Michael Slater scored an outrageous 176 at the Gabba on November 25, 1994. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back the innings that set the tone of the 1994-95 Ashes.
There are blows that shatter the confidence of a team for a session; some others, more severe ones, hit them so severely that they surrendered a Test. On that day at The Gabba, however, Michael Slater played an innings from which they could not recover for the rest of the series.
England had arrived at the series already low on confidence. They had been beaten at home; worse, they had their confidence shattered by the Ball of the Century from Shane Warne. If the Victorian blonde was skilful enough to demolish them on their ground, what would he do to them at his own den?
England’s series started to go wrong even before the first Test at The Gabba began as Devon Malcolm was down with chicken pox and was ruled out of the match. In fact, injuries and illnesses followed England throughout the series. Only four cricketers out of 16 — Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting, Phil Tufnell, and Steve Rhodes — were fit to be selected for every match.
The complete ‘casualty’ list read: Malcolm and Joey Benjamin (chicken pox); Alec Stewart (fractured finger); Graeme Hick (slipped disc); Darren Gough (fractured foot); Craig White and Shaun Udal (both torn side muscles); Martin McCague (shin stress fracture); Michael Atherton (back problems); Graham Thorpe (adductor muscle injury); Phil DeFreitas (groin and hamstring injuries), and John Crawley (calf injury). Even the physiotherapist Dave Roberts fractured a finger during a fielding session.
DeFreitas was not that disappointed, though: “I was still looking forward to the responsibility of bowling the first delivery of an Ashes series.” One cannot blame him; setting off an Ashes is the dream of every English cricketer chases, and for it to come good out of nowhere was something like winning a lottery.
The Australians, on the other hand, had their full team. Allan Border had retired, but the mantle had passed on to the safe hands of Mark Taylor; the batting line-up was sound, the fielding electric, and the bowling in the hands of four more-than-capable bowlers.
Atherton would have loved to bat on what Wisden described as “Brisbane’s driest and most closely shaven pitch for an Ashes Test in more than 20 years.” It was obvious that it would be easy to bat on and would crumble as the match would go on; and so it did, as Taylor called correctly and decided to bat in his first home Test as captain.
The first over of the Ashes
DeFreitas had prepared himself; he knew that he would bowl an out-swinger to test Slater’s patience. The marauder from Wagga Wagga was prone to chasing the ball early in the innings. Ever since Malcolm had declared himself unfit he had come to the ground, had checked out the wind, and had decided to open bowling from Vulture Street End.
When the players arrived at the ground on the day of the match Gatting went up to Atherton and informed him that the wind had changed directions, which meant that DeFreitas should open bowling from the Stanley Street End instead. DeFreitas agreed to the change. He should not have.
Taylor let Slater take strike. DeFreitas pitched the first ball of the series slightly short and outside off-stump; it was certainly not a bad ball; Slater was not, however, willing to raise his bat and let the ball thump into the gloves of the man behind him unscathed. He punched a decent ball to the point boundary. The tone was set.
Gideon Haigh later wrote: “The scorebook confides that [Michael] Slater hit the first ball of the series for four. It relates nothing of how eyes rolled, shoulders sagged and hearts sank among English players, spectators and journalists.” David Hopps added in The Guardian: “From the moment that he [Slater] struck the first ball of the day — delivered wide and short by Phil DeFreitas — to the cover boundary, English hearts were filled with foreboding.”
The shoulders dropped at that instant. Later that over DeFreitas dropped another one short: Slater again biffed the ball, Tufnell misfielded to the surprise of nobody, and for the second time in the over the English morale was hurt badly.
‘Slats’ opens up
McCague was even worse. He bowled short outside the off-stump, and if he did not, he over-pitched, allowing Slater to milk him for easy runs. Christopher Martin-Jenkins wrote in The Telegraph, “He [McCague] simply fed [Michael] Slater, like an indulgent zoo-keeper doling out fish to a friendly seal.” To add insult to the injury Tufnell lived up to his standards, letting another one go through him off a Slater leg-glance, earning his usual quota of boos from the hostile crowd.
The first four overs had leaked 26, and Atherton had to summon Gough. It did not help: a booming cover-drive pierced the field and thudded into the fence. Immediately afterwards Slater lunged at another from DeFreitas, and the ball flew past a fully stretched Stewart at cover.
Taylor was going strong as well, hogging the strike, playing more balls than Slater; but it was the right-hander who shattered the confidence of the English, playing one outrageous stroke after another and getting with each and every one. The first fifty came up with a beautifully timed off-drive that went straight past McCague.
