As cricket entered the last decade of the 20th century, the tides of change were becoming apparent. West Indies were still the undisputed champions of world cricket, but Australia was breathing down their necks, and the difference between the two teams was closing fast. The first Frank Worrell Trophy of the decade (1990-91) saw the West Indies reassert their dominance, winning 2-1, with Australia managing a win in a dead rubber. However, the Aussies were gaining momentum, and the West Indians were losing the same, as a host of legends bid adieu to the game over the next year and a half. The 1992 world cup in Australia and New Zealand was a torrid experience for West Indies under their new captain Richie Richardson.
Predictably, as the next trip to Australia loomed large, no one was prepared to give the young West Indies team much of a chance, not even their own board. As Curtly Ambrose put it in his autobiography “Time to Talk”, “There was not one member of the West Indies Cricket Board to see us off and wish us all the best, which was very unusual. Whenever we departed for a tour there was always a board official to see us off. But on this occasion only a lower-ranking liaison officer to see that we checked in OK et cetera.” Although the bowling looked good in the safe hands of the ever-formidable Ambrose, the tireless Walsh, the hostile Ian Bishop (coming back after an injury lay-off), and the reliable Kenny Benjamin, the batting looked severely depleted. This was the first time in two decades that West Indies were about to face Australia without the services of Vivian Richards and Gordon Greenidge, and the responsibility lay heavily on the shoulders of the experienced Desmond Haynes, who was at the fag end of his career, Richie Richardson, captaining the side for the first time on a full tour, and the talented yet forever under-performing Carl Hooper.
The first match at the Gabba began brightly enough for the West Indies, with them taking a healthy first-innings lead thanks to a maiden hundred from the rookie Keith Arthurton. However, it went downhill from there. Faced with a 4th innings target of 231 runs, they soon collapsed to 9/4, and finally managed to hang on for a draw largely thanks to some brave stonewalling from their captain Richardson, the experienced Hooper, and the unlikely batsman Ian Bishop.
The second test match, the annual Boxing Day test match at the MCG, was an unmitigated disaster for the Caribbeans. Australia took a heavy lead in the first innings thanks to centuries from the young Mark Waugh and the experienced Captain Grumpy, Allan Border. Although West Indies fought back hard with the ball in the second innings, faced with a humongous chase of 359 runs in the last innings, they were ambushed by the wizardry of a young Shane Warne. Warne’s 7/52 was his first five-wicket haul at test level, and set him off on a glorious career over the next 13 years.
The third test match at the SCG saw another young star shining brightly for the first time. Faced with a massive Australian total of 503/9, trailing 0-1 in the series, the West Indies desperately needed someone to step up. The person to do so was someone who would play this role repeatedly over the next 13 years. The rookie Brian Charles Lara unleashed an innings of breathtaking brilliance, and extended his maiden test century to 277 runs, as West Indies managed to overhaul Australia’s total and the match petered out to a draw.
However, this innings from Lara effectively turned the tide for the West Indies. The entire team was infused with newfound confidence, which they carried into the World Series Cricket ODI tournament that followed (involving Pakistan, apart from West Indies and Australia), and won their 4th consecutive World Series trophy with the pomp of their golden days. The first final of this series involved the curious case of Dean Jones wantonly disobeying the cardinal rule of Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus (“never tickle a sleeping dragon” for the uninitiated) when he asked Curtly Ambrose to remove his sweatbands while bowling. An incensed Ambrose blew Australia away, and along with his team, carried the momentum into the fourth test.
The Closest Test of All
After the interlude of pyjama cricket, the serious stuff resumed, with the tour moving on to the scenic Adelaide Oval. Though trailing the series 0-1, and needing to win this game to keep the series alive, West Indies were on a high. They approached this game brimming with confidence and believing that they could still win the series. Jimmy Adams, who was another rookie in that team, remembers, “The senior players weren’t panicking and that had a big influence on everything else. Ambrose and Walsh, Richie and Dessie, they were sort of, “We’re okay, there’s two Tests to go, even though we’re one-nil down.””
The Australians must have felt the shift in momentum, as they went into this game with two changes from the team they fielded at the SCG: Justin Langer made his test debut in place of Damien Martyn, and a like-for-like replacement saw Tim May make a comeback to test cricket after 4 years at the cost of Greg Matthews. West Indies, on the other hand, went in unchanged.
Richardson called correctly at the toss, and decided to bat first on an Adelaide track that did not look like the usual batting beauty, instead offering some help to the bowlers throughout, having endured an unlikely spell of wet weather recently. West Indies began brightly, with the experienced Desmond Haynes and the young Phil Simmons putting on 84, before Steve Waugh, as he had done countless times before this, produced something out of nothing, and induced a leading edge from Simmons off an innocuous delivery that was sliding down the leg. The wickets of Richardson and Haynes followed soon after, and West Indies had begun to stutter. The wily Merv Hughes kept striking at regular intervals and only a calm 52 from Lara and an enterprising 49* from the wicket-keeper Junior Murray got them to 252.
When the Aussies came out to bat late on day 1, they came up against something that can be only mildly termed as “hostility” from the West Indies fast bowlers. Mark Taylor soon nicked off, edging Bishop to the slip cordon. The debutant Langer was given a scorching welcome by Bishop: a sickening blow to the back of his head off his first ball in test cricket. It was baptism by fire; however, to Langer’s credit, he hung on gamely, and scored a gritty 20. The next day was hampered by rain, and Border and Steve Waugh saw Australia through to 100/3 at stumps, having lost Langer and Mark Waugh in the morning, along with David Boon, who had to retire hurt having suffered a painful blow to his elbow from a snorter from Ambrose. Boon did return to the crease on the third morning after the fall of the fifth wicket and stayed unbeaten until the end. However, Curtly Ambrose (6/74) was at his fearsome best, as he ripped the heart out of the Australian middle order, dismissing Border, Steve, and Healy. He was ably supported by the off-spin of Carl Hooper (2/35), and it was only some late-order hitting from Merv Hughes that got Australia to 213.
