Cricket interview

Geoff Lawson, former Australia Fast Bowler

We’ve recounted many Ashes stories and battles throughout our series of interviews with formers players and coaches and we’re going to add to the list this month, but this time with a twist. This month we’re stepping into enemy territory and interviewing an Australian! A former fast bowler who during his career took an impressive 97 Ashes wickets. And that man is Geoff Lawson.

Geoff and I caught up immediately prior to the current one-day series between the two sides, so while we couldn’t comment on that series, I had to begin by getting his views on Sandpaper gate and where Australian cricket is right now...

“Well, the national team lost its way a bit and they have been forced to look at what they’ve been doing, which has not been good,” commented Geoff. “But, it’s not just the team, it’s the management, the administrators and the board. They all need to look at where they are taking the game. It’s definitely a transitional period at the moment. Australians love their Test cricket and so we will come back. We just need to find the acceptable way we want to play, both on and off the field. The positive thing for me is there is an underlying strength in State cricket where we have a few players beginning to make their mark. So, we’ll get sorted.”

Throughout the 1980s Geoff was one of the first names on Australia’s team sheet and if it wasn’t for injuries he would surely have added to the 180 Test wickets that he ultimately achieved. But where did the road to the baggy green begin for this tearaway fast bowler from the country.

“I was born in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales and as a youngster I used to love watching Dennis Lillee run in and bowl. He was definitely my role model in the playground where we used to play cricket every recess and lunchtime. In fact, I used to think I was Dennis Lillee just running in and bowling fast! Who would have thought then, that years later, I would be bowling alongside him!”

Geoff’s playground cricket soon developed into more series games and his path to the New South Wales first team was a short one. “I played a lot of representative cricket when I was a kid, but I was lucky enough to play first grade cricket up in Sydney when I went to university. That was a good standard. Our captain was Chris Rogers’ father and the father of Sam Robson, who went on to play for England – something I still don’t get! – was also in the team. I then got selected for New South Wales’ under 21 side. We played a lot of interstate carnivals which could be pretty taxing for a 19-year old. And then World Series cricket came along.”

In 1977, media tycoon Kerry Packer formed a breakaway professional cricket competition, World Series Cricket. It was a tournament that tore apart the sport around the world as a number of the world’s best players opted to play in this competition rather than represent their countries. For Geoff, it was an opportunity. With many of Australia’s team banned, state sides around Australia were searching for new young talent to fulfil fixtures.

“World Series Cricket took away a number of top players and with the vacancies opening up, I managed to secure one. My club team mate Greg Watson also got a deal at New South Wales, so suddenly there were the two of us opening up the bowling for our State. If I’m honest I’m not sure I was ready to be playing first class cricket at that stage, but then we were all inexperienced. My captain was only playing his second game!”

I asked Geoff if this early introduction to first class cricket sped up his development? “Yes and no. I wasn’t getting the opportunity to learn from experienced players. That happened in Test cricket when World Series ended. I bowled with Dennis Lillee and that was a great learning experience, but I didn’t get that in my first years at New South Wales. That said it did test you out if you’re good enough. But it would have been nice to have had some experience around the group.”

Geoff got his first sight of England/Australia hostilities in a tour match for New South Wales in 1978. A match that saw Geoff appear in the following day’s papers after a bouncer barrage at Geoffrey Boycott!

“That was me being a rat bag fast bowler rather than playing to the context of the game! The back story was I was batting at number ten and Bob Willis was sledging me. I’d played a few good shots and he then bowled a bouncer at me. I ducked it and then he pitched the next one up which I hit straight to mid-off and got caught. He mouthed me off which I thought was totally unnecessary to a young number 10 in a tour game. We were getting heavily beaten and England just had to come out and score 2 runs to win the game by 10 wickets. The captain said to me, not to worry about bowling he’d just get a batsman to bowl some balls so we can just get off the field. I looked at him angrily and said no, give me the ball. It was 8 ball overs in those days. So, Boycott was facing up, the first ball was pitched up and the next three were all bumpers. The fourth one he gloved off his face and over second slip’s head to win the game. The umpire warned me for intimidatory bowling, even though the game was over! I didn’t expect it to make all the headlines the following day. But I was just a competitor and a competitor who was frustrated that we’d lost the game.”

