First Test

Hot and cold at the Gabba

A spectacular thunderstorm, which set in forcibly at tea on the final afternoon, prevented any further play and allowed England to escape with a draw. They had been set 348 to win by Taylor, in his 100th Test, and briefly threatened to worry Australia... but reality soon set in. MacGill, the leg-spinner playing only because Warne had not fully recovered from his shoulder operation, bamboozled Butcher, and later Hussain and Ramprakash as well, by which time England had more than one eye on the darkly massing clouds.

A result might just have been obtained if the floodlights had been turned on in the gathering gloom before tea. But the England management had vetoed their use, saying that the case for using the lights was unproven. (The previous season, the South Africans had felt their batsmen were disadvantaged under lights in gloomy weather at Sydney.) England were very satisfied to escape from Brisbane without suffering the deflating First Test defeats which had shaped the previous two Ashes series in Australia.

The Gabba had a curious look for this match, with separate building sites cutting the spectator accommodation in two as new stands were erected for the soccer matches of the 2000 Olympics. Anyone wanting to move from one end to the other had to leave the ground and walk around the block. The gaping holes did mean that Mexican waves were doomed to failure, and the reduced capacity of around 14,000 was all but reached on the first three days.

Overall, England had only themselves to blame for sliding into trouble. On a good batting pitch, they reduced Australia to 178 for five on the first day, but then gave Steve Waugh and Healy two lives apiece. Late on the first day, Waugh, then 68, was dropped by Hussain at second slip, low to his right off Gough. Earlier, on 29, Waugh had escaped a run-out when Mullally, the bowler, stuck his hand in front of a wicket-bound throw from Stewart. Healy, cutting and carving characteristically on his home ground, had 36 when he mis-pulled Gough to third man, where Fraser grassed the chance. And early next morning, on 62, Healy played on - to the despairing Gough again - but the bails stayed put.

This experienced pair, both with more than a century of Tests behind them, needed no second - or third - invitations to make hay. Steve Waugh eventually completed his 16th Test century (easing himself ahead of his twin) and Healy his fourth. With Healy comfortably outscoring his obdurate senior partner (It wasn't difficult, was it? he joked afterwards), they added 187 for the sixth wicket, their sixth and highest century partnership together in Tests. On 112, Waugh edged Mullally to the diving Stewart, and Healy finally spooned Fraser to mid-on - but then Fleming flailed away, classic drives interspersed with comic swishes, for 71, his highest first-class score. Gough was unlucky and Mullally, in his first Test for 22 months, finished with five wickets - but the rest of the bowling was uninspiring.

England had chosen only five specialist batsmen plus jack-of-all trades Stewart, whose indifferent form against Australia continued. Crawley and Hick (who had just joined the party as a precautionary measure after Atherton's back troubles) were omitted. Both had made hundreds against Sri Lanka at The Oval in August 1998, so this was the first time since 1964 (Barry Knight and Peter Parfitt) that England had gone into a Test without two century-makers from their previous match. Instead, it was their centurion from the game before that - against South Africa at Headingley - who led the way. Butcher played an impressive innings, containing 16 fours, most of them well-thumped drives. His 116 equalled his score at Headingley, but this second century was his best innings for England so far: he seemed so untroubled at times that he might have been plundering a second-rate county attack on a friendly track at The Oval. And this followed a troubled start to the tour, which saw him collect more facial stitches (ten) than runs (nine) in the warm-up matches. Butcher slowed down after reaching three figures, but then Thorpe and Ramprakash took up the cudgels. A draw looked the likeliest result after three days when England were 299 for four in reply to Australia's 485. But on the fourth morning, an incisive spell from McGrath, who took five for nine in 35 balls, reduced the tail to rabbit stew - a sight which was to become familiar as the series progressed. Ramprakash was left high and dry with 69 after four hours.

Australia lost no time in building on their lead of 110. England's bowlers looked toothless as Slater caned them to all parts. His ninth Test century - fifth against England - came up in 172 minutes, and in all he hit 13 fours, and a six off Croft into the Clem Jones Stand. Langer assured himself of a run in the side with 74, and Taylor's eventual declaration left England a probable 98 overs to reach their unlikely target. Atherton led the early batting flourish, but McGrath was tight again, and MacGill turned the ball alarmingly at times. When Butcher was given lbw by umpire Hair he was on the back foot - and so were England, who were grateful that Cork and Croft hung on until the rains came.

Man of the Match: G. D. McGrath.

Attendance: 50,953

Close of play: First day, Australia 246-5 (S. R. Waugh 69*, Healy 46*); Second day, England 53-1 (Butcher 23*, Hussain 23*); Third day, England 299-4 (Thorpe 70*, Ramprakash 29*); Fourth day, England 26-0 (Butcher 7*, Atherton 18*).

© John Wisden & Co