He is considered one of the most technically-correct batsmen of all time.
India’s Sunil Gavaskar might just about have been the finest opener of all, averaging an incredible 65 in Tests against the West Indies in the 1970s and ’80s, when their battery of lightning-quick fast bowling greats struck fear into the best batsmen in world cricket.
Getting through the ironclad defence of the Little Master to clean bowl him was no mean feat. But to skittle him for a duck surely means you have a story to dine out on for the rest of your days.
But that’s not the case with Bill Slee who, opening the bowling for South Australia’s Country XI against India in a one-day clash in Whyalla 38 years ago almost to the day, sent Gavaskar packing before he had scored. While it’s a story he will only tell if he’s asked, it’s certainly one worth telling.
The Hand that Bowled Bradman was the title Somerset professional cricketer Bill Andrews gave his 1973 autobiography. After all, not every bowler could say they bowled the greatest of them all - Australian Test legend Don Bradman. In fact, when Andrews met people, he would often produce the line, “shake the hand that bowled Bradman”. It just happened Bradman had reached 202 at the time, back in 1938, and felt he’d had more than enough time out in the middle.
So has Slee ever produce that line about the legend he clean bowled for 202 less runs than that? About a man who became the first to score 10,000 runs in Test cricket. Who had amassed a record 34 Test centuries by the time he retired in 1987 - a record that was held for almost two decades before iconic Sachin Tendulkar chased it down.
“There’s not much to tell,” Slee says when you ask him about that match back on 4 December 1980. Slee has lived in Wentworth for the past four years. Retired and 64, he captains the golf club. And he obviously hasn’t given much away.
Rushing off from his volunteer work at the club, he tells his mate he’s got to get home to talk with someone at the SACA about Sunil Gavaskar.
“What would you have to do with Sunil Gavaskar?” the mate asks, all too late to get an explanation.
Slee recalls what a big day it was in Whyalla. “It was a fair size,” he recalls of the crowd on a day business in the town came to a complete standstill, “there would have been about 5000”. Included in that tally was a male streaker, who was fined all of $70 for his show-and-tell.
There was huge excitement considering some of the big names on show, including skipper Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Gundappa Viswanath, Chetan Chauhan, Sandeep Patil, Karsan Ghavri and Shivlal Yadav. “They had a fair side,” Slee recalled. “Kapil Dev stitched us up in the end.”
But that was only after 185cm, 95kg Slee had put a major scare through the Indian camp.
SA’s Country XI showed early on in the 45-over-a-side match it was up for the contest, laying the foundation for a decent enough tally at 2/75. Opener Peter Mattey looked good in reaching 38 before unfortunately being run out, sharing an opening stand of 22 with Graeme Madden (12), while No. 4 Barry Sampson scored 25. But Dev, one of the greatest allrounders of all time, took the game by the scruff of the neck for the first time by snaring 3/13 off eight overs and the locals crashed to be all out for 119 in 44 overs.
“It definitely wasn’t enough,” said Slee, who hadn’t helped much. Batting at No. 11 he was bowled by Yograj Singh for a duck. “I used to make them quite regularly,” he recalled with a laugh. “I wasn’t there for my batting … although it did improve as the years went on.”
It quickly became obvious what Slee was there for - with new ball in his hand he was an entirely different proposition.
Long-serving SA Country XI captain Rod Johnston, who played with Slee in representative sides and against him in competition in Broken Hill in the eighties, reckons the powerful right-armer was “feared by a lot of openers” at the time. “He didn’t have a huge, long run-up but he put a lot of shoulder into his bowling and he was always at you - he built the pressure,” said Johnston, who last year was inducted into the Australian Country Cricket Championships Hall of Fame. “Bill had a bit of fear factor about him … if you weren’t used to facing him, you could be a bit shocked by the pace he got off the wicket.”
There’s little doubt he caught Gavaskar by surprise.
His first ball fizzed by outside off-stump, the Little Master allowing it to go past.
The second crashed through Gavaskar’s greatly-lauded defence.
