‘Consequential, controversial and possibly most infamous of all time’: Revisiting Australia-Pakistan rivalry from 1979

Two-Test series seem to be commonplace nowadays, much to the dismay of the traditionalists amongst us who say that they are too short and inconsequential and easily forgotten.

However, on the eve of another visit to Australia by Pakistan, I thought it would be interesting to revisit a series between these teams 45 years ago that will always be remembered for anything but.

It may have only consisted of two Tests, completed in a 19-day span, but it went down in history as one of the most consequential, controversial and possibly infamous of all time.

To give it proper context, it was played in late March 1979 at the end of summer featuring a long six-match Ashes series where basically an Australian third XI was annihilated by a strong English team under Mike Brearley.

While this series was going on, Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket was finally establishing itself as the main event with the best players competing in fierce battles and winning the battle of money and eyeballs.

For reasons that are not quite clear to me, this series was not only added on late into the season but it was agreed that Pakistan would be allowed to play all of its ‘Packer players’ if they wished, while Australia would still be fielding a weakened team.

This meant that Pakistan would start firm favourites as it had only been two years since they had tied a series with the best Aussie XI.

From a personal point of view, I was 10 years old and this was the first summer for my family in Australia. I had developed an affinity for the young Australian players and wanted to see them do well. Kim Hughes was rapidly becoming my favourite player but players like Allan Border, Kevin Wright and of course, Rodney Hogg were making a real impression on me.

I do not remember too much of the first part of the first Test apart from the fact that both teams scored less than 200 but there was an interesting incident towards the end of the Australian first innings.

Hogg was run out when he wandered down the pitch to do a bit of “gardening” and there was a bit of a commotion as it appeared the captain Mushtaq Mohammed was going to recall him – but this was denied by the umpires and Hogg had to walk off.

What stuck out in my 10-year-old mind was Hoggy smashing the stumps as he walked off as I had never seen anyone do that before on the sporting field. I might add that this was before a certain Mr McEnroe had made his mark on the tennis courts – but I will not deny that I was not as appalled by it as others were.

In the second innings, Pakistan scored 353 anchored by a hundred from their superb opener Majid Khan and Australia began their innings needing 382 to win. To be honest, no one really gave them much hope.

However, I remember coming home from school on day five and the Aussies were 3/300 and only required another 80-odd runs with Border and Hughes going strong.

#OnThisDay in 1979, Pakistan’s Sarfraz Nawaz bowled one of the finest spells in Test history against Australia at the MCG.

With Australia on 305/3, Nawaz took seven wickets for one run in 33 balls – Australia were all out for 310, and he finished with figures of 9/86! ???? pic.twitter.com/WgNwvL092t

— ICC (@ICC) March 15, 2019

Border was bowled by Sarfraz Nawaz for 105 but it seemed like Australia should walk this until Sarfraz proceeded to take 7/1 in a stunning spell and give Pakistan one of its most famous wins overseas by 71 runs.

What we did not know then but were to find out in later years was that this was the first real demonstration of the cricketing world of reverse swing bowling and how devastating it could be. It would take a while to catch on but once it did, cricket has never been the same again.

In the week before the second Test, the Australian captain Graeme Yallop tore his calf muscle in a grade match and had to withdraw from the Test.

In a move that would have long-term consequences for Australian cricket, his deputy Kim Hughes, all of 11 Test matches and with the experience of having captain two first-grade games was now the 37th Test captain in a match at his home city of Perth.

The second Test would end up becoming a truly classic game with Australia chasing down a tough target late on Day Five.

Australia began their innings needing 236 to win the game and draw the series and the one over available before lunch was to take Imran Khan seven minutes to bowl.

By this time, Hughes had injured himself in the nets and the captaincy duties had fallen onto the shoulders of the new vice-captain, Andrew Hilditch who was playing just his third Test.

https://t.co/Inw9gwSTVN You have to see this to believe it

— Gulu Ezekiel (@gulu1959) December 6, 2023

Hilditch was to make more news when after taking part in an opening partnership of 87, he was at the non-striker’s end when he bent down to pick the ball up and return it to the bowler Sarfraz and instead of a thank you, he was to see the bowler appealing and the umpire give him out.

He remains the only player to ever be out for handling the ball at the non-striker’s end and caused my 10-year-old brain to become totally scrambled.

Despite this setback, the Aussies were to keep fighting and despite Rick Darling being run out for 79, Border and the 30-year-old debutant Jeff Moss were to lead them to a memorable seven-wicket which finished around 8pm on the East Coast (on a school night for me).

What we did not know then was that this would be the last home Test to be shown exclusively on the ABC network.

The series ended 1-1 but the significance of the series was to be felt in both the immediate and the long term. To start with, this series was played amidst the backdrop of a possible compromise between the then Australian Cricket Board and World Series Cricket.

Kerry Packer was invited to have lunch with the ACB during the first Test and famously turned up wearing a Pakistani tie as he did not have an Australian one.

Kim Hughes was a dashing strokemaker for Australia. (Photo by Murrell/Allsport/Getty Images)

Within six weeks, the compromise was announced and Channel 9 would be covering international cricket in Australia and WSC would fold.

The big boys would be available for selection for the next summer which meant that the team would look very different by the time the next Test in Australia came. Cricket would never be the same again and yet it was also very exciting for a 10-year-old boy to look forward to.

Many of the Australian players in this series would never play a Test at home again but for Border, this series was to be the first step in his journey to becoming one of Australia’s greatest batters and captains and eventual legend status.

Before he would ascend to the captaincy, there would be the travails of another player from this series, Hughes who would go through extreme highs and lows.

From the Pakistani point of view, this series was to start the process of transition as outstanding veterans such as Mushtaq Mohammed, Majid Khan, Asif Iqbal, Sarfraz Nawaz and Wasim Bari would gradually depart the scene and a team would develop under the stewardship of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad.

While the next generation would take Pakistan to greater heights and glory culminating in a memorable night in Melbourne 13 years later, they are still waiting for their first Test series win in Australia – perhaps this might happen over the next four weeks.

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As we have seen, this series introduced us to reverse swing, handled the ball, unusual run outs, Mankadding, and questionable behaviour mixed in with some outstanding cricket under the shadow of major commercial deals off the field and we are still having similar conversations almost five decades later.

And all of that happened during a two-Test series, which finished in a draw.

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