Geoff’s competitive nature didn’t go unnoticed by the selectors and in 1979 he was called up into Australia’s squad that was touring India.

“I got pulled out of club cricket and went over for the last three weeks of the tour because of an injury. Kim Hughes had said he liked how I could bowl fast. I didn’t have a clue - I just played the game. So, I went to India for three weeks. I almost made by debut at Eden Gardens but in the end, they went with the spinners which was fair enough.”

The following year, despite the return of players from World Series Cricket, the selectors had seen enough of Geoff to select him for his Test debut against New Zealand.

I asked Geoff, what that was it like suddenly appearing alongside his boyhood hero Dennis Lillee? “It was quite surreal. But he gave me fantastic encouragement. I was out there, this kid from the country, playing with arguably the greatest fast bowler of all time. I didn’t really learn technical stuff from the likes of Dennis and Thommo, but you more learnt the preparation that was needed to be successful at the top level, the attitude you need and game sense and game presence.”

It wasn’t long before Geoff’s Ashes tales begun.

“1981 was my first Ashes Series.”

Everyone in England knows about 1981, but what was that series like from an Australia perspective?

“We actually played some pretty good cricket on that tour. People sum it up as Botham’s Ashes, but we won that first Test and played some good cricket throughout the tour. We played pretty well for most parts of that Headingley Test! I also thought Willis should have been named man of the match because it was his bowling that blew us away. But I guess that’s a bowler talking! When you break the series down, we won that first Test; they won a remarkable game at Headingley; we were close at Edgbaston and the series ended up being 3-1 yet it so easily could have been 2-2, but people judge you on the final result.”

18 months later and Geoff took 34 wickets as a ‘Lillee-less’ Australia won back the Ashes. Was it good to exact revenge after that 81 series? “I hate it when people talk ‘revenge’. Every time you walk on to a field you want to win. You don’t think revenge. You just want to win a session, a day, a Test match and then the series. At the end of the series you might think, ‘we’ve won back the Ashes’. But it’ll never make up for losing the 81 series. The theory of revenge in any sport, doesn’t sit that well with me.”

Geoff’s performances in that series were key to Australia retaining the urn. “Dennis Lillee was out injured, Terry Alderman had got hurt so we ended up with a very different attack. So, I guess to a degree I had to be the one to step up. But everyone bowled well. It was a good series. Both teams played some good cricket and it was close. I got given the new ball which gave me the chance to get some early wickets throughout.”

And any stand out spells? “My favourite Test was probably Adelaide. Not the spell necessarily, but because I had to bowl really hard on a very flat wicket, in hot, dry conditions. Bob Willis won the toss and strangely sent us in. For a number of years, I was the only genuine all-rounder in Australia. So, I batted at number four in the first innings and number three in the second dig, as well as opening the bowling. A memorable Test. But from a bowling ‘spell’ perspective it was the Sydney Test and getting Tavare, Lamb and Randall out in an over. That was electrifying, and the crowd went berserk!”

England won back the Ashes in 1985 under David Gower, despite Geoff’s 24 wickets, and retained the urn 18 months later when Mike Gatting and his team secured a famous 2-1 win down under in a series that Geoff admits England fully deserved. Although an umpiring mistake in the Oval Test of 85 still irks him to this day!

“In 1985 we had a depleted squad. 16 players went off to South Africa for a rebel tour, so nearly all our first-choice batsmen and bowlers were lost, but we still played some good cricket. The series was 1-1 at Edgbaston when a really poor umpiring decision went against us. That decision cost us the Test match. We batted really well and were on our way to saving the game when Wayne Phillips was given out, caught off David Gower’s boot, but everyone could see it had bounced. The umpires had a discussion but gave it out and that was that; we were 2-1 down. Yet we still headed to the Oval knowing that if we won, we’d retain the Ashes.” It wasn’t to be, and Gower’s men held the urn aloft.

