The brief international career of Robbie Kerr

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I’m guessing Robbie Kerr would be mostly forgotten now by all but the most hard core cricket fans and/or Queenslanders.

But for a few months – specifically, the summer of 1984-85 – he was the hottest thing in Australian cricket with a “Kerr must play” movement sweeping the nation (well, cricket columnists, anyway). He played two Tests and four ODIs, after which the movement vanished – but he was a definite icon for Queenslanders in the 1980s so I thought his career deserved a reappraisal.

Kerr was born in Brisbane in 1961 and was a teen prodigy, playing for Queensland Under-19 and Colts sides. An opening batter, he benefited from the unfortunate premature retirement of Martin Kent due to injury in late 1981. Kent had formed an imposing opening combination for Queensland with Kepler Wessels, and Kerr slotted in neatly to take Kent’s place through the 1981-82 season.

He scored a century in just his third first class game and made 613 first class runs at 41.15 over the summer, which is very cool. He also won the Man of the Match Award in a McDonald’s Cup Game after scoring 50 off a Western Australia side that included Dennis Lillee and Terry Alderman.

Those sort of things get you noticed when you’re young and Kerr was definitely giving off “next big thing” vibes.

The 1982-83 summer went even better of Kerr, as he made 876 first class runs at 39.81. He took part in two epic opening partnerships with Wessels: 232 against the touring New Zealanders and 388 against Victoria.

There were spots going at the top of the Australian order that season but they were taken by Kepler Wessels (in tests) and Steve Smith (ODIs). At the end of the summer Ian Chappell wrote that Kerr had been unlucky not to be already selected for higher honours, arguing “He has been a prolific run scorer in Shield and McDonald’s Cup matches but Queensland hadn’t played much when the Australian team changes were made and I think the selectors look on him more as a Test style opener.”

Kerr was, however, selected to go on a 1983 tour to Zimbabwe with a Young Australia side captained by Dirk Wellham.

Generic image of pink cricket ball.

(Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

At the start of the 1983-84 summer some were suggesting Kerr be picked to join Kepler Wessels as Australia’s opener against the touring Pakistan side – Graeme Wood and John Dyson hadn’t been able to lock down their positions, so there was a vacancy going. However, Wayne Phillips had also impressed and recently scored a double century, which are always sexy, and it was he who was chosen to partner Wessels in the first test.

Still, Kerr had a strong summer over 1983-84 – 866 first class runs at 39.39 – and there was a feeling he might be picked on the 1984 West Indies tour as a third opener, behind Wessels and Phillips. But Steve Smith (the other one) had also played very well, on top of regular ODI appearances for Australia, so he got the job.

Kerr mania, such as it was, really got going over the 1984-85 season. The West Indies tour had been a disaster, Wayne Phillips was moved down the order so he could keep, and every specialist opener Australia tried (Wessels, Smith, Ritchie, Wood) struggled. When Kerr scored 106 against Victoria at the beginning of the summer, he was very much “in the conversation” for who should play against the touring West Indies.

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Ian Chappell felt Australia should open with Wessels and Kerr in the first test as they already batted together for Queensland. “It’s tough to throw Kerr into his first test on the Perth track against the Windies,” wrote Chappelli. “But the opposition know little about him; his mind might not be cluttered with thoughts of previous poundings from their fast bowlers; and he has a good technique.”

The selectors – who by now included Kerr’s old Queensland captain, Greg Chappell – instead erred on the side of caution, picking Wessels and John Dyson (with Graeme Wood moving up for one innings) for the first three tests. Australia lost all these games by big margins.

After this Peter McFarline thought it was “plain common sense” that Kerr be played in the fourth test in place of Dyson saying the Queenslander’s “technique is such that he seems to have much more time to play the fast men than Dyson. Kerr probably needed big scores in recent matches to cement his positions but unbiased judges in Brisbane say he has been unlucky in his last two Shield innings. He deserves his chance on the placid Melbourne wicket.”

However the selectors again went a more conservative route and recalled Andrew Hilditch – who to be fair was in good form and whose experience would offer new captain Allan Border useful support. McFarline felt Hilditch “hardly seems to be the long-term solution to Australia’s problems at the top of the batting order.”

“Kerr, to my way of thinking, would have been a better selection, given that the selectors now feel their major responsibility is to develop a squad capable of retaining the Ashes in England next year.”

Graeme Wood had injury concerns before the fourth test, and Kerr was placed on standby for him but Wood recovered. Hilditch scored a magnificent century to help Australia draw the test.

Kerr continued to bat well during 1984-85. He made his maiden double century, 201 against Victoria in a game where he and Andrew Courtice put on 331. In one day games Kerr scored 92 (against Victoria) and 87 (against Sir Lanka).

He finally received national selection when chosen in the Australian ODI squad for the second World Series Cup final, against the West Indies. Kerr was 12th man in that game but made his debut in the next one, picked over Kim Hughes. Journalist Mike Coward said Kerr “unfortunate not to have been summoned earlier in the season” and was “regarded as one of Australia’s most able fieldsman as well as a potentially outstanding opening batsman.” Batting at number three, Kerr scored 4 in an Australian defeat.

Due to injuries to Graeme Wood and Steve Smith, Kerr kept his spot in the Australian ODI side for a short series that followed the World Series Cup: a World Championship of Cricket, held as part of the celebrations commemorating the 150th anniversary of European settlement in Victoria. (The fame of this competition has lingered a little because India ended up winning it.)

Kerr opened the batting with Kepler Wessels in a game against England, and scored 87 not out off 126 balls, participating in an exciting partnership with Dean Jones and chasing down England’s total. Kerr won the man of the match award.

Mike Coward gushed “In Robbie Kerr, an affable 23 year old Queenslander who suddenly has been imbued with the spirit of this ritualised Australian team, they [the crowd] found a new idol.”

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Nonetheless, this game is probably best remembered, if at all, for Kim Hughes – in one of his final games in Australian colours, Hughes received a standing ovation from the crowd as he came out to bat, was run out for 0 while batting with Kerr, then walked off in silence.

Kerr played in Australia’s two other games for that tournament, both of which they lost. Against Pakistan he made 2 – you can see highlights here.

Against India he made 4. Here he is getting bowled by Kapil Dev.

You can watch more of that game here

Kerr was selected for the Australian tour of the UAE in March 1985, where the team played in the Rothmans Four-Nations Cup. However he did not play in any internationals.

Kerr was expected by a number of observers to make the 1985 Ashes squad – several journalists had him in their hypothetical sides.

In the end the selectors went for Hilditch, Wessels and Wood as their openers, with Phillips as a keeper. Again, the emphasis had been on experience – Kerr’s 623 first class runs at 45 that summer was better than Wood’s 565 at 38.

To make Kerr even unluckier, Hilditch and Wood were both meant to join a rebel tour to South Africa (Wood had even signed a contract) but had changed their mind. If either had stuck to their original decision, it is likely Kerr would’ve taken their place.

At this stage Kerr was definitely still seen as a “comer”. He was one of five players – all batters – offered three-year contracts by Kerry Packer to ensure they didn’t sign to go to South Africa (the others were Dean Jones, Mike Veletta, Peter Clifford and Steve Waugh.

Australian cricket probably would’ve been better off had they toured England in 1985 instead of South African signees like Dirk William, Wayne Phillips, Andrew Hilditch and Graeme Wood.

Kerr was appointed captain of an Australian Under-25 side that toured Zimbabwe in October 1985. This team included players like Dean Jones (vice captain), Peter Clifford, Tony Dodemaide, Bruce Reid, Mike Veletta and Steve Waugh.