Two quick wickets
A slightly over-pitched delivery from Gough was flicked through mid-wicket for a boundary next. The pair raced along, Taylor beating Slater to the fifty by virtue of facing more balls. He got to a 110-ball 59 with eight fours before Slater’s only blemish of the innings happened: he did not respond to a call from his captain when Taylor had hit Tufnell to Gough at mid-off and had set off for a single.
It did not stop Slater. As DeFreitas pitched one short he brought out that bludgeoning punch of his that disappeared through point. Then came the masterpiece: the next ball from DeFreitas was closer; Slater did not grope for it and let it reach him instead; he simply opened the face of the bat and placed it to the right of second slip.
It was as if some invisible wand had metamorphosed the hammer to a paintbrush for a moment. If the previous strokes would have made you swear, this one would have made you smile. Thorpe had no chance of catching up with the ball.
On came Tufnell, and out came Slater. The ball was banished to the vast, barren terrain at mid-wicket; the bat was raised dutifully, a fresh guard was taken, and Slater went about the destruction peacefully, driving DeFreitas through cover for yet another boundary.
Slater’s fifty had taken him 96 balls and it had included seven fours. Soon afterwards Gough managed to bowl David Boon (who had actually tried to leave the ball), and at 126 for two England thought they were in with a chance of clawing back into the match. It was not, however, likely to happen as the serene yet ominous figure of Mark Waugh appeared at the gates.
No respite for Englishmen
One might have thought that Slater would cut down on the risks after the twin blows. However, when DeFreitas pitched one within the stumps, Slater simply shuffled across and leg-glanced him very fine; had he missed it he would have been out leg-before, but this time it raced to the fence.
A well-run three from a serene extra cover-drive followed, after which it was DeFreitas’s turn again to take the flak. The ball was not that short, but it was pulled with disdain; this was followed almost immediately by yet another high-risk flick off Gough. It seemed he had taken a leaf out of his senior partner’s book.
All strategies fail
Atherton asked the fast bowlers to stick to an off-stump line, maintaining a semi-circle of four to five fielders for Slater. It did not bring about the slightest change; extra-cover dived, but the slightly over-pitched ball from McCague vanished anyway. A picturesque straight-drive followed immediately afterwards, making Mark Waugh scamper across for life.
It did not end there. McCague pitched one just on the leg-stump, and another deft leg-glance fetched Slater four more. The Kent all-rounder fell apart.
Atherton brought on Tufnell as Slater approached his hundred. What if the madman tried to do something funny and threw his wicket away? Tufnell tossed one up, and Slater, instead of going hammer-and-tongs, paddle-swept it delicately for a three, and checked for leg-byes before breaking into a celebration. The hundred had taken him 173 balls and had included 16 boundaries.
A desperate Atherton tossed the ball to Hick. Slater greeted him with a cover-driven boundary, and soon afterwards patted Gough back to the straight boundary to fetch him four more. Then came an ugly, contemptuous, demeaning, morale-shattering cross-batted hoick off Tufnell that disappeared to the mid-wicket fence.
Atherton brought a mid-wicket and brought back DeFreitas, but there was no stopping Slater. Once again, he shuffled across and dispatched DeFreitas to the right of the fielder for four more. As DeFreitas bowled shorter, out came the furious cut, and a misfield did not help England’s cause.
Yet another flick through mid-wicket, this time off McCague, fetched Slater four more and an outstanding 150. The milestone had taken him 224 balls and had included 21 boundaries.
Running out of options, Atherton now turned to the 41-year-old Gooch’s medium-pacers; Slater hit one to the 37-year-old Gatting at over almost immediately. His 176 had taken 244 balls and had lasted 324 minutes; it had also included 25 fours.
The Ashes was decided by that innings alone. England were never able to recover from its impact. The nonchalant gum-chewer walked back to the pavilion. “I guess I got a little bit too cocky,” recollected the man on his innings.
Hopps seemed distraught while recollecting: “[Michael] Slater’s strokeplay was enchanting but any admiration was slightly devalued by the feeling that the story had been seen before. There is a limit to how much more anyone can take, apart from those Australians classified as rabidly nationalistic. That should keep 90 per cent of the country happy. He set upon his quarry with a relish that suggested limitless ambitions.”
Australia 426 (Michael Slater 176, Mark Waugh 140, Mark Taylor 59; Darren Gough 4 for 107) and 248 for 8 decl. (Mark Taylor 48, Ian Healy 45*, Michael Slater 45; Phil Tufnell 4 for 79) beat England 167 (Michael Atherton 54; Craig McDermott 6 for 53, Shane Warne 3 for 39) and 323 (Graeme Hick 80, Graham Thorpe, Graham Gooch; Shane Warne 8 for 71) by 184 runs.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)
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