Summer cricket series: Bob Simpson’s second innings

06_Summer cricket series_ Bob Simpson_s second innings

And finally, we come to Simmo. It had to end here. This is where Australian cricket began again.

Whatever you make of him (and there’s no shortage of cricket people with strong opinions), the bald facts of Bob Simpson’s comeback are astounding.

To set the scene: cricket at the highest level is rent by a breakaway competition that takes the bulk of the best players. A man whose last Test ??? whose last first-class game, for that matter ??? was played almost a decade earlier comes out of retirement to captain the diminished establishment team. He is 41. Forty-one.

In the first series of the game’s new world, he leads a mostly anonymous gathering of state cricketers to a 3-2 series win over a strong Indian team. He averages 54 over the five Tests with two hundreds, including 176 in Perth.

Kids in back yards and school playgrounds stop pretending they’re Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee or Rod Marsh and become David Ogilvie, Sam Gannon and Steve Rixon. They skip down the wicket and imagine they’re Bob Simpson. Who’s 41. Forty-one.

He’s 78 now, and he and Meg live within a spit of Sydney’s Olympic Park, in an apartment that housed Korean athletes during the 2000 Olympic Games. The neighbourhood is sprinkled with avenues honouring great Olympians ??? Nadia Comenici, Alexander Popov, Emil Zatopek. A stroll to the shops takes them along Larisa Latynina Walk.

There’s no Paul Hibbert Parade. Or Rick Darling Drive. No Tony Mann Mews. Not even a Peter Toohey Terrace. But to someone whose career spanned more than 40 years as a player, captain, commentator and revolutionary coach, these men are more than quirky entries in Wisden’s endless columns. They’re part of Simpson’s story, the men who played in Packer’s shadow.

“They were very special in a way,” he says. “Deep down I probably knew we were on a hiding to nothing.”

Surely nobody more so than the 41-year-old captain. Twenty-three men made their Australian debut in the 24 Tests played by the traditional team during the two years of World Series Cricket. Most of them probably wouldn’t have been picked if Kerry Packer had stuck to running newspapers, magazines and television stations and left cricket alone. This was their opportunity.

For someone who by his own account was answering duty’s call (aged 41, in case you’ve missed it), the potential for legacy-altering disaster was huge.

Simpson had averaged 48 in 52 Tests to January 1968 and added 738 runs at just under 39 in a five-month second coming that began in December 1977.

“No idea. It wouldn’t have been too bad though,” he says when asked if he knows the latter figure. His batsman’s bottom line dropped to 46.8 from 62 Tests; he seems comfortable that’s a small price to pay.

On a wall in his study, among the photos, framed scorecards, Australian crests cut from tour blazers and other reminders of a life playing a game, is a sketch by cartoonist Frank Benier. The central figure is surrounded by tots half his size; one is wearing a nappy, another sucks a dummy, a third holds an icy pole.

The bravest of them, cricket trousers hitched up to his armpits, raises a hand and asks, “Please, Mr Simpson, if we’re playing the Indians, can we be the cowboys?”

The man who asked Simpson to play the Indians was hard to turn down. They were having a long lunch in a restaurant next to Australia Square and Don Bradman told him he hadn’t been keen on playing for Australia again after the war, that he had to be persuaded of his country’s need for a strong leader against England in 1948.

“He said, ‘Bob, you’re in the same boat now as I was then. There’s a need for someone of standing to come back now and take over the young Australian team’.”

Simpson returns several times to the reason he believed he could satisfy Bradman without embarrassing himself. “I was still doing well in club cricket, still making as many runs as anybody, could still catch and bowl, so I agreed to do it.”

He proudly declares to have never set foot in a gym in his life, maintains that he got fit for cricket by playing cricket. He thinks the game at district or grade level is in “a terrible situation now”, says he never missed a game. “Even if I’d come  back from a tour of England, I knew what matches were on and I’d just turn up.”

Before the great leap he upped his practice regime, played three games for New South Wales ??? including the tour match against India, in which he made half-centuries in each innings ??? and went to the Gabba confident.

Asked how the team for the first Test was picked (it included six debutantes and only he and Jeff Thomson had double-figure Test histories), he offers: “I would think with a great deal of trepidation.” He says selectors Sam Loxton, Neil Harvey and Phil Ridings asked for his views but he had little say in the make-up of the team.

His recall of the players under his charge varies. Wayne Clark was “a very fine bowler, surprised everyone with his pace”. Also “just the sort of person I liked to have in my team, would not give up”. Of the late Paul Hibbert, who played his only Test in Brisbane, Simpson says: “Didn’t know him at all. Nice strokemaker.” David Ogilvie was “an interesting chap, keen on the game, very good catcher, as good as I’ve seen”. Steve Rixon and Peter Toohey played for his club, West Sydney, so he knew them well.

