn’t counted on Botham’s adrenal assault the following morning, emerging after two quick wickets to take Australia’s attack apart in the old, grand style. The high point of the match, and indeed the last six years of Botham’s international career, was the over from Merv Hughes in which he went from 97 all the way up to 119, the final boundary of a 22-run over a hook that rebounded halfway back to the square from the boundary fence. In four hours Botham made 138 off 174 balls, with 13 fours and four sixes and utterly transformed the mood of both teams in the process.
In the traditional fashion Johnson’s piece of newspaper waggery had been posted up in the dressing room beforehand. After their seven-wicket victory at Australia’s stronghold England had “Can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” T-shirts printed and over the course of the series they proceeded to successfully perform all three of these activities. Broad, a worthy international player of ungainly methods, had a series of unrepeatable brilliance, nudging, clipping and crunching his way to 489 runs at 69.57. Gladstone Small shared the first-innings wickets with Botham at Melbourne, but Dilley’s tempo-setting spell of swing bowling in the first Test was even more important. They even fielded brilliantly at times, John Emburey’s tumbling one-handed stunner at Perth during the one-day series taking the laurels as Channel Nine’s Classic Catch of 1986-87.
And so, nay-saying hacks duly dispatched, future ills safely staved off, England supporters could look forward to a future in which international cricket was dominated by the enduring talents of Broad, Small and James Whitaker, while fly-by-nights such as Steve Waugh, David Boon and Merv Hughes were consigned decisively to the dustbin of history. And this is of course the wider story here. For all the defiance of Gatting’s last-gaspers, this was not a galvanising victory for English cricket. Dig deeper and there is a broader sense of unchecked structural decline, and of two cricketing nations in contrasting states of retrenchment, one of which learned far more in defeat than the other did in victory.
If Botham, the departing great, embodies England’s victory, Waugh, the man lurking in the back of the photograph, speaks to the wider picture. Not that there was any real evidence in the series of what was to come from Waugh in his role as on-field curator of Australia’s decade of game-changing greatness. Waugh entered the series averaging 16 with the bat and 29 with the ball. He batted at No8 in the first Test and bowled 21 overs in the first innings. Aged 21 he was an all-rounder, a fill-in merchant, a work in progress. He wouldn’t score a Test hundred until the opening match of the next Ashes series three years later (the first of 32). But in an Australia team depleted, still, by the retirements of Gregg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, plus the absence of assorted rebel South Africa tourists, Waugh stood out as one of those players identified by Allan Border and Bob Simpson as a key part of the sustainable Test and one day future.
Australia may have reached a nadir: but it was a cinematically vigorous, grasp-the-moment kind of rock bottom. Australia knew they were in decline while England, in thrall to the grand-scale misdirection of Ashes triumph, would continue to drift. Their renaissance began even during this Ashes series, finding a spur in the fifth Test, won thrillingly on the final afternoon, and more noticeably in the World Cup the following year, when Waugh was there at the end as Australia beat England by nine runs in the final.
From there success was based on the complementary tides of a streamlined management, a well-ordered sense of single-mindedness, and above all of the generation of brilliant talents that were allowed to flower under the Simpson-Taylor axis in the early 1990s. Whereas England, a team without a plan, carried across the line by the dying momentum of enduring Beefiness, simply fell apart. They didn’t win another match until August 1988. They didn’t win another Ashes series until 2005. The next home Ashes saw 29 England players selected across five Tests compared to Australia’s 12 in a 4-0 thrashing of bewildering finality.
The Aussie team that arrived in England that year had been dubbed by the English media (yes: them again) as “possibly the worst side ever to tour England”. And yet in Mark Taylor, Geoff Marsh, David Boon, Dean Jones, Waugh, and Border they had a top six that would end up with a combined total of 112 Test hundreds while a thoroughly spooked and rudderless England simply hurled bodies into the fray – Alan Igglesden! Phil Newport! Kim Barnett! – like trench commanders on the Western Front whistling up the one-legged reservists.
Four more years on, and eight years on from Gatting’s Fancy Dress All-Sorts, that last Ashes triumph of the old order was already looking more like a kind of defeat. In 1994-95 an England squad containing Gatting and Graham Gooch (combined age: 78) were soundly beaten by opponents that had already morphed into an irresistibly streamlined force, with Waugh now the unsmiling prince of the middle order. On that tour England were finally reduced to fulfilling Johnson’s pre-emptive slur: much has been made of Michael Slater gobbling up DeFreitas’s opening delivery of the series, but Slater’s third boundary of his innings came from a Martin McCague full toss outside leg stump that was pretty much hurled over the rope by a sprawling Phil Tufnell. The following year Australia beat West Indies in the West Indies and the ascent to the peak from the bottom, and thereafter into one of the truly great teams, had been completed in double quick time.
And yet for all the sense of a gloss being placed on a deeply nurtured malaise, of an unearned triumphalism that served only those present and on their way out, it is impossible not to look back with fondness and even a little wide-eyed reverence at the outline of the Gatt Pack: those singlet-clad, big-haired big personalities, all hotel room japery, paunchy larks and a sense of unyieldingly pre-modern sporting machismo. For England this really was the last of the summer wine, one last jolly before the convulsions and disappointments of the decade to come.