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England were once more overwhelmed by Australia, who won their sixth successive Ashes series. More than a century earlier, England won eight on the trot, but only one was a five-Test rubber; and the haphazard tours of the 1880s are hardly comparable to the intensity of modern Test cricket. To be realistic, Australia's success in 1998-99 continued a period of unrivalled dominance in Test cricket's most enduring conflict. Since 1989, they had won 20 Tests to England's five. After pushing closer in 1997 when they lost 3-2, England's margin of defeat this time, 3-1, was the same as on their previous tour four years earlier. So not much had changed. Indeed, rain probably saved England from defeat in the First Test, and an unexpected collapse, blamed by Australia's captain on complacency, allowed England a dramatic victory in the Fourth. It could have been 5-0.
Alec Stewart and his team claimed some mitigation. For a start, Stewart incorrectly called heads in every Test, the first time one captain has won every toss in a five-Test Ashes series in Australia. It meant Mark Taylor was able to bat first in the heat of Adelaide and on a deteriorating pitch in Sydney, decisions fundamental to the outcome of each match. England argued, too, that crucial third umpire's verdicts unjustly went against them, notably the catch which dismissed Mike Atherton in Adelaide and Michael Slater's run-out escape in Sydney. Atherton's recurring back trouble inconvenienced him throughout the tour and seriously affected his batting, while Graham Thorpe's back injury also flared up again and restricted him to one Test before he flew home.
Yet such slices of ill-fortune were side issues in the general pattern of Australia's command. The truth is that England were inferior in every department. Their batting surrendered frequently and feebly, the single most important factor. The mid and later order rarely provided any resistance. England lost their last six wickets for 60 runs in their first innings in Brisbane, ten for 110 and five for 33 in Perth, seven for 40 and five for 16 in Adelaide, seven for 70 in the first innings at Melbourne, seven for 83 and eight for 78 in Sydney. England possessed neither the technical nous nor, apparently, the resolve to halt these collapses. The bowling was more encouraging, but still lacked Australia's variety and penetration, and they dropped at least 20 catches - about four times as many as Australia - in the series.
Only Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash enhanced their reputations with the bat. Darren Gough was magnificent, and in the second half of the series collected the wickets his skill and hostility deserved, including a hat-trick at Sydney. Dean Headley had 14 wickets in his last three innings. These four apart, there were few English successes. Slater and Steve Waugh, who both passed 450 runs, and Glenn McGrath and Stuart MacGill, with 24 and 27 wickets respectively, were the towering figures. Anybody selecting an eclectic team would struggle to find room for more than three England players, Hussain, Ramprakash and Gough.
England believed that the absence through injury of Shane Warne could give them their best opportunity of matching Australia in the 1990s. They were confounded by the emergence of another leg-spinner who proved almost as effective. MacGill had been a failure in English club cricket, where his temperament had betrayed him. The problem, he explained, was that he could not understand the notion of people playing such a serious game for fun. He was far better suited to Test matches. Indeed, when the great man returned for the Sydney Test, MacGill took 12 wickets to Warne's two. MacGill had the better-disguised googly and, though he was far less accurate than Warne at his best, he became much more reliable as the series progressed.
He was backed up by an even more improbable spinning partner: 34-year-old Colin 'Funky' Miller, a Bohemian character and journeyman cricketer who had played almost everywhere and now lived above a pub in Hobart. Late in his career, Miller had started experimenting with off-breaks, and bowled them far more vigorously and effectively than England's off-spinners, Robert Croft and Peter Such, who had been chosen on the misguided notion that they would bowl into left-armer Alan Mullally's rough. The plan failed completely.
Australia's batsmen always conveyed the impression that the runs would come from someone, somehow. Slater's three centuries were all in the second innings, with Australia already on top; Steve Waugh's two actually came in the two Tests they did not win. But Langer played a decisive innings in the extreme conditions of Adelaide, and Mark Waugh at Sydney. If necessary, the tail provided runs, something England found impossible to achieve. And their aura of dominance was personified by Mark Taylor, whose captaincy was logical, sound and secure. He exuded confidence and control throughout the series in both his strategy and his demeanour.