Having secured a first-innings lead of 39 runs, Richardson would have looked forward to building on it considerably when Haynes and Simmons came out to bat late in the second session of day 3. However, they kept losing wickets at regular intervals and were soon reduced to 65/4, when Hooper came out to join Richardson. They set about repairing the innings with a mixture of caution and aggression, with Richardson taking the long handle to Craig McDermott often. It seemed that the experienced pair had guided West Indies out of the murky waters, when Carl Hooper had a brain-freeze, something that has almost defined his entire career. With the score at 125/4, Hooper tried a wild slog at Tim May, only to be snaffled by Merv Hughes lurking at the deep square-leg boundary. What followed was the sort of mayhem that was soon to become a routine affair for West Indies. They lost the last 6 wickets to the spin of May and Warne for a meagre 21 runs, with May ending up with scarcely believable figures of 6.5-3-9-5 on the eve of his 31st birthday.
A golden opportunity now lay at the Australian doorstep. They had 2 days to chase down a measly target of 186 runs to win the Frank Worrell Trophy for the first time in 17 years. However, they had discounted the fact that the West Indies bowling unit led by Ambrose was primed for destruction. As play resumed on the fourth morning, The Aussie openers Boon and Taylor immediately found that runs were at a premium, the Caribbean opening bowlers Ambrose and Bishop having hit their rhythm right from the word go. Boon fell after scratching around for 17 balls without scoring, trapped lbw by a typical Ambrose off-cutter. Taylor fell not long after, edging Benjamin to Murray behind the stumps. Mark Waugh came out to join the debutant Langer who was looking assured out in the middle, and immediately attacked Bishop with relish. The score galloped on to 54/2, and it had started to seem that Australia would run away with a victory after all, when the tireless workhorse Courtney Walsh got one to bounce from the good length, and Mark Waugh could only fend it off to Hooper at second slip. Steve Waugh, who had made a comeback to test cricket in this series, walked out, and was soon walking back, having hit an innocuous delivery from Ambrose to Arthurton at cover. Arthurton very nearly made a hash of it, but managed to cling on with his fingertips.
West Indies had smelt blood. Ambrose, Bishop, and Walsh tore through the Australian lower middle order, and soon Australia was gasping for breath at 102/8, still 84 runs adrift of the target with only the debutant Langer being the reputed batsman at the crease. However, it was not for nothing that the Aussies were regaining the reputation of world-beaters in recent times. Birthday boy Tim May joined the doughty Langer, and the pair set about repairing the damage, adding runs drip by drip, and off the odd boundaries they could manage as the West Indians started to get edgy with the growing stand. Langer soon reached an immensely satisfying maiden 50, and May was starting to bat with confidence. Danger, though, was lurking round the corner. With the score on 144/8, Langer attempted an ill-advised swipe off Bishop, only to under-edge the ball to Murray, and suddenly the game had tilted firmly back in favour of the Caribbeans. McDermott started shakily, but to the immense displeasure of their opponents, the Australian final wicket pair proved hard to dislodge. Runs were accumulating, and the atmosphere across the Adelaide Oval was charged with rare electricity. New spectators rushed to the stadium as the news of something special taking place at the ground spread across the city. TV cricket ratings also went up, and a new record was set. As May and McDermott inched towards the target, the spectators started egging them on by singing “Waltzing Matilda” in discordant unison.
The faces in the Australian dressing room reflected mixed emotions: mingled tension and apprehension, as they fervently willed their mates on to do the seemingly impossible. Their iconic leader Allan Border, a veteran of many a battle with the West Indies, sat stock still with a ball in his hand, his face stony. On field, the last act of a great drama was unfolding. Richardson had handed the ball to Courtney Walsh as a final throw of the dice. Australia was 3 runs away. May tucked a short ball off his hips behind square leg to scamper for a single; two needed. With the final ball of the over, Walsh produced an absolute ripsnorter that would have had many a frontline batsman in trouble. Pitching on off stump, just short of a good length, the ball climbed like a spitting adder; McDermott tried valiantly to get his bat and his hands out of harm’s way, but the ball managed to flick his glove en route to the keeper. Umpire Darrell Hair upheld the appeal to cue delirious celebrations from the Caribbeans and a stunned silence from the expectant crowd. West Indies had recorded a test match victory by the smallest margin in the history of the game. In the Australian dressing room, Border chucked the ball away, disgusted at another lost opportunity to beat the old foe. Surely, he feared the worst, that with this victory under their belt, West Indies would be virtually unstoppable in the next game at Perth. How right he was. Fittingly, the Man of the Match award went to the indomitable Curtly Ambrose, of whom his captain quipped, “I have never seen a bowler like him.”
West Indies in those days still had the quality that came to define the Australians in the years to come: “You give them an inch, they’ll take a mile”. Finding a Perth pitch to his liking, Curtly Ambrose went on a rampage. In a spell that has come to be known widely as one of the finest spells of bowling in the history of the game, Ambrose took 7 for 1 in 32 balls on the first day. Australia never recovered from the blow, and ended up losing the match by an innings and 25 runs. Curtly “Little Bird” Ambrose walked away with both the Man of the Match and the Man of the Series awards, having taken 33 wickets at an average of 16.4 in the 5 tests. West Indies won their fifth consecutive Frank Worrell Trophy by a 2-1 margin, and clung on to their unofficial status of the no. 1 test side in the world, by the skin of their teeth.
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