The first recorded international game in the history of cricket was played between England and Australia in 1877 at Melbourne. Ever since, Australia has always been a dominant force in this sport, always figuring among the top two or three sides in contemporary world cricket. The only period when this supremacy was seriously threatened was during the mid 1980s when they were weakened considerably by the retirement of three brilliant cricketers - Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh. The resultant vacuum could not be filled quickly enough and this was further worsened by lack of a good leader at the helm. The regrouping of the team and resumption of their winning ways was made possible by the emergence of a new crop of tough cricketers, led ably from the front by a gutsy southpaw named Allan Robert Border.
In cricket, left-handed batsmen are generally considered the epitomes of style, as everything they do appears remarkably easy and elegant. This is true from club cricket onwards and the class of Brian Lara, Gary Sobers, Sourav Ganguly etc have been appreciated by the connoisseurs of the game world over. However, Border was an exception to this general rule but he more than made up for this by his qualities of guts, perseverance and determination, that he was blessed with in abundance. His rise to the top rungs of international cricket and the success he attained at this level stands as testimony that these old fashioned virtues are more important than talent and flamboyance.
Border was inducted to the national side in December, 1978, when Australia, depleted by the absence of their top players, who had joined the Kerry Packer sponsored World Series Cricket (WSC), were being given a pasting by England, their traditional rivals in the Ashes series. He showed the first signs of his tenacity and doggedness during his second Test, when he scored unbeaten knocks of 60 and 45 in the two innings in the game that his side lost by 93 runs. But he was dropped from the squad after a bad showing in the next Test only to be reinstated for the series against Pakistan that followed. He cemented his place with a brilliant innings of 105 that nearly took Australia to victory in the first Test and followed up with half-centuries in the next match. He did not look back after this and did not miss the next 153 Tests that Australia played, till his retirement from the game 15 years later!
Indian spectators had their first glimpse of Borderwhen the Australians, under Kim Hughes, paid a visit in September, 1979. In the first Test at Chennai, Border walked in at one drop and ground down the Indian attack with a patient innings of 162. He took a liking for the pitches in the sub continent, piling up a total of 521 runs in the six Tests that were played. This performance ensured that he was among the three players from this squad who found a place in the side which was bolstered by the return of top cricketers from WSC. He justified his selection by scoring a century in the second Test of the season, against England and followed this up with centuries in both innings while touring Pakistan later in the season. In 1980-81 season, when India visited Australia, he again came good with a innings of 124 in the first innings of the last game at Melbourne.
The years from 1981 to 1984 marked the twilight of the careers of Greg Chappell-Lillee-Marsh trio. As Chappell had announced that he would be playing only in home matches since 1980, Hughes, who had been groomed to take over the reins, was appointed to lead the side during the matches played abroad. Though he was an imaginative and shrewd skipper, Hughes could not always get the best out of the senior members of the side, especially Lillee and Marsh, who resented his elevation over their heads. Couple of defeats in close games during the Ashes tour in England in 1981, when Australia managed to snatch defeat the jaws of victory, added to his woes and undermined his confidence. Thus, Hughes was a shadow of his old assured self when he finally took over the mantle of captaincy, full time, after the retirement of the trio at the end of the 1983-84 season. A heavy, though not unexpected, defeat at the hands of the mighty West Indies on their home turf, which was followed by losses in the first two Tests of the return tour in Australia broke Hughes completely. He broke down during a press conference and announced that he was stepping down from captaincy.
Border had been appointed as deputy to Hughes before the start of the tour of West Indies in 1984-85. He was the only player who had emerged from the tour of West Indies with his reputation intact, scoring 521 runs, which was more than twice made by the next Aussie batsman. He had stood up courageously to the missiles hurled at him by the West Indian quicks without flinching and helped his side to draw the second Test, played at Trinidad, almost single-handedly. Hence the Australian selectors did not have to look afar while choosing the successor to Hughes and they immediately asked Border to lead the side. Though Aussies lost their first Test under Border at Adelaide, they fought back and won the last game of the series.
It was evident from the very beginning that Border would be a very different captain. He showed his mettle during the tour of India in the autumn of 1986, when he led his side skilfully to emerge with a drawn series. The first Test held at Chennai, which produced the second tied Test in the history of the game, saw Border at his best as he held his nerve during the last day, despite rising tensions and mounting stress levels. His experience of touring India and familiarity with the conditions in the sub continent helped him again next year when he took his side to the victory podium in the 1987 ICC World Cup. Australia had started as rank outsiders, with no one giving the side any chance of even reaching even the last four stage. But the Aussies played within their limitations, fought hard and maintained their cool in critical situations to emerge on top.
Though Australia tried valiantly to dislodge the West Indies from the top of international cricketing pyramid in Tests, they could not do so despite the best efforts put in by Border. However, Aussies outplayed England in the Ashes contest held in 1989, which was their first major away series win after 1977. They also defeated India 4-0 when the latter toured Down Under in 1991-92. They started as the favourites to win the 1992 ICC World Cup which was co-hosted by them with New Zealand. But the Aussies were in for a rude shock as they fared badly and failed to reach even the semifinals. A series of innovations brought into the game by the Kiwis stood out in glaring contrast with the old tried and tested methods of their neighbours across Tasman sea, and Border justifiably bore the blame for the poor show put up by the side.
Border continued to play for Australia for another couple of years till he retired from international cricket in April, 1994. During his last years he became the highest run-getter in Test cricket, surpassing Sunil Gavaskar.
He could also turn his left-arm over effectively and possessed the ability to pick up crucial wickets, like that of Mike Getting in the final of the1987 World Cup, when the game was tantalisingly balanced. He was a safe fielder and possessed a sharp throw which seldom missed the stumps. His last Test was against South Africa in Durban, where his unbeaten 42 in the second innings kept thwarted the attempt of the home side to win the series.
After his retirement, Border served as a national selector from 1998 till 2006, till his growing business commitments forced him to step down. The best Australian cricketer of the year is awarded the “Allan Border medal” and the winner of the Australia-India Test series is presented the Border-Gavaskar Trophy”. He is presently a member of the commentary team of Fox Sports Australia.
Border will be remembered as a cricketer who payed the game hard - he was hard on his opponents, he was harder on his colleagues but he was hardest upon himself. Numerous were the occasions when he had mounted rearguard actions with only tailenders for company, battling the best of the bowlers and often braving severe physical discomfort. He never yielded an inch nor sought any accommodation from his opponents.
During the 1989 Ashes campaign he famously asked his teammates to refrain from smiling at the opponents or showing any external signs of softness. Many felt that this was taking things too far, but Border remained undaunted. For him, cricket was a war and on the battle field one could afford to show signs of friendship only at one’s own peril!
Border would remain forever a role model for all those not blessed with truckloads of talent and natural elegance. His career stands as testimony to the old adage that success is 99 per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration, his achievements were built on the foundation of sweat, toil and grit.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)