“Robbie Kerr’s time must come but he has to score more runs under pressure” said writer Phil Wilkins at the beginning of the 1985-86 summer. Ian Chappell and Bob Simpson both argued Kerr should be brought into the squad for the first test against New Zealand.

Despite Australia’s wonky efforts in England, Andrew Hilditch and Kepler Wessels were retained as openers for that test, but Hilditch was unable to resist hooking and Wessels found himself essentially booted out because of his South African links, so both were dropped afterwards.

Kerr had started the season slowly but scored a well timed 80 in a Shield game and, finally, was selected in the Australian test team for the second test. He would open alongside Wayne Phillips.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the selectors had “earmarked” Kerr “as a future Test player several seasons ago but lapses at the most inopportune times prevented him from making his debut a lot earlier.” Bill O’Reilly commented “Robbie Kerr is a good selection. So far he has done nothing wrong, but not a great deal right this season.”

This test was a thrilling game – one of the best Australia-New Zealand matches eve, full of collapses, last stands, comebacks, gritty innings, slogging and excellent spin bowling. Australia ultimately won by four wickets – due, it must be admitted, not much to Kerr, who scored 7 off 7 balls in the first innings and 7 off 55 balls in the second. Watch highlights here.

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Kerr kept his spot for the third test. He scored 17 and 0 (getting a first ball duck while batting with a dislocated finger) in a game which Australia lost, mostly due to inept batting.

You can watch footage of it here.

Kerr became yesterday’s man almost overnight. He kept his spot in the squad for the next test, against India, but was made 12th man in favour of Geoff Marsh (according to one journalist, the 12th man appointment was described as a “gentle let down” for Kerr).

David Boon opened with Phillips in that match and scored a century, giving people hope that Australia had found a decent opener a last. Boon was teamed with Geoff Marsh in the second test; they didn’t do much together in that game but put on 217 in the third test, establishing a partnership at the top of the order that would ultimately help revive Australian cricket, including leading them to glory in the 1987 World Cup.

Australia stopped looking for openers. And that was it for Robbie Kerr at international level.

He kept playing consistently for Queensland, making 676 runs at 40 in 1986-87 and 793 runs at 40 in 1987-88, but it wasn’t enough to force his way past Boon and Marsh (Boon was dropped for one game in 1986-87 but the selectors gave a one-off trial to Greg Ritchie instead).

In September 1986 Kerr was arrested for drink driving – that probably didn’t help him.

Kerr’s form dropped off in 1988-89 and he retired after the 1989-90 season. Soon after Queensland had Matt Hayden and Trevor Barsby at the top of the order, and they helped that state, finally, win the Sheffield Shield in 1994-95.

Kerr became a kind of forgotten figure – a member of those super talented 80s Queensland sides that should’ve won the Shield several times but couldn’t seal the deal (Kerr played in four unsuccessful Sheffield Shield finals, at least two of which really should’ve been won by Queensland).

Generic cricket ball

(Steven Paston – EMPICS/Getty Images)

The two big “what ifs” of Kerr’s career… what if he’d been picked to play against the West Indies in 1984-85 or on the 1985 Ashes? Would that have made the difference? Or merely given him his two tests a few months earlier?

Kerr was also unlucky in that he was pipped to the post by Wayne Phillips and Steve Smith in 1983-84, and had any chance of a comeback after 1985 stymied by Boon and Marsh.

Still, he played two tests more than other excellent Queensland opening batters, like Sam Trimble, Trevor Barsby, and Jimmy Maher. And winning the man of the match award in an ODI is pretty cool.

When promoting the book of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, Quentin Tarantinto once said the rest of the world forgot who was second choice for Leo di Caprio’s role in “This Boys Life” and Brad Pitt’s part in “Thelma and Louise” – but that Leo di Caprio and Brad Pitt never will.

I bet Geoff Marsh and David Boon never forgot Robbie Kerr. And neither will Queensland cricket fans of the 1980s.



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