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The art of lion-taming

Gideon Haigh watches as New Zealand make Waugh's dominators fight for survival

Gideon Haigh
Gideon Haigh
When New Zealand overthrew Australia in the 1999 World Cup, Steve Waugh described them as "a team without stars" who nonetheless "always seem to play well against us". The description again proved sound in this inconclusive three-Test series; one might even say, given the role of rain in the first two Tests, that it held water. Although Australia seemed always to have a significant edge in talent, it was the visitors who came closest to wresting a victory, being a flukey hit or two away at Brisbane and ascendant for most of the time in Perth.
Victory in the first Test would have been a bit rum, the opportunity arising from a last-day declaration. Waugh's explanation was, commendably, that he believed in entertaining cricket. But there may also have been a touch of vanity: the Australians are fond of their image as an attacking, attractive side, and inclined to gestures that tend it.
There was nothing contrived about the third Test, where the Australians found their nine-year hegemony at home under acute threat. On a long-life WACA pitch that tamed Shane Warne, Daniel Vettori bowled almost 80 teasing overs for 8 wickets but ultimately lacked support. Steve Waugh's defence and Adam Gilchrist's defiance steered their team to sanctuary after an absorbing final day.
With kinder conditions this might have been a Test series of the first rank. Even condemned by cloudbursts, the first two matches contained some memorable, red-blooded cricket. In Australia's case the fortunes of the Ashes series were reversed: the Waughs and Damien Martyn, 1,133 runs between them in England, scavenged 19 in six hits; Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden and Brett Lee, nugatory in the northern summer, all enjoyed redemptive performances.
Building on their 158-run stand in their first start at The Oval, Australia's new-look left-hand opening combination commenced the first Test with 224 in just over four hours and the second with 223 in three hours and 20 minutes. Hayden's blacksmith blows neutralised the threat of Vettori in Brisbane, while Langer's busy acquisitiveness made the New Zealand pace attack appear alarmingly pedestrian in Hobart. Stephen Fleming's decisions to bowl first were mocked; Michael Slater's appearances in TV ads for the new Aussie Test sponsor Orange looked increasingly incongruous. Lee, meanwhile, rediscovered some of the hostility that goes with his histrionics, taking his first bag-of-five in 12 months and showing panache with the bat.
Other centuries came from the indefatigable Gilchrist at Brisbane and the irrepressible Ricky Ponting at Hobart, both marshalling the tail skilfully after middle-order collapses. Ponting, unusually fallible in the field in England, also returned to his dynamic best as a catcher: he made two crucial interventions at the Gabba, arresting a fierce slash from Mathew Sinclair in the gully and swallowing Chris Cairns at long-on to stem the visitors' victory thrust.
New Zealand, for their part, showed the capacity for orderly retreat that so often eludes England. At Hobart, Fleming and Craig McMillan demonstrated guerilla-like tenacity, spending 40 overs over a partnership of 97 in the face of some hot Aussie pace. And from the moment Fleming made wiser use of his tossing luck in Perth, the visitors seemed inspired by the surrounds - the scene, 16 years ago, of their country's only series win in Australia.
Auckland's Lou Vincent, a 23-year-old middle-order batsman cum wicketkeeper, proved an inspired casting as opener, becoming the sixth New Zealander to register a century on debut. Beaten agonisingly by his first ball from Glenn McGrath, he survived an inauspicious first half-hour and prospered once McGrath left the field with back spasms after the ninth over. With fluent support from Fleming - who made one wonder why this was only his third hundred in 63 Tests - Vincent led his team to the high ground of 218 for 3 before the second new ball took toll late in the day.
None could have guessed at the outset of the second day that Australia would require a third new ball before New Zealand's entrenchment was done. After Fleming had committed his men to a total of "350-plus", Nathan Astle and Adam Parore not only held Australia at bay for two sessions but never appeared in difficulty. Both posted their highest Test scores in history's largest eighth-wicket stand at Australian expense - 253 in just over five hours. Not since the Trent Bridge Test of 1938, when England declared at 658 for 8 on a pitch mummified with marl, had an Australian opponent erected a scoreline featuring four centuries. The only difference between Bill O'Reilly's remonstrations on that occasion and Shane Warne's on this were that the latter were shared with the pitch microphones.
The Australians looked shakier still when Vettori, harnessing a helpful breeze and obtaining discomfiting bounce, accounted for both Waughs and Gilchrist. Langer's quest for a fourth consecutive Test century also ended in unusual circumstances with him walking when he feathered a leg-side long-hop from Cairns, then having rueful second thoughts when the big screen replay revealed the delivery to have been a no ball, unpunished by the umpire Ian Robinson.
But the New Zealanders squandered the rare chance to force Australia to follow on, Astle and Cairns both missing chances from Warne. Thus spared, the wannabe allrounder proceeded to a robust Test best before joining his skipper, Kim Hughes and Geoff Boycott among those who have been marooned a run shy of a hundred at the WACA. A pity that Mark Richardson, who accepted his miscue at deep midwicket, had to demonstrate his glee with a boorish bow to the crowd: imagine the furore had Warne been perpetrator rather than disappointed onlooker in this burlesque.
Fleming judged his target-setting nicely, and the last day required either 371 of the hosts or eight wickets of their guests. The Australians made propitious headway in the pre-lunch session, losing only Hayden in adding 88, and Mark Waugh looked as though he could bat until the crack of doom. But after 169 careful minutes, and having just struck Vettori for four and six, he drew away to cut McMillan and dragged on.
The rest of the day was like channel surfing between Survivor and Temptation Island. The Australians seemed at first to be holding on and may have been lucky to do so: having eked out 13 in an hour, Steve Waugh made a mess of his favourite back-foot flail only for Robinson to reject the caught-behind appeal. Then Gilchrist surged to 50 in 61 balls after tea, poaching 33 from successive overs by Vettori and Cairns. With the field scattered, New Zealand's grip on the game loosened for the first time since the opening half-hour.
The spell was broken when, with 100 needed from 78 balls, Waugh's innings was unluckily concluded by run-out, the ball deflecting off bowler Vettori's hand. With Warne's run-out 10 minutes later the heroics officially ended, though there was time enough for Robinson to grieve the visitors once more by failing to detect Gillespie's glove down the leg side with seven overs left. In the end both sides could derive something from the Test: the Australians had demonstrated aptitude in the unfamiliar art of strategic withdrawal; the New Zealanders had earned many friends in five days of non-stop, non-star entertainment.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer