The opening day of an Ashes Test at Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day is about as big as cricket occasions get – so where better for an England player to record the best day of his career?
On Boxing Day, 1986, Gladstone Small woke in the team hotel expecting to watch the first day of the fourth Ashes Test from the dressing-room. The Warwickshire seamer had bowled well throughout the tour but not been selected for the first three Tests as England, led by Mike Gatting and including Ian Botham, David Gower, Allan Lamb and Graham Dilley, won the first and comfortably drew the next two.
But half an hour before the start of play everything changed when Dilley withdrew with a knee injury. Into the team came Small – to devastating effect.
"On Boxing Day morning, Graham pulled out injured half an hour before the start and Mike Gatting said to me: ‘Stoney, you’re playing.’ ."
At the close of day one, England were 95 for one having bowled Australia out for 141: Small five for 48, Botham five for 41.
Just after tea on day three, England had won by an innings and 14 runs and Small, in only his third Test, was man-of-the- match.
He had followed his five-for with an unbeaten 21 with the bat then two more wickets in a second-innings which he rounded off by taking the catch at deep square leg, to dismiss Merv Hughes off Phil Edmonds, which sealed England’s retention of the Ashes.
“They are very special memories,” said Small. “It’s the big battle, beating Australia in their own backyard. That’s the one you want on your CV.
“I had only made my Test debut the previous summer so was a junior player on the tour among the likes of Botham, Dilley, Phil de Freitas and Phil Edmonds. But I’d had a good tour and it helped that I had been out there the previous year playing for South Australia in the Sheffield Shield.
“I think that winter with South Australia was the best learning curve of my career. They only played ten four-day games a season so you had time to prepare and work in the nets. Preparations were akin to a Test match so that you weren’t starting games knackered like you often did in England.
“On Boxing Day morning, Graham pulled out injured half an hour before the start and Mike Gatting said to me: ‘Stoney, you’re playing.’ I felt quite confident. I was not overawed because I’d been in the dressing room for the Melbourne Test four years earlier, when we won by three runs, so I’d tasted the atmosphere. That 1982 tour was too early for me but in ’86 I knew what bowling was about and felt ready.
“We won the toss and sent the Aussies in on a cloudy, overcast morning. The conditions were great for bowling and thankfully, we made the most of them. Beefy was a great cricketer – great skills but also such self-belief.”
Small added another five-for in the following Test at Sydney and went on to play 17 Test matches between 1986 and 1991. His debut was against New Zealand at Trent Bridge in ’86, though it had almost arrived four years earlier. In July 1982, Small, then just 20, was called away from Warwickshire’s championship game against Lancashire at Southport to join England’s squad ahead of the Edgbaston Test against Pakistan. In the end, he didn’t play – though the trip did save him the embarrassment of being part of the Bears team which managed to lose at Southport by ten wickets having declared their first innings at 523 for four!
Small had to wait another four years for his debut but then went on to join the elite band of England players who have figured in an Ashes-winning side down under and a World Cup final (against Pakistan in Australia in 1992). He took 55 Test wickets at 34.01 apiece and 58 ODI wickets at 33.48.
“I am proud of my England career but would have loved to have played more, especially at home,” he said. “I only played three or four home Tests because there was always such competition for places. It was always better on tour because there were only 14 or 15 players there to pick from. There were some great players around at the time: Botham, Gower, Gatting, Graham Gooch, Robin Smith, Graham Dilley – what a fine bowler he was.”
In Test matches, Small opened the bowling with Greg Thomas, Graham Dilley, Phil de Freitas, Alan Igglesden, Devon Malcolm and Angus Fraser but just missed pairing up at the top level with Bob Willis, his county colleague. Willis played his last Test in 1984, two years before Small’s debut, so not until 2018 would a Bears pair – Chris Woakes and Olly Stone – open the bowling for England.
"I also get to keep going to all the big grounds in the world – and I can honestly say that Edgbaston is right up there with the best."
As a player, Willis had his critics among Warwickshire’s supporters. By his own admission, at times he struggled to be inspired by the grind of the county game and the 1983 edition of Wisden reported that: “Willis’s difficulty in making the switch from the international scene to the bread-and-butter game was no help to the team’s morale.”
But Small goes into bat vigorously on behalf of his former team-mate.
“I learned a lot from Bob,” he said. “He was a great fast bowler, no question.
“He had a love/hate relationship with the Warwickshire members but it was extremely hard for him in those days when you finished a Test match on the Tuesday and then were back playing for your county on Wednesday morning.
“He was not the most athletic and would come back pretty knackered having bowled himself into the dirt for England, so it was hardly surprising that he could only get fired up if he was bowling to a Geoff Boycott or a Glenn Turner or a Zaheer Abbas.”
Small never had a problem getting fired up to play for his beloved Bears, whether he was carrying the bowling early in his career or, later on, lining up as part of arguably the best ever Bears seam attack – Small, Allan Donald, Tim Munton. At times he was unplayable, most spectacularly against Nottinghamshire at Edgbaston in 1988 when a tight game was hurried to a conclusion by his seven for 15 which rattled Notts out for 44.
Small retired as a player in 1999 after which he worked for the Professional Cricketers Association for eight years. He now works as a host for England supporters at Test series abroad and is currently in Sri Lanka. It is a role which he really enjoys.
“I love it,” said Small. “Over the years I have been at a lot of games where you watch some cricket then go away and talk to people, but with these groups that I take on tour they want to watch every ball. So I watch every ball and that’s fantastic.
“I also get to keep going to all the big grounds in the world – and I can honestly say that Edgbaston is right up there with the best. To have a stadium like that is great for the club and great for the city of Birmingham and it’s fantastic that the Bears fans have a ground like that to watch cricket in.”