“I only played the one Test match in Perth in that 86/87 series due to injury, but England played very, very well. Gatting captained well and they had a good team. We were inexperienced, and they fully deserved to win the series.”

And then came 1989. England went into that series as firm favourites, but a different Australia turned up on our shores and Allan Border’s men didn’t just regain the Ashes they destroyed us – with Geoff taking another 29 wickets as he formed a formidable bowling attack with Merv Hughes and Terry Alderman.

“When we came to England in 1989 everyone wrote us off. You only had to read the English newspapers to get motivation. They were quite disparaging. We ended up playing some damn fine cricket. It was an interesting series because England had a good side. But they had off the field issues, and I think it was after the 4th Test that a number of their players announced they were going on a rebel tour, but we’d won the Ashes by then. England honestly did have a good side on paper, but we had Merv Hughes steaming in and Steve Waugh making his hundreds and our catching was great. To be honest it surprised us that we won like that, but if it wasn’t for rain and thunderstorms at Edgbaston and the Oval we could have won 6-0. It was just good tough Test cricket and England couldn’t cope with it.”

Since that series both sides have experienced the highs and lows of Ashes cricket. Currently, neither side appears to be able to win away but as Geoff says, losing series doesn’t make you a bad side.

“It doesn’t take much to lose a Test match. You only need to be off the case mentally just a little bit and you can lose a Test. That’s what happened with England recently against Pakistan at Lords. They were off mentally, and they ended up getting hammered. It doesn’t mean a team is a bad side, but you have to concentrate all the time in Test cricket. And momentum is a big thing especially now when series are so short, it can be hard to put an end to a losing run. It shows you what a tough mental challenge Test cricket really is. It’s such a phenomenal sport. Is there a better game that tests everything you’ve got mentally and physically over 5 days and then over a series? The physical, mental and skill challenges are enormous. Test cricket really is an aptly named sport.”

Speaking of tough Test cricket, I asked Geoff what it was like facing the might of the West Indies during that period. “That was brutal cricket. I remember we played them in 10 successive Test matches; five in Australia, followed by five in the West Indies. I think we got beat 6-1 overall, which I thought was a pretty good effort! It was brutal. There were no bouncer limits in those days and they had unbelievable fast bowlers. We had some good cricketers, but we were made to look to ordinary against that attack. They bowled fast, caught everything and they had a world-class batting line-up. Yet, I loved competing against them. They were hard to beat and arguably one of the greatest sides of all time, but I had a pretty good record against them."

And what were some of Geoff’s other Test match highlights during his career? “I bowled well in Pakistan in 1982 in what were pretty tough conditions. The conditions were alien to me and I think I lost 8 kilos in that series. I didn’t get ill but just bowled so much and didn’t eat that much! We got beat by a very good Pakistan team, but I was happy with how I played. Half of my Test wickets were against England, but with the bat I did made 74 at Lords with Steve Waugh. I threw away a Test hundred according to my team-mates. I was trying to get a hundred in a session and got out 26 runs shot with 20 minutes to go, caught on the boundary!”

Away from international cricket, Geoff enjoyed a successful domestic career with New South Wales and captained the side from 1988-1992, a period which culminated in a Sheffield Shield win in his final season. “I loved captaining New South Wales. I used to walk out as captain with Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, Michael Bevan, Mike Whitney and Greg Matthews behind me. It was a pretty good team that wasn’t that hard to captain! We were all super competitive, pretty skilful, enjoyed each other’s company and most importantly played some good cricket.”

Geoff retired following that Sheffield Shield win; I asked him when he reflects back on his playing career who were some of the toughest batsmen he had to bowl to? “There were a few. Javed Miandad in Pakistan, Viv Richards anywhere in the world, David Gower, Sunil Gavaskar, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes as an opening partnership; there were a number. Viv would be number one though, he was so destructive.”

And the best players he played with? “Allan Border for his toughness and tenacity and ability to gets runs under pressure. I played a lot of cricket with AB. Steve Waugh was also irrepressible with the bat and Merv Hughes never gave in, he was a tough, tough bowler.”

