Published on August 19th, 2017 | by Arunabha Sengupta0
CS Flashbak: Australia’s first ever Test match in ‘Bangladesh’
Only, it would not be called Bangladesh for another 12 years. In November 1959, it was still East Pakistan.
And on November 5, 15 Australian cricketers led by Richie Benaud, manager Sam Loxton, tropical diseases expert Dr Ian H McDonald, masseur Bill Mitchell, ABC commentator Michael Charlton and one solitary journalist in the form of Wally Pugh of Australian Associated Press, left Brisbane for the exotic subcontinent.
It was to be a long tour of Pakistan followed by India. The side halted two days at the Raffles Hotel of Singapore before proceeding directly to Dhaka, or Dacca as it was spelt then.
Captain Benaud was just 29. There were quite a few young guns in the side: Norman O’Neill aged 22, two bowlers with suspect actions Gordon Rorke, 21, and Ian Meckiff, 24; stumper Barry Jarman was just 23, and the chinaman bowler Lindsay Kline 25. But there was plenty of experience as well. Ray Lindwall was still around, aged 38, his powers waning but the charisma intact. There were the great names of Neil Harvey, 31, Wally Grout, 32, and the unparalleled Alan Davidson, 30. Apart from that a lot of cricketing years had been but in by the batting all-rounder Ken Mackay, 33, and opener Colin McDonald, 30.
In fact, the tropical diseases expert Doc McDonald was the brother of the opening batsman and a former Sheffield Shield player himself. And with the heat, humidity and hygiene factors prevalent in the subcontinent during those days, the medical man was perhaps the most important member of the touring party.
Dacca was ‘a steaming city that had literally been carved from the landscape after Partition.’ It was teeming with people, and the younger cricketers of the squad were left stunned when they arrived. As O’Neill remembered: “The drive from the airport to our hotel was something I’ll never forget. There were people everywhere. I have never seen such overcrowding.” He also had some rather stark observations about the way most people lived in shacks, without ‘heating, lighting, water, sanitation and so on.’
Benaud asked the bus driver to take them to the hotel via the Dacca Stadium. As he remembered, “The pitch square was beautifully green and wonderfully grassed. Except for the single strip of clay in the middle.”
It was obvious that the match would be played on matting.
On reaching the hotel, the cricketers were greeted by a welcoming party of spiders and lizards. They were on strict instructions with respect to food and drink. Doc McDonald had issued directives against tap water and salad and was in favour of black coffee and fried fish. It was not exactly the best sort of preparation for the cricket.
The Test also began rather inauspiciously on Friday the 13th. It was a sombre business. The pitch, with matting on the mud base, was slow, extremely slow. “I should never have played the match,” recalled Ian Meckiff. “The harder you bounced into this mat … the slower it came off.”
Benaud astutely dispatched Kline to the ground at dawn every day, to supervise the laying of the mat. According to Jack Pollard’s History of Australian Cricket Kline’s only instruction was to ensure the mat was tight when Australia batted. The Australian team supposedly reached the ground every day to hear Kline screaming, “Pull you @#!%$”
The din during the match was also unsettling for the cricketers. Rorke remembered, “Crowds are loud in Australia, but at least you get a lull between deliveries. There the noise was constant, like having a radio on at full blast in your ear all day. Even if you weren’t playing the match, it was exhausting.”
Yes, the Australian and English cricketers touring the subcontinent in those days had a lot of getting used to. The world was far from a global village in those days. Facilities were far from standardised.
Benaud won the toss and sent the Pakistanis in. Davidson had Ijaz Butt caught behind with only three on the board. But then Hanif Mohammad shared useful stands Saeed Ahmed and the debutant Anglo-Pakistani Duncan Sharpe. The home side crawled to 146 for four at the end of Day One.
On the second day, Davidson and Benaud plugged away and the hosts were all out for 200. But they consumed 106 overs while getting those runs.
And when Australia batted, the great Pakistani fast bowling pioneer Fazal Mahmood, captaining the team, went on the attack. With new ball partner Israr Ali and the young left-arm spinner Nasim-ul-Ghani lending hands, Les Favell was dismissed early and McDonald, O’Neill and Peter Burge were dismissed within 2 runs of each other. It was 53 for 4 and the Australians were struggling in alien conditions.
However, this was the moment when Harvey played one of his most fascinating innings. More remarkable because the left-hander was suffering from a temperature and a rather pronounced bout of dysentery. In his own words:
“We’d been at the trade commissioner’s the night before and I hadn’t pulled up too well. But as I was putting the pads on, I heard the shout for Les Favell getting out, so I was in straight away. I was feeling so bad when I got out there that I couldn’t lift my head up. But because the ball was only bouncing about two feet off the ground, that wasn’t so bad: it kept me playing forward, where normally I went back a bit just as the bowler let go, and helped me survive. The crowds were quite amazing, really. They’d been pretty quiet when we were bowling, but when we batted the noise was just constant. You could hardly hear the other guy call. It was hard work, grinding cricket.”
Harvey remained unbeaten on 80 at the end of the second day, even as Australia limped to 125 for 5. The following day he was the eighth out for 151, after a magnificent innings of 96.
ABC commentator Charlton was fascinated: “Neil must have been to the toilet about eight times during the innings. I know because the commentary box was directly above the toilet and I’d see him hurrying towards me, disappear into the rooms, hear the chain being pulled. And then this slightly wan figure would totter out again.”
Australia managed to obtain a crucial 25-run lead due to a fighting innings of 66 by Grout. Fazal Mahmood ran through the latter part of the innings, but the slim lead proved pivotal.
Ken Mackay, bowling cutters, proceeded to produce the best bowling figures of his career. Not only did he pick up 6 wickets, they came in exchange of just 42 runs from 45 overs. And of course Benaud did his bit with his leg-spin, picking up 4 for 42, including the Mohammad brothers Hanif and Wazir.
Requiring 110 to win, Australia got the runs easily enough, for the loss of just two wickets. However, more than the victory they rejoiced at the discovery of canned meat in the hotel block. Rorke recalls, “Some guys found a tin of pressed meat, camp pie. And we opened the can like it as the first time any of us had seen food. Then we cut it up into twenty slices. Gee, we were hungry. It was like being prisoners of war.”
Pakistan 200 (Hanif Mohammad 66, Duncan Sharpe 56; Alan Davidson 4 for 42, Richie Benaud 4 for 69) and 134 (Richie Benaud 4 for 42, Ken Mackay 6 for 42) lost to Australia 225 (Neil Harvey 96, Wally Grout 66; Fazal Mahmood 5 for 71) and 112 for 2 (Colin McDonald 44*) by 8 wickets.