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The 1979 World Cup: A tournament to forget for the Australians


World_Cup_1979_ODI_Cricket_AustraliaWhite clothing. 60 overs per side with a red ball. Daylight matches. No specialist squads. Minimal preparation and only fifteen games overall. Welcome to the 1979 World Cup - a competition that barely resembled the much-hyped spectacle that is taking place this year.

As teams contest the 2019 tournament, the most high-profile event in international cricket, they do so with radically altered priorities and in a very different atmosphere to that older competition - also held in England, forty years ago. Whilst the event has evolved in many ways over the intervening years, one of the most striking aspects has been the way in which the the World Cup is now viewed rather differently from those early days in terms of prestige.

For Australia's 1979 party, the trip to England was not something that was eagerly awaited, as Test wicketkeeper at the time Kevin Wright explains: "Quite honestly, the World Cup was something we didn't really get excited about. It was still in the early stages of one day cricket and the importance was way below Test cricket. We had just finished the Pakistan series after the Ashes, then straight to England and on to India - it was a hectic period and we had little time to really think about the World Cup."

Fast bowler Rodney Hogg is in complete agreement: "Yes, Test matches were much more important to the team than the World Cup."

All-rounder Gary Cosier, out of the Test team at the time, remembers the World Cup as more of a "big deal" - but acknowledges that the one day game still hadn't established a separate identity to Test cricket: "both had the same traditional uniforms so any distinction was only in some playing strategy."

In early 1979, the cricket world had been split for almost two years - since Kerry Packer had begun signing players for his breakaway World Series Cricket organisation (WSC). The Australian Cricket Board (ACB) had been particularly badly affected, with over twenty of their leading players unavailable for the official Test side - forcing them to select inexperienced players at that level. By May 1979, however, the ACB was losing its battle with WSC - forcing an uneasy agreement, with Packer achieving his original objective of exclusive television coverage. The World Cup would be the first chance for Packer defectors to be welcomed back into the fold - or so it seemed.

WSC West Indian and Pakistani players were immediately selected for the tournament by their respective Boards, but the English and Australian selectors stayed loyal to their contracted cricketers and ignored the former rebels - a lesser risk for the former with fewer Packer absentees. With World Cup success so important today, it seems barely credible that teams would risk leaving out their stars but the status of the competition at the time determined the attitudes of many players and administrators.

For the long-suffering ACB it was a decision that they were prepared to stand by loyally, and one which did not attract a huge amount of criticism at the outset. The Australian team, already reeling from a heavy defeat in the recent Ashes series, was hoping for a change in fortunes - but it would turn out to be a tournament to forget.

Today, there are separate squads and specialist coaching for different formats of the game - no such planning in 1979, as Kevin Wright remembers: "We really were very immature at the one-day game compared to the likes of the West Indies and England who played a lot more limited overs cricket and understood the dynamics far more than we did. There was no discussion about different squads - a few players were picked who were more of the attacking nature in batting, but that was about it."

Rodney Hogg concurs but adds that there was one surprise selection: "An all-rounder called Graeme Porter was specially picked for the World Cup. Otherwise, we had no leggie in the party and everything else stayed the same as recent Test teams." For Gary Cosier it was just that "the best team was simply the strongest non-WSC available."

Preparation for the matches ahead was minimal for the Australians: "The squad did not come together for any training camp - although we did play three lead up one-day games in England to clear the cobwebs", says Kevin Wright. "There was no coaching at all", confirms Rodney Hogg, "we were just curious about what was to happen, but not lacking in confidence."

Placed in the tougher Group A, and with only two of the four teams qualifying for the semi-finals, Australia lost their opening match to England by six wickets in damp conditions. A full house at Lord's watched patiently as Australia toiled to 159-9 from the full 60 overs - the home side reaching their target in 47 overs. A sign of the times was that few mutterings were made about an overall scoring rate of just under three an over.

The next match, against Pakistan, was crucial - defeat for the Australians would mean a semi-final place was virtually out of reach. They fared no better than in the first game - losing by 89 runs as the Pakistanis racked up 286-7 in their innings. Ironically, given the conservative selection of the party, the best bowling figures came from the one left-field selection - Graeme Porter.

The team's performances were now beginning to be criticised back home and public opinion started to favour the future return of former WSC players to the establishment fold. Kevin Wright feels that the team were in a no-win situation: "I don't think the pressure was any greater than it had been during the previous Ashes series. We were under constant pressure given some other sides had full squads. I think a lot of us struggled as it was our first time in English conditions and we had not played a lot of one-day cricket. We also had the Indian tour in the back of our minds which was taking place about three weeks after we got back from the World Cup."

Only one group match remained, against Canada, who had qualified through the ICC Trophy tournament - alongside Sri Lanka who had not yet been granted Test status. An easy victory for the Australians, by seven wickets, brought back an unpleasant memory for Rodney Hogg: "I was belted all over the field by (Glenroy)Sealy" - the batsman hitting four consecutive boundaries as Hogg's two overs cost 26 runs.

The tournament had been a disaster for the Australians - they could now only watch from afar as the West Indians retained the trophy, beating England convincingly in the Final. The Australian team had not always had the best of luck - warm-up matches had been hit by poor weather and they lacked the experience to compete with players who were used to English conditions. Above all, however, they suffered from an approach to the World Cup and limited overs cricket that was more prevalent in the very early days of the competition. For Kevin Wright it was a missed opportunity, "playing in the World Cup was a big learning curve. Unfortunately, the experience we had was a one-off and we really didn't get a chance to put our learnings into practice as there was not a one-day schedule for the Indian tour."

1979's priorities have disappeared. Coherent planning and constantly evolving strategies now mean that the 2019 World Cup offers the winning team a highly-desirable world title. Whilst history will not look too kindly on Kim Hughes' 1979 team, the Australians should not be judged too harshly. The players were almost set up to fail - victims, through no fault of their own, of a turbulent time in Australian cricket and of a World Cup that pitched them into a situation for which they were almost wholly unprepared.

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A cricket-loving teacher who has written articles on the game for various media outlets. Years in t...

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