Michael Slater slammed 123 in 189 balls on January 4, 1999 at Sydney. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the greatest Test innings of all time.
“You have got the live telecasts, but our era had been exposed to cricket of a superior quality” was the usual taunt we had to face from the elders. They especially insisted on Ashes, and boasted of iconic performances from Don Bradman and Jack Hobbs and Victor Trumper and Len Hutton and Herbert Sutcliffe and Greg Chappell.
Indeed, we have had some quality Ashes performances; there have been prolific names; but nobody seemed to have played an innings that would be a contender for the top 10 Ashes innings of all time. No one.
The Ashes had begun in familiar fashion: the teams had played out for a draw (England were six down at tea on the final day when rain intervened) at The Gabba; Damien Fleming blew apart England at the WACA; and Justin Langer’s 179 helped secure a 205-run victory at Adelaide. The Ashes was retained.
England pulled things back somewhat against the run of play at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG): chasing 175 Australia were cruising along at 130 for three when Dean Headley bowled the spell of his life: he picked up six for 60 to pull off a historic 12-run victory. England could not regain the Ashes, but they could at least draw the rubber.
The pitch at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) seemed to be a rank turner: Australia drafted in Colin Miller and Shane Warne (who was back after a year after nursing a shoulder injury) along with Stuart MacGill, with Glenn McGrath playing as the only seamer. England included Peter Such and the man who was supposedly their best player of spin — John Crawley. They faced a major blow when Mike Atherton had to opt out due to a back injury at the last moment.
Mark Taylor won the toss and decided to bat. Taylor thus became only the fourth captain to win tosses in all five Tests in an Ashes contest (the previous three being Stanley Jackson in 1905, Monty Noble in 1909, and Lindsay Hassett in 1953). In fact, Taylor was involved in a run where he had won 11 of the last 12 tosses in the Ashes — missing out only at The Oval in 1997.
Day One: Australia wage Waugh; Gough hits back
England began well with Headley having Taylor caught at slips for a brace. Slater was caught behind soon of the same bowler, and despite a bright start, Langer fell to Alex Tudor in the 14th over of the match. Steve Waugh walked out to join his twin.
The Waughs batted on in their contrasting styles: Mark caressed the ball, being particularly severe square of the wicket; Steve waited for his time but leaving no loose ball unpunished. Australia went to lunch at 101 for three with Mark Waugh on 26 and his twin on 22.
Things took a bad turn for England in the second session. The pair walked back at tea at 214; Mark was on 78 and Steve on 81. With the main four bowlers failing to make a breakthrough, Alec Stewart had turned to the innocuous off-breaks of Mark Ramprakash, but to no avail.
Things took a dramatic turn after Such ran through Steve Waugh’s defence. The elder Waugh had scored a 171-ball 96 with nine fours; the pair had added 190 in 319 balls, and Australia seemed to be in complete control of the match. It was Steve Waugh’s ninth dismissal in the nineties — which took him past Alvin Kallicharran’s world record of eight. It was also the second-highest partnership for the twins (after their 231 at Sabina Park in 1994-95).
With a decent total already on the board, Darren Lehmann took charge: whatever confidence the hapless English bowlers had obtained in getting Waugh was broken by Lehmann’s 37-ball 32. Quickly 42 runs were added in 10 overs before the southpaw holed out to Nasser Hussain off Tudor.
Mark Waugh had reached his hundred meanwhile and had scored a 205-ball 121 with 10 fours before edging one off Headley. When Warne walked out to join Ian Healy at 319 for six, it seemed that Australia may reach 400.
It was then that Darren Gough produced a snorter that took off from a good-length; Healy could not avoid it and the ball flew into Warren Hegg’s gloves. MacGill, mysteriously promoted above Miller, attempted a strange defensive stroke off Gough’s next delivery; the yorker uprooted the middle-stump.
The next ball was another yorker (Wisden called it ‘a swerving torpedo’): Miller’s off-stump was pegged back. Gough became the first player since Dominic Cork in 1995 to take a hat-trick; he was also the first since Warne in 1994-95 to take an Ashes hat-trick.
McGrath put the last ball of Gough’s over out; however, after Warne took a single off the second ball of Headley’s next over, McGrath edged the next ball to Graeme Hick. Australia were bowled out for 322. They had lost their last five wickets for three runs in the space of 15 balls.
Day Two: Australia take lead
The second morning started with McGrath finding Stewart’s edge early in the morning. McGrath became the 10th Australian bowler to reach the 200-wicket milestone with Stewart’s wicket, who was caught by Warne at slip.
