Third Test

Australia v England 1998-99

Matthew Engel

Australia secured the Ashes for the sixth successive series after another one-sided Test match. Never before had the whole thing been settled before Christmas (the previous record was set when England won the Melbourne Test on December 28, 1986). The early conclusion was partly due to the scheduling, partly due to Australia's obvious superiority and partly - just partly - due to luck. The good fortune England had enjoyed in Brisbane was only temporary. Everyone knew this would be a horrible toss to lose, and Stewart lost it.

The Adelaide Oval is normally a bat-first pitch, and the weather compounded the situation. The first day, at 40.2 degrees Centigrade (104 Fahrenheit), was the hottest December day in the city since the 1980s, but the forecast was for cooler weather halfway through the second day: in other words, just in time for the change of innings, Australia were able to run England ragged in the heat, and then wait for the batting to collapse - which it duly did, twice.

The rest of the game was evenly contested. But when England were bad, they were horrid: it was men v lemmings. In the first innings, the last seven wickets went down for 40; and in the second the last five for 16. The madness lasted only 64 minutes the first time and 23 the second, but it decided the series.

Despite the blazing sun, both teams began the game in shadow: England because of their cricket; Australia because of the revelation less than 72 hours earlier that two of their stars, Shane Warne and Mark Waugh, had accepted money from an Indian bookmaker four years earlier, a fact that had been covered up by the ACB. The preliminaries were overshadowed by the recriminations; the injured Warne was flown in specially to face the media. Selection thus received less attention than usual. England appeared to be taking a risk by bringing in Such from the also-rans, though they were actually trying to play safe, picking seven batsmen and Headley rather than two spinners and the tearaway Tudor. The real risk-takers were Australia, who played only two quick bowlers, which could have led to disaster had they lost the toss. But Taylor's captaincy skills now seemed almost mystical, Brearleyesque even: he did not lose the toss.

In the heat England performed manfully, and Gough was especially staunch and unlucky. The bowlers worked their way through the innings with great skill, but they kept being dashed against the rock of Langer, who scored almost half the runs. He batted 491 minutes - equal to four sessions - never taking control and never losing it either, his careful game nicely adapted to a ground which discouarges flamboyant driving. The failures included Mark Waugh, who found himself being booed to the wicket by a section of the crowd. But for a last-wicket stand of 37 between Langer and McGrath, England might have gone in very pleased with themselves.

Their position was still strong by the end of the second day. At 160 for three, 231 behind, England looked on course to get close to Australia, and their position would have been even better but for a terrible piece of judgment by the inexperienced third umpire, Paul Angley. He had only one decision to make all match, when Atherton - who had been batting superbly - was picked up low down by Taylor at first slip. It probably was a fair catch, but that was less than certain after countless replays. Angley sent Atherton on his way in five seconds; panic is the only explanation.

Next morning, at 187, Ramprakash edged to second slip to end a stand of 103 with Hussain. While Hussain remained unbeaten, the rest strode on and off again as fast as models on a catwalk. Since the failures began with Crawley and Hick, it was not merely the bowlers whose batting was to blame. It was a wretched performance which took all the tension out of the game and the series. By the fourth day, the anti-Pom banners round the ground became more contemptous, and serious commentators began to mutter about allowing England only a three-test series in future. Yet 14,000 were in the ground, suggesting that the Ashes still had something going for them.

Australia's progress towards a declaration was slow at first, but it was untroubled even before Slater began to play his most exuberant shots, including a six to the distant straight boundary, to reach one of the simpler Ashes centuries. England were set a notional 443 in 140 overs. Hussain, Stewart and Ramprakash all played in businesslike fashion, without ever really suggesting that the game might be saved, let alone won. The leg-spinner MacGill offered them more bad deliveries than Warne ever did, but by now both he and Miller were beginning to give the ball serious rip, emphasising the difference between them and Such, who looked an essentially defensive operative at this level. The end came at 2.03 p.m. on the fifth day. One can always speculate on what might have happened if Stewart had changed his policy and called tails. It would certainly have been a very different game. But England could easily have lost anyway; the gap between the teams now looked like a chasm.

Man of the Match: J. L. Langer.

Attendance: 72,156.

Close of the play: First day, Australia 266-4 (Langer 108*, Ponting 0*); Second day, England 160-3 (Hussain 58*, Ramprakash 45*); Third day, Australia 150-1 (Slater 74*, Langer 34*); Fourth day, England 122-4) Ramprakash 43*, Stewart 0*).

© John Wisden & Co