One hit wondering: The close defeats we celebrate

One hit wondering: The close defeats we celebrate

I’ve heard tale told of Balmain Tigers supporters who cannot bring themselves to even think about the 1989 league grand final, let alone watch the highlights of that harrowing ordeal.

So what kind of masochist am I to revel in the memory of Test matches we lost in the most agonising circumstances?

One hit! Just one good hit!

On four occasions, beginning in 1982 and ending in 2005, the Aussies, batting last, would have won had they managed to find the boundary one last time. It didn’t even have to be a good hit.

A perfectly executed cover drive would have been pleasing. But an edge through the slip cordon would have got the job done just as effectively. As would have a French cut, skimming over the bails, past the keeper, to a very fine leg boundary.

I’ll never forget Allan Border and Jeff Thompson.

I was only 14 years old during that epic 1982/83 Ashes summer. Cricket was my life and AB was one of my favourite batsmen.

Yet he had endured a wretched series and there were even pleas from the pundits that he should be dropped from the Australian XI. I was shattered when Ian Botham bowled him in the first innings for just two runs.

But then came that epic last wicket stand between AB and Thommo.

Starting on the fourth evening, with 74 to win, they recommended the next day with the target exactly halved to 37. I barely slept that night; such was my anticipation for the battle which might end with the very first ball of the day.

What transpired, however, was the most gut-wrenching, agonising and exalting cricket of my young life as Border and Thompson progressed – with scampered singles and summersaulted doubles – towards their unlikely target.

And when a Thompson waft flew to Chris Tavare at second slip – with just three runs to win – I prayed in the split-second available that the ball would travel through his fingers to the unprotected boundary. Hope was renewed when Tavare moved his hands, with the same somnolent alacrity he displayed when batting, and bunted the ball over his head.

But then all was lost. Geoff Miller swooped from his position at first slip and snatched the ball from a comfortable height, hurled it to the heavens before being chased from the ground by his euphoric teammates; displaying, to varying degrees, signs of unhinged ecstasy.

Though I was crushed by the defeat, my heart sang for the contest. I knew I had seen something extraordinary and I thought about little else in the days that followed.

Nor will I forget Australia Day in 1993.

By now I was 24 years old. I had started my professional career just several weeks earlier and this was the first time I had enjoyed a public holiday while in the paid workforce.

And what could be better than an Australian fourth innings run-chase? All we needed was 186 to win. Just 186 runs. But it had been a low scoring Test and the Windies were defending the crumbling edifice of their 15 years of world domination. Their backs were to that wall. And they played like it; that distant Australia Day.

At 2 for 54, we looked a decent chance. At 8 for 102, hope seemed extinguished. That we got within 1 run of a tie was remarkable; particularly given that it was Tim May’s 42 which almost got the boys home.

I’m still haunted by the sight of Craig McDermott turning his back to a rising delivery, the searching ball clipping his withdrawing bat – or, perhaps, the grill of his helmet – the West Indians sprinting in random directions and Courtney Walsh celebrating like a man overcome by demonic possession.

Again, I was crushed. I was too young to really remember the Windies being demolished in 75/76. I had waited most of my youngish life to celebrate an Australian series win over the West Indians. Whenever we seriously challenged, they seemed to always have our measure. To come so unconscionably close, and fall short, was just cruel.

Curtly Ambrose

But, again, I rejoiced in the contest; even if there appeared to be a little too much venom in the West Indian hullabaloo for my liking.

Then, just a year later, came the one which was, literally, thrown away.

That 1984 SCG Test was historic; not just became it was the first to feature South Africa since the end of Apartheid, but because it was my first as an SCG Member.

The narrow losses to England in ’82 and the Windies in ’93 involved strike and counter-strike – parry and riposte – and a heart-breaking wicket when a stirring fightback came so close to achieving an unlikely win.

But, against the South Africans in ’94, victory was thrown away.

Chasing 117 to win, Australia should have won comfortably. And it seemed that they would at 1 for 50 on the fourth evening. But three wickets before stumps left the Aussies nervously poised at 4 for 63.

Losing Border in first over of the fifth morning didn’t help! Allan Donald was so excited that he appealed to the umpire even though Border’s off stump was knocked back.

Allan Border batting

After that there seemed to be an inevitability about the outcome; Damien Martyn’s 100-minute vigil for 6 runs and McDermott’s counter-attacking 29 notwithstanding. So when Glenn McGrath popped up a return catch to De Villiers, it was akin to the full-stop at the end of this sentence. It was bound to happen.

By 2005, I was 36 and I’d been married for over a decade. But I was still a boy when it came to the magic of compelling cricket.

So, on that Sunday night in August, I watched nervously as the Aussies tried to score the remaining 107 runs they needed to win, with only 2 wickets in hand.

Now we were back to the traditional script. The Aussies battling hard, against enormous odds, to come within a cricket bat’s grip of winning when defeat seemed unavoidable. And, again, the heroes seemed unlikely: Shane Warne, Brett Lee and Kasprowicz prevailing when the batsmen had failed.

As with Thommo in ’82 and Billy the Kid in ’93, the final wicket fell to a catch behind the wicket. This time it was a ball looping from Kasprowicz’s glove to be caught by a diving Geraint Jones.

And as with ’82 and ’93 – the exception being ’94 because the circumstances were different – I found joy in the agony which accompanied the defeat.

Why do I have such fond memories of Test matches we lost?

With the exception of the SCG capitulation, perhaps because the Aussies fought hard – and with ingenuity and passion – to even come close. And that is worth celebrating.