Fourth Test

Australia v England 1998-99

Simon Briggs

Toss: Australia. Test debuts: M. J. Nicholson; W. K. Hegg.

After their limp showing at Adelaide, and outright humiliation in the tour match at Hobart, England flew to Melbourne in low spirits. "They just can't seem to take a trick on this tour," said the man on the Channel 9 news, trying - and failing - to look sympathetic. But English players are at their most dangerous when their pride and places are threatened, and at Melbourne they responded with the latest in a series of overseas wins against the run of play. It took them only three days, after the first was washed out. Thousands of travelling fans made the most of the moment, though in their hearts they knew that these touring triumphs are almost always one-offs.

The key to the sudden turnaround was the late withdrawal of Alex Tudor, who had a sore hip. England had intended to use him as the fifth prong of an all-seam attack that would also include the recalled Fraser; now they had to rethink. With Such and Crawley getting the chop, Tudor's obvious replacement was Cork, the last pace bowler in the party, but he had bowled 12 wicketless overs for 76 in the débâcle at Hobart, so wicket-keeper Warren Hegg won one of the more unexpected debuts in Test history. Even on the morning of the game, he had no idea he might be playing.

Freed of the gauntlets, Stewart was able to move to his preferred position at the top of the order. But, although Taylor chose to insert, it was some time before his opposite number could get into the action. Boxing Day, one of the highlights of the Australian sporting calendar, brought a crowd of 58,000 (on a fine day, there could have been a record attendance) and almost continuous rain. When play did begin, on Sunday, McGrath made the early running, dismissing England's two other specialist openers for ducks in the first 13 minutes. Stewart responded in characteristically belligerent fashion. After a streaky start, he dominated a 77-run partnership with Hussain, which was finally broken by Nicholson, the raw, debutant fast bowler from Western Australia (replacing Miller, as Gillespie was injured; Lehmann also replaced Ponting). Ramprakash then took over as Stewart's sidekick, shepherding him to a 142-ball hundred - his first in 23 Tests against Australia - before both fell in the space of two overs. England were 202 for five and, with only Hick and the tail in reserve, they could do no better than 270 all out

Despite some varied bounce, this was not an imposing total. England's bowlers needed to work hard to keep Australia in range, and they did so - especially Gough, who regularly rated over 140 kph (87.5 mph) on the radar gun, more than any of his opponents could manage. His five wickets left Australia chewing their fingernails at tea on the second day of play, 252 for eight with only MacGill and McGrath left to partner Steve Waugh.

A classic battle for first-innings lead was in prospect, but in the event it wasn't even close. MacGill - who came in at No. 10 for Devon in the 1998 NatWest Trophy and scored nought - capitalised on Gough's tiredness, hacking the ball into the MCG's wide open spaces to reach 43, a career-best. At the other end, Steve Waugh's famous determination became cavalier improvisation - one minute he was charging the seamers, the next he was hooking airily to reach his 17th Test hundred (and seventh against England), passing Bradman's 6,996 Test runs on the way. Australia took a lead of 70, and Stewart was widely castigated for giving Waugh singles in order to get at MacGill.

In an elongated final session (the official hours of play had been extended by 30 minutes at each end to make up for the first day's rain), England lost two wickets - including Atherton, for his first Test pair - without quite wiping off the deficit. Butcher was particularly unlucky, when a full-blooded sweep lodged under the armpit of Slater, cowering at forward short leg.

The next day was believed to be the longest in Test history. First, Stewart, Hussain and Hick all reached fifty without being able to go much further. It took some MacGill-style heaves from Mullally to lift the target to 175, theoretically simple but the sort that has often turned Australia shaky. At 103 for two, those shakes were hardly visible; the bowlers weren't getting any change out of a hard-wearing pitch. But a remarkable piece of fielding from Ramprakash, who plucked a scorching pull from Langer out of the air, lifted England's spirits. Headley soon forced Mark Waugh to edge to second slip, then followed up brilliantly in a mini-spell of four for four in 13 balls. Even with Steve Waugh still hanging on grimly, at 140 for seven Australia were suddenly in danger.

Nicholson ratcheted the tension still higher, showing an assurance out of all proportion to his experience as he and Waugh took the score to 161 - 14 short of victory. At 7.22 p.m., Waugh claimed the extra half-hour, despite Stewart's appeals to the umpires to use their discretion. Because of an early tea, and the attempts to make up for lost time, England had already been on the field for three hours and 50 minutes.

Headley and Gough had more reason to object than anyone, having bowled the previous 6 overs in tandem. But, as shadows stretched across the ground, they just kept coming. Headley found Nicholson's edge, then Waugh took a single off the first ball of Gough's next over. Stewart, whose captaincy had clearly benefited from his lightened workload, was sticking to his policy of attacking the tailenders, and this time it came off: Gough fired his trademark in-swinging yorker through MacGill's defences, and hit McGrath on the toe two balls later. Umpire Harper raised his finger, ending the day, after eight hours three minutes, and the match. England had won a superb Test, and the series was not merely vibrant again, but set for a tumultuous finale at Sydney.

Man of the Match: D. W. Headley.

Attendance: 159,031.

Close of the play: First day, No play: Second day, Australia 59-2 (Langer 26*, M. E. Waugh 12*); Third day, England 65-2 (Stewart 43*, Headley 0*).

© John Wisden & Co