“It was the ball of my career,” said Slee, who could work up a head of steam from first ball of the day and maintain his speed for long spells. “I think it beat him for pace. It was a straight, line-and-length, seam-up ball, it didn’t do a lot off the track but it hit the top of off. He just looked up, shook his head and off he went.”
The crowd was “up and about” and the clash was starting to look anything but a social game.
“They were surprised,” Broken Hill firebrand Slee said. “They would have been thinking, ‘We’re not supposed to be getting out here, we’re supposed to be getting runs … having some practice’.”
Viswanath, a stylish batsman with a highly-effective square cut who compiled 6080 runs at 41.9 in 91 Tests, made just seven before Slee struck again. The paceman recalled this one “seamed away, he played forward and got a very faint edge”. Madden completed the catch and India was 2/10. Slee felt the country side just about had India “on toast” as it slipped to 4/39, Kapil Dev joining reliable opener Chauhan at the crease.
“It could have been a really good day,” said Slee, recalling hard-hitting Kapil, who was “after us from the word go”, would have been “about a dozen” when he slashed at the opening bowler, only to be put down in the gully/point region.
“And then away he went. As soon as he found his feet, everybody was just cannon-fodder. He hit some long sixes over a track around the oval. He was an amazing cricketer.”
Kapil plundered a whirlwind unbeaten 105 and Chauhan finished on 53 not out as India reached 4/188 from its 45 overs.
After the clash, the teams got together for a typical Aussie country barbecue. “They were pretty friendly. They were chatting after the game, talking the game up,” said Slee, who even had his photo taken with the Indian legend. But Gavaskar didn’t have much to say about his dismissal. And Slee hasn’t said that much, either.
“My brother-in-law, Kim, whenever we’ve been out together, he’s got to tell everyone what happened,” Slee said. “It’s a bit of folklore in Broken Hill.
“At a few sportsmen’s nights I’ve been asked to talk about it … if somebody asks I’ll let them know but I won’t put it out there.
“It’s not really something I think about but sometimes when I see Gavaskar on the TV, I think, ‘Oh, I got you’. That’s as far as it goes.”
Gavaskar makes up one half of the iconic trophy Australia and India will fight for in the Test series starting at Adelaide Oval on December 6 - the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. First contested in 1996, India holds a 7-5 series edge since then and the Aussies will be desperate to get the hands on the great prize which also honours Australian favourite Allan Border.
The left-handed batting great became the second cricketer to top 10,000 Test runs and was the first to pass Gavaskar’s record, finishing with 11,174. Like Gavaskar, he averaged more than 50 per innings, putting him among the game’s elite. And, like Gavaskar, he was a giant in cricket despite being short in stature, though he is keen to point out he’s taller than India’s Little Master (by 10cm at 175cm).
Slee was 26 when he shattered Gavaskar’s stumps. But, despite his obvious ability and interest from Port Adelaide in particular, he never seriously considered moving to the city to see how far he could go with his cricket. “It was a big move, you would have to find a job and I was settled in a job with good pay (as a mining supervisor in Broken Hill). I worked there until I was 54,” he said.
Slee was back in action for SA Country the following year, against Pakistan in Port Lincoln, claiming 1/45 from 10 overs. Again, the scalp was a pretty good one, Saleem Malik - who scored 5768 runs in 103 Tests - caught at second slip for 23. Again facing Pakistan in 1983 in Whyalla, he snared 1/21 from eight overs, trapping three-time Test century-maker Qasim Umar lbw for 23.
That meant he had dismissed four players who tallied a whopping 345 Tests between them, making a grand total of 23,472 Test runs at an average of 45.5. In games against Slee, they made just 53 runs at an average of 13.25.
Slee forged an outstanding 17-year career with Central Broken Hill, playing in three premierships. But don’t expect he might be able to tell you how many wickets he took. “I never kept count. I wouldn’t know … couldn’t tell you,” he says.
When you’ve clean bowled Gavaskar, the rest - and there would have been plenty - surely wouldn’t matter that much.