Success in sporting events involves performing in front of audiences. Successful sportsmen have perfected the art of elevating their performance levels in the big arena, which ensure that their achievements and records would be remembered so long as the sport is alive. However, this also carries with it the flip side that once they retire from the field, the individuals are seldom remembered. To cite an example, Bjorn Borg was the hero of every tennis fan when he won five straight Wimbledon Championships during the 1970s but hardly anyone would know where he is today or what he does for a living. Similar is the case with most sportspersons, who are invariably forgotten once they are past their peak, though their achievements would be talked about in awe by the followers of the sport.
However, cricket offers a different picture in this regard as former players are provided opportunities for remaining in the public eye, thanks to the wide television audience before whom they appear as commentators. Many of the eminent former players and some of the not so successful ones have made a smooth transition from the cricket field to the commentators box, where their opinions are listened to with respect and their voices are recognised by millions of followers of the game.
Though some of the purists might show their consternation at the quality of comments on offer and the liberal use of hyperbole that is the norm these days, one should admit that this medium has helped some of the former players to wipe off from the public mind the not so pleasant memories associated with them during their playing days. Bill Lawry, who announced his retirement from commentary box last week, was one such cricketer who could use this medium to craft an entirely new image about himself in the minds of cricket lovers the world over.
Lawry was a left-handed opening batsman who led Australia in 25 Tests during the late 1960s and early 70s. As a batsman, he was known to be a dour and obdurate customer who eschewed all forms of flamboyance. He played the game hard, kept a high premium on his wicket, did not shy away from fast bowling and scored his runs at a niggardly pace. The bowlers loathed him and he was never the favourite of the crowds anywhere in the world.
His focus on resolute defence which limited his strokeplay to the very minimum earned him the sobriquet “the corpse with pads on” from a disapproving English journalist. However, he forged a successful combination with Bob Simpson and the pair is regarded as one of the best set of opening batsmen in Australian cricket history. And it was from Simpson that he took over as captain of the Australian side in 1967.
India were touring Australia in 1967-68 when Lawry took over the mantle as skipper of the national side. Under his leadership Australia retained the Ashes in 1968 and defeated the West Indies 3-1 in a five-Test home series.
He had settled down into his job when the side set off for the twin tours of India and South Africa in 1969-70. With a strong, well-balanced side under him, Lawry would have been looking ahead to a happy and successful series in two countries who were not expected to pose too much of a challenge to the Aussies.
However, the tour by Australia to India under Lawry would rank as the worst ever made by an international side to this country. Aussies were popular tourists and had been well received during their three previous visits to India. In the first place, they always sent their full strength sides, unlike England, who gave their senior players the option to sit out of a tour to the sub continent. Indian crowds loved the Australian cricketers who gave their best on the field without complaining about the weather, food and umpires. The gesture by Richie Benaud, who came out of the pavilion with his entire team to cheer the Indian side that won the Kanpur Test in 1959 had won the hearts of the fans in the country.
The side led by Simpson who toured during 1964-65 season had also played superb cricket and fans in the country were eagerly looking forward to the arrival of Lawry and his team.
Trouble in Mumbai
In the first Test of the series itself Lawry’s poor public relations skills came to the fore. Australia had taken a vital first innings lead of 74 runs and Indians, batting second, had collapsed to 89/7 when S Venkataraghavan joined Ajit Wadekar at the crease. The pair had added 25 runs when Venkat was given “out” by umpire Shambhu Pan on an appeal for caught behind off the bowling of Alan Connolly. It was evident to all players on the field that umpire had made a mistake as wicketkeeper Brian Taber had not even appealed. Though Venkat left the crease showing little annoyance, Devraj Puri, the commentator for All India Radio, made the startling announcement that umpire had made the wrong decision. This angered the Mumbai crowd who demanded that Lawry withdraw the appeal and call Venkat back.
Lawry not only did not accede to that request but insisted on continuing with the game even as chairs started being thrown into the field and police requested that play be stopped for some time to bring the situation under control. Bonfires were lit, stones and chairs were pelted on the ground and finally the players were forced to flee from the field and take refuge in the pavilion. Couple of Australian players were hit by flying missiles but fortunately none of them suffered serious injuries. Australia won the match by eight wickets the next day, which provoked another bout of throwing of missiles and chairs by the crowd. The general consensus was that Lawry could have shown better understanding of the situation and helped to defuse the crisis rather than add fire to it.
The next two Tests passed off without any trouble with India managing a draw at Kanpur and winning the one at Delhi. Thus the series was interestingly poised when the two sides met at Kolkata. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had protested against Doug Walters, the Aussie batsman, taking part in the match as there were reports that he had been conscripted for the Vietnam War. Posters appeared in the city against the players alleging that he had taken part in killing of women and children in Vietnam whereas the truth was that he had not been to that country at all! The hotel where the team stayed was also picketed by the protestors.
These tensions off the field might have added to Lawry’s already heightened worries. When the match was in progress crowd disturbances began mainly aimed at the administrators and organisers, as black marketing of tickets was rampant and many people had been duped into buying fake tickets. The ire of spectators reached its peak when the Indian batting collapsed in the second innings and spectators started invading the playing area.
Australia were set a target of 39 and were well on their way to scoring these runs when crowd invasion stopped play. During the ensuing melee, Lawry was seen pushing a press photographer to the ground with his bat. This incident resulted in the Australian captain becoming the centre of wrath of both spectators and the local press. Though Lawry tried to justify his position saying that he was only trying to prevent the photographer from entering the playing area, no one was willing to buy his words.
The tour ended in a 3-1 win for the visitors after they clinched the last Test at Chennai. However, by this time it was evident that both Lawry and the Indian fans were happy to see the back of each other. Hence there was plenty of rejoicing in the country when Aussies were humiliated by 0-4 margin in the Test series against South Africa that followed.
During the next season Lawry was sacked as captain by the selectors in a disgraceful manner, wherein the skipper had to learn the news of his removal, when the Ashes series against England was in progress, through radio. No tears were shed in India at this incident either.
Lawry played first class cricket for one more season before hanging his boots. But soon thereafter he made a successful entry into the world of broadcasting, first with the local channels, before moving to the Channel Nine network in 1977. He soon became a popular commentator and shed his image as a dull, dour and drab individual by developing an entertaining style of commentary. He was a constant fixture in the commentary box of Channel Nine for nearly 41 years before he finally announced his retirement.
The new generation of cricket fans in India would remember Lawry only as a brilliant commentator. Hence the obvious question that would follow is whether the followers of game from the previous generation are justified in recalling his actions during the tour of 1969-70 and continuing to judge him on that score? Lawry himself admitted his mistakes at one point of time when he wrote that any criticism that he received on account of his actions in India was right as he had developed an attitude that was ingrained in him by people who had toured there before.
It is only rarely that celebrities publicly admit to being prejudiced and confess their errors. It is to Lawry’s credit that he utilised the opportunities provided by the commentary box to transform his image from that of an unfriendly and obstinate character to a warm person who could convey the happenings on the field with passion and energy to the drawing rooms of the vast television audience.
Bill Lawry has done enough to win the love and appreciation of lovers of the game world over during his second innings in cricket. He deserves a big round of applause from the fans of the game in India as well when he bows out of the cricketing arena.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)