England chose a squad embracing qualities such as commitment, teamwork and reliability. Potential boat-rockers and slackers were left at home. So Andrew Caddick, despite being the only English bowler to take 100 first-class wickets in the domestic season, was not chosen. Too fickle, thought Stewart and the selectors. Phil Tufnell, who had 11 for 93 the previous time England played Australia, at The Oval in 1997, was also omitted. Too volatile. And Graeme Hick, a century-maker in the final Test of the summer against Sri Lanka, initially missed out, although he was summoned as a replacement. Too inconsistent. The choice of both Croft and Such wasted the place which should have been occupied by Tufnell. Croft began the tour as first choice but bowled so disappointingly that Such had overtaken him by the Third Test. An even more central plank of England's strategy - Stewart's role as captain, No. 4 batsman and wicket-keeper - was also abandoned by the Fourth Test. After registering five first-class ducks, two in the Tests, Stewart discarded his gauntlets and immediately made a century in Melbourne. But the eternal struggle to find a balance of six batsmen and five bowlers, without undermining Stewart's own game, was never resolved. Not for the first time in recent years, England really needed to pick 12 players.
Stewart and Graham Gooch, as captain and tour manager, adopted similar principles to those in force when Stewart's father, Micky, was team manager and Gooch captain on the 1990-91 tour. Hard work was the doctrine, although the players were permitted selected days off. Some players said privately they felt under almost as much pressure at net practice when Gooch was around as they did in actual matches. Gooch, a selector at home, had been appointed to give continuity to England's selections on tour. He attacked his duties with relish, avoiding the tinkling of gin and tonic glasses as much as possible; instead, he preferred to run for an hour before breakfast, put on his tracksuit and tutor the batsmen. He also had significant input on tactics. With David Lloyd, the coach, on a final warning for comments he made about the action of the Sri Lankan, Muttiah Muralitharan, at The Oval the previous summer, Gooch became the public face and voice of the tour. Lloyd was largely kept away from TV cameras and reporters' notebooks for fear of further faux pas. Indeed, Gooch's influence marginalised Lloyd, who concentrated on overall planning, dissecting the opposition, and motivation. The players continued to treasure him, but he announced his resignation soon after returning home.
No player can have had a greater workload than Stewart on his first tour as captain. At 35, he was as fit, enthusiastic and immaculate as ever. His leadership style relied more on remember the three lions on your chest than tactical finesse. But his strutting demeanour at least made England look purposeful, and he could not be blamed for the injuries, dropped catches and batting collapses. He appeared not to support the decision to play Alex Tudor ahead of Mullally in the Fifth Test - the most glaring error of the tour: Tudor bowled only 17 overs in the match.
England's injury problems started almost immediately. Stewart tweaked his back in the pipe-opener at Lilac Hill and missed the match against Western Australia. Stewart's problem did not recur but Atherton's chronic back condition, which also kept him out of the Western Australia game, ruined his tour. He struggled to duck bouncers, so he took them on and hooked, a shot which caused his downfall in the second innings at Brisbane. His Nemesis, McGrath, dismissed him in his first three innings of the series, and thereafter Atherton rarely looked like making an impact. He scored his first double-century against a depleted Australian XI attack in Hobart, but then followed it with his first pair in Test cricket at the MCG, by which time his footwork was almost non-existent and his bat was coming down crooked. He missed the final test when his back worsened again, and there was speculation - unfounded, it turned out - that his England career was over.
In the state match in Perth, Mark Butcher required ten stitches above his right eye after ducking into a good length ball. His scores leading into the First Test were 0 retired hurt, 2, 5, 2 and 0, so it was a triumph of will when he scored a century at Brisbane. But he fell away after that. By contrast, Hussain made 118 and Ramprakash 81 against Western Australia, and these innings were preludes of what was to come. Although neither made a Test century and Ramprakash, curiously, was dismissed for 14 four times in the series (and once more on the tour), both batted with authority and skill. Hussain was particularly adept at withdrawing his bat at the last minute from the line of MacGill's leg-breaks, even though he often did not spot the googly. Ramprakash played low, with a straight bat and positive footwork. Thorpe scored a career-best 223 not out as he and Ramprakash put on 377 together against South Australia. He then made 77 in the First Test. But, after he missed the Second, an attempted return ended in breakdown and he flew home. An operation the previous July to remove a cyst clearly had not cured Thorpe's back problems, and his absence was a grievous blow to England.