Best captain? “Difficult. I had time for them all. Kim Hughes was fantastic, and I learnt so much under Allan Border’s tenure.”

Following his retirement from playing, Geoff had a few coaching roles and went into the media writing for the Sydney Herald newspaper and commentated for ABC, but in 2007 came an opportunity to coach in international cricket and Geoff was named Pakistan head coach.

“I coached New South Wales in the mid 90s then move into the media. I did some private coaching, but I had no great desire to be a team coach. I was quite happy doing commentary for ABC and writing a column for the Sydney Herald, which I still do today. Then out of the blue I got an offer to coach Pakistan, I initially said no but then circumstances transpired and there I was. I had a great time. Pakistan is a fascinating country with some wonderful people. We had players like Misbah who was a great influence on the group and he helped me immeasurably. I look at them now and they are playing much more consistently and have lost that unpredictability. Micky Arthur is doing a great job and they are playing some really good cricket. When I was there we had some good young players coming through and enjoying their game. We just had to give them the right environment to play in. We reached the first T20 world final in my time there and I was also the coach when Pakistan last toured India.”

Now that must have been an interesting tour? “It was great. The Indian crowds were fantastic they had great respect for all of the Pakistan players. The cricket was intense but the way our players were treated by the Indian crowds was fantastic and a real eye-opener. I just hope more countries will get back touring Pakistan because it’s such a hospitable country and the people love their cricket.”

I know that’s something a number of the Addis would concur with after they visited the country for England’s 2005 tour.

Geoff’s stint in charge of Pakistan didn’t go unnoticed in India where he was named head coach of a new IPL franchise in 2011, the Kochi Tuskers Kerala. “It was a brand new franchise but unfortunately we only had one season. We had to put a squad together from scratch and we had some useful players - Jayawardena, Murali, Jadeja, Srikanth, Brendan McCullum and Brad Hodge. It was a good side but owing to problems with the BCCI we only had one year, which was such a shame.”

Cricket has changed a great deal since Geoff was running up to bowl to England’s batsmen that I wanted to get his take on cricket today. “Obviously T20 is now on the scene and I was involved as a coach at the IPL and I’m currently on the coaching staff at the Sydney Sixers; it’s a great circus and I mean that in a positive way. I think it’s been wonderful for the game. The amount of families that come in school holidays for the Big Bash is huge. It’s fabulous. And there’s definitely a place in the game for T20 cricket. But, Test cricket is still the ultimate and I believe it is still strong. It’s strong in England, it’s strong in Australia and strong in India. New Zealand has a good Test side and Pakistan are playing very well. The only people who predict the death of Test cricket are certain marketing people who think that it’s a bit slow. It’s a great game. I don’t care about the pace. With Test cricket you have the chance to watch, to think, to decide. The fan can get involved with what happens next. You also have a fairer contest between bat and ball that you don’t necessarily get in T20 cricket. When you get a true contest in Test cricket, it’s absorbing you can’t get that in other formats or sports. Test cricket can have you on the edge of your seat a lot over 5 days. 2005 is the proof of that; every day of that series was enthralling.”

There has been a lot of talk recently about removing the toss from Test cricket, something that Geoff is passionately against. “Taking the toss away is just ridiculous. Players just have to learn how to play in different conditions. There are very few warm up games these days and that makes it hard for players. I keep hearing we have to do certain things like removing the toss to help the away side, but how about just going back to having a number of meaningful warm-up games? Pakistan came to England this year, played two proper warm up games and a Test match against Ireland and then they went into that first Test fully prepared and look how they performed. They’d adjusted to conditions. People talk about conditions, but that’s the challenge of Test cricket. Home teams are allowed to prepare wickets to suit their sides. Lords is very different to Perth - the overriding issue is lack of preparation in the lead up to series.”

It’s a valid point.

Geoff enjoyed a terrific international career for Australia and was certainly a thorn in our side for many years throughout the 1980s. It’s been fun getting some perspectives from the old enemy! Geoff – thank you!

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