He acknowledges it must have been hard for Craig Serjeant, his vice-captain who had played only three Tests. Thomson was “a great help, knew more about the game than he was prepared to admit”.

Simpson’s previous Test, in Sydney in January 1968, had been against an Indian team that featured Bishan Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna. And here they were again, in the company of great names like Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Viswanath, Chandrasekhar.

Of his team he reflects: “If you’ve got a bunch of people who are keen to be cricketers, it’s a hell of a start for them.” He told them to enjoy it, take advantage of their good fortune, that many second-choice sportspeople had gone on to great things.

He was dirty on himself for sweeping Bedi into Gavaskar’s hands in the first innings but made 89 in the second and went to Perth “knowing I could do it again”. He’d spent three seasons playing for WA early in his career, made big scores there. No matter that he was 41, he batted across the second and third days and made 176.

The series stays with him for two reasons that prompt ardent recall: the spirit it was played in and the fact that it comfortably outdrew WSC for crowds. “Bish and I were very close, I think that helped enormously. There’s some blokes you associate with, aren’t there? Bish was such a decent person. Could bowl, too.”

Australia won the first two Tests, lost the next two but triumphed in Adelaide after bringing in another four newbies. A fortnight later they were playing a tour game in the Caribbean, but Simpson (who by then was 42) scoffs at the notion he might by then have been keen for a breather. “I’m not that sort of person.”

He hadn’t put a timeframe on the length of his veritable second dig as an Australian cricketer but reflects that he thought he’d be letting his young team down if he didn’t go to the West Indies. In the first two Tests, the home team allowed its WSC signings to play. “It was a bit daunting,” he says, adding that anyone who says they like facing real express-pace bowling is telling a lie.

“Very, very awkward,” is how he described the tour, against a backdrop of “so much going on”, and against an opponent “that wanted to kill us”. On Australia’s 1965 tour he’d made a century against Barbados as Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith bowled 27 bouncers in the first hour; now he repeated the feat, only with Wayne Daniel taking aim at his head.

He wasn’t so prosperous in the Tests but appreciated the reception from the locals, who cheered him all the way to the wicket in the series opener in Port Of Spain. “I think the public respected the fact that I was trying to do a job.”

The series was lost 3-1, which would surely have been 3-2 but for a crowd disturbance that denied Simpson’s team in the last Test in Jamaica after Vanburn Holder showed his displeasure at being given out caught behind, the ninth West Indies wicket to fall. “He was very naughty, Vannie, he belted the shit out of it.”

It meant that Simpson’s Test career finally ended, more than 20 years after it had begun, being escorted off the ground by riot police.

Broadly, his recall of that tumultuous time is bound in shoulder-shrugging, duty calls dismissal. He and Meg were running a sports marketing company, which included managing the odd cricketer, their two daughters were in mid and late secondary school. When their 41-year-old father headed off to again become a cricketer, everyone just got on with it.

Of the pervading mood he says it didn’t feel like a split; later, he admits it affected some relationships. Personally, he was disappointed by the reaction of some old teammates. “A couple of blokes I had to stop and say ‘Hey!’ or they would have just walked on by.”

He knew Packer quite well, liked him, remembers a business meeting where his plans came up without speficicity. He thinks the media mogul respected that he maintained that confidence. After his two hundreds in the India series, Packer sent him congratulatory telegrams. He adds: “I didn’t necessarily believe a private entrepreneur should be running cricket.”

Money is the obvious change the revolution brought but Simpson doesn’t think much else has. He reckons very few sportspeople were well paid at the time, anyway, says the players “weren’t being ripped off, that’s just the way it was”. He chuckles to think that “for such a peaceful game like cricket, there’s been a lot of controversy”.

He thinks in general he was respected by his players. “There’s always a couple of people you thought could have done a bit more, a few little niggles about certain things.” He imagines they had their doubts to begin with, “but once I started to get some runs I think they thought, ‘Jesus, the old bastard can still play a bit’.”

Simpson says it’s funny how the memory is clear on certain things … “not always the pleasant things either”. He slips momentarily on his age, perhaps a reaction to the diet Meg has him on (“today’s the big day ??? no bread even!”).

“Born in ’36, that’s 80 isn’t it?”

If he was right, Bob Simpson would have been 43 when he came back and captained Australia. And that would be an even better story.


This article was written by Peter Hanlon from The Age and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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