Hick arrived initially as cover for Atherton, and stayed when Thorpe departed. He made aggressive sixties in Perth and Melbourne, but failed in Adelaide and Sydney. John Crawley, another who could have made up the shortfall of runs caused by Thorpe's injury, had a wretched time. Apart from a vulnerability around off stump, Crawley, on his fifth successive England tour, still lacked the assertive disposition essential for sucess at this level. To make matters worse, he was beaten up in Cairns as he walked from a bar to the team hotel at midnight.
Before the tour, the consensus was that England should be able to score enough runs but might struggle to bowl out the powerful Australian batting line-up twice. The reverse proved true. England consistently under-achieved with the bat but generally bowled adequately, capturing all 20 wickets in each of the last two Tests. With moderate luck, Gough could have taken closer to 30 Test wickets than the 21 he got. He was the fastest bowler on either side, and no delivery was propelled with less than 100 per cent effort. Importantly, he stayed fit; his previous injuries have been costly to England. Headley was next best, with 19, and his irresistible spell on the final day at Melbourne provided the highlight of the tour. Mullally took five wickets in Brisbane and produced a superb, swinging spell without luck in Perth, but his effectiveness diminished and he was dropped for the final Test. Angus Fraser, England's best bowler of 1998, lacked incisiveness on pitches offering little lateral movement.
The familiar concerns about Dominic Cork - irritating personality, on-field histrionics and questionable attitude - appeared again, and he did not swing the Kookaburra ball, either. The tour hierarchy was not impressed, and he quickly slipped towards the bottom of the quick bowlers' pecking order. Cork and Hussain were notable absentees when a preliminary squad of 23 for the one-day series which followed the Tests was announced in November, but their reactions were telling. Hussain became England's leading scorer in the Test series, making 407 runs, and forced his way into the limited-overs squad. Cork bowled disappointingly and turned into a fringe figure.
Tudor took five wickets on his Test debut in Perth - his first two were the Waugh twins - but then was not picked in Adelaide, when he probably should have been, and did play in Sydney, when he should not. He was keen to learn and benefited from the presence of a full-time bowling coach, Bob Cottam, who worked on Tudor's run-up and added control to his raw pace. Ben Hollioake, the only player in the original squad not to appear in a Test, was injured early on and then lost form and confidence. To watch him struggling to pinch singles from part-time bowlers in Hobart was painful. This was a man who, 19 months earlier, was smashing McGrath down the ground in a one-day international at Lord's. Warren Hegg, the reserve wicket-keeper, unexpectedly played in the final two Tests when Stewart's role changed, but his glovework was below the highest class.
England, six wickets down with half of the final day remaining, were saved from defeat in Brisbane by a spectacular electrical storm. They were crushed inside three days on the fast, bouncy surface in Perth and then, against a background of revelations about Warne and Mark Waugh having received money from an Indian bookmaker, comprehensively defeated in Adelaide. Any chance of regaining the Ashes had gone after just three Tests. Victory in Melbourne provided some sort of recompense, but the natural order was restored in Sydney.
The series confirmed Australia's position at the pinnacle of Test cricket. Despite the absence of Warne until Sydney, they were easily strong enough. Their mental toughness and ability to prevail in the crucial passages of play proved as important as their basic cricketing skill. England were shown still to be a long way behind.
Match reports for
ACB Chairman's XI v England XI at Perth (Lilac Hill), Oct 29, 1998
Western Australia v England XI at Perth, Oct 31-Nov 3, 1998
South Australia v England XI at Adelaide, Nov 7-10, 1998
Queensland v England XI at Cairns, Nov 13-16, 1998
Victoria v England XI at Melbourne, Dec 5-8, 1998
Prime Minister's XI v England XI at Canberra, Dec 17, 1998
Australian XI v England XI at Hobart, Dec 19-22, 1998
Queensland Country v England XI at Brisbane, Dec 30, 1998
Bradman XI v England XI at Bowral, Jan 1, 1999
Queensland Academy of Sport v England XI at Brisbane, Jan 4, 1999
Queensland v England XI at Brisbane, Jan 8, 1999
2nd Final: Australia v England at Melbourne, Feb 12, 1999