Characterised and hyped as a world title decider, complete with posters of the opposing captains staring like prize-fighters into each other's eyes, this series became a classic of the genre down to its last detail: the victor emerged almost as battered and bloodied as the vanquished.
As Mark Taylor hoisted the Frank Worrell Trophy again after an overwhelming if inconsequential defeat for Australia in the last Test, the best that could be said of the defending champions was also the least expected of them on their own shores: they won. Many heavy blows had been landed and absorbed by both sides. Taylor himself had such a wretched batting series that his place in the team was in the balance, though his captaincy remained as widely admired as ever. His handling of Michael Bevan, so unorthodox of personality and delivery, when the series was still delicately poised in the Fourth Test probably won it for Australia. He became the first Australian captain to win two series against West Indies, though - given the country's cricketing priorities - some of the shine was lost by the team's failure in the one-day competition.
Only one specialist batsman, Matthew Hayden, made a Test century for Australia, and he still could not win over reputable critics who maintained that his front-foot technique was too limited for Test cricket. Shane Warne, recuperating by painstaking degrees from off-season finger surgery and confronted by up to five left-handers at a time in the West Indian order, never took five wickets in an innings. None the less, he did take 22 in total, and was probably denied several others by the serendipitous emergence of Bevan as a bowler.
Injuries, accidents and cumulative stress took a heavy toll, and the expanded and suddenly nervy selection panel exacted another: 16 players appeared for Australia in five different configurations. These did not include Michael Slater, whose shock omission from the First Test was a harbinger of the instability to come.
West Indies, meantime, were wincing from their own wounds, including the knowledge that their decline as the paramount power of world cricket was continuing apace. More than ever, and in stark contrast to Australia, they depended on particular players and pitches. What their Fifth Test victory did above all else was to underline Australia's previous combination of good cricket and good luck in subjugating the two players from whom there was most to fear. West Indies needed Brian Lara and Curtly Ambrose to be at their best, but their big performances were spasmodic and, until the last Test, not contemporaneous.
Lara, having set himself for three or four hundreds, had such a miserable time that he did not reach three figures in aggregate until his last-but-one innings. Further, he restrained his impetuous instincts no better in the pavilion than on the ground. He stormed the Australian dressing-room after what he felt (unjustifiably) was an unfair catch by his old adversary, wicket-keeper Ian Healy, in the Second Test in Sydney. Manager Clive Lloyd, who had made a pact with the Australians to maintain a civil relationship throughout the tour, rebuked him severely. Then, after his century in Perth, Lara accused the Australians of sledging young team-mate Robert Samuels. Next day, he appeared in the middle as a runner for Courtney Walsh, provoking such a slanging match that the umpires had to lecture both captains mid-pitch on the game's proprieties. Later, Taylor called him a provocateur in the style of Sri Lanka's Arjuna Ranatunga, and Lara left the country estranged from several former friends in the Australian team. Tactically, however, he led the side very skilfully when Walsh was off the field.
Ambrose made his now traditional slow start, with just three wickets in the first two Tests, but responded to suggestions that he was a spent force in the Third and Fifth Tests, thrusting West Indies to resounding victories in both. The academic question that will be debated into the next century is what might have transpired if he had not been invalided out of the Fourth.
This was a bowlers' series: there were, on average, fewer than 30 runs between each fall of wicket all summer, no batsman made more than 370 runs and the last three matches all finished inside or just beyond three days (this, incidentally, has become a characteristic of series between these countries: of 55 scheduled days in their last 11 matches, there have been fewer than 40 played).
The most consistent of the bowler was Glenn McGrath, with 26 wickets at 17.42 McGrath exercised such a stranglehold over Lara that, during the Third Test, he was emboldened to speak with unusual openness about the anti-Lara strategy Australia were using: the bowlers were either going around the wicket and beating him with away movement or, after several tight overs on off-stump, seducing him with a wider delivery. Bevan emerged to take the wickets Warne could not take, or take them from him, and finished a series in which his place in the side had been uncertain with a batting average of 55 and a bowling average of 17.66
Australia had other good performers. Mark Waugh played consistently well, making runs when they were needed and not just when they were available, and failed only in that he did not turn any of his four superbly crafted half-centuries into the full measure. Matthew Elliott and Jason Gillespie both emerged as Test-class players, at least until each was cut down by injury, and Greg Blewett re-emerged as one. Hayden, replacing Elliott, made two ducks, but also top-scored twice. Ian Healy's keeping to the spinners was so masterful that an essentially prosaic business became a spectacle in its own right, and his dauntless batting in the first two Test was crucial to their outcome.
The West Indians ebb and flow in such great tides these days that it is difficult to measure a team's intrinsic worth against them. They went a month in the middle of this tour losing seven consecutive matches, then won eight in succession in the next month, only to crumple again. Their batting was essentially frail: Carl Hooper was consistent and Sherwin Campbell began well, but they made only one fifty between them in the last three Tests and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, that arch-scorer of half-centuries, also declined. Their attack demanded respect, as ever, but at least in the eyes of the Australians lacked a crucial dimension. Hooper, the nearest approximation to a front-line spinner, did not take a wicket until the Fourth Test. Taylor declared then that no team of his would enter a Test on any surface without at least one specialist spinner, which was rather disingenuous since his spinners had just taken 16 wickets.
West Indies were also lamentable in the field, dropping catches, letting ground balls through their fingers and conceding a steady stream of overthrows, byes and no-balls. They compared terribly with Australia's general brilliance, and Healy's in particular, and that was as responsible as any other factor for their eclipse.
Sometimes it is only in the days and weeks after a title fight, when the emotion and adrenalin have subsided, that the toll can truly be reckoned. Duly, it became clear that, for all of Australia's travail, West Indies always had more and deeper troubles. To borrow another imperfect analogy from another sport, Australia won the big points; so, although the margin was seemingly narrow, and the casualties on both sides high, their triumph was morally comprehensive.
The decider was, after all, decisive.
Match reports for
ACB Chairman's XI v West Indians at Perth (Lilac Hill), Nov 4, 1996
2nd Match: Australia v West Indies at Sydney, Dec 8, 1996