Warne trapped Mark Butcher leg-before with his fourth ball but Hussain and Ramprakash held fort; England went to lunch at 82 for two with Hussain on 22 and Ramprakash on 12: they had a slightly lower scoring rate than Australia’s but had lost a wicket lesser.
Ramprakash fell to McGrath soon after lunch before Graeme Hick helped Hussain put on 49 more. Hussain showed immense character in battling out against the three spinners, playing every ball on its merit. He lost Hick, who became MacGill’s first wicket, and eventually fell for a 126-ball 42: the catch at silly-point was Mark Waugh’s 100th; he became the 14th non-wicket-keeper and sixth Australian to reach the mark.
Crawley then lived up to his reputation, top-scoring with a bright 75-ball 44 while MacGill ran through the rest, picking up five for 57. The Australian bowling was extremely accurate, and backed up by some outstanding fielding they conceded only 41 runs in the 80.1 overs they bowled. England had scored 220 and had conceded a lead of 102.
Slater (11) and Taylor (2) played out the seven overs that remained in the day; Australia returned at 13 without loss, effectively 115 runs ahead.
Great innings are typically measured based on four main criterions: the role it played in the match; the value of it in comparison with the team-members; the adversity of the conditions; and possibly the least of the four, the visual appeal. Slater’s innings met all four conditions.
The pitch was turning, as MacGill and Warne had displayed the previous day. Someone needed to play a decent innings to take England’s target beyond the 250-mark. Taylor was dismissed early in the innings by Gough; Australia were 16. Headley bowled with three slips and a gully: an unperturbed Slater began his day with a steer between the slips and gully for four.
Meanwhile, Headley had trapped Langer leg-before for one. He bowled one closer to Slater’s stumps; Slater had realised that the ball was too close to be cut: he simply turned the face of the bat, and the ball sped to the fence: it was a perfect example of an improvised stroke executed to near-perfection.
It was at this stage that Slater escaped a run out: when he was on 35 and Australia on 60, he attempted a second run for Mark Waugh off Such back to the non-striker’s end; the direct hit from Headley seemed to have found Slater short of his ground. Slater had even taken his gloves off.
However, Steve Dunne referred it to the third umpire, and after much deliberation, Simon Taufel gave Slater the benefit of doubt. “It transpired that the cameras on which [Simon] Taufel relied were not perpendicular to the crease, and that the bowler, [Peter] Such, had inadvertently obscured the precise instant of the stumps’ disintegration,” wrote Wisden.
As Such came on, Slater stepped out and slog-swept him to mid-wicket for a four. Mark Waugh fell to Headley, but when Such tossed up another one, Slater slog-swept him again, this time over mid-wicket into the stands. He lost Lehmann to Such at the stroke of lunch: Australia returned at the interval with 74 for four on the board with Slater on 47 and Healy yet to score.
The fifty came up immediately after lunch when Slater stepped out and lofted Such over mid-off for a boundary. Such, however, picked out Healy at the other end. When Headley came back and bounced Slater, he hooked, and was lucky to get away as the ball soared over Warren Hegg for a four.
England kept pegging away at the wickets: Steve Waugh, nursing a hamstring strain and batting at seven, was next, clean bowled by Headley. Such tossed yet another one up to Slater who simply stepped out and dismissed him over long-off for a six.
Slater erupted after Steve Waugh’s dismissal: it was an exhilarating display of footwork and strokeplay on a turning track; it was as if Slater was batting on a different surface; every other Australian batsman struggled to keep out Gough, Headley, and Such, but Slater treated with such disdain that he might have been batting in a club match.
Still optimistic, Such tossed another one up outside off-stump: the line was the same, the length was the same, and the flight was identical; but so were the footwork, the intimidating back-lift, and the ferocious follow-through. It was a four over extra-cover. Slater did not run; he simply got back to his crease, chewing gum nonchalantly.
Stewart brought back Gough, and Slater smashed him through cover for a four; Gough attempted a slower ball — only to be hit by Slater straight over his head, one bounce for a four. Slater had rushed to 92 out of a team score of 139.
He lost Warne shortly afterwards, caught off Such; as MacGill walked out Slater probably realised that he would be running out of partners and decided to move to the top gear. The hundred came up with a boundary off Gough — a stroke that resembled a tennis forehand stroke more than an off-drive: the ball rushed to the fence; Slater’s hundred had come off a team score of 148.
In the frenzy of celebrations Slater walked up to mid-wicket, looked confused, and then back-tracked his way back to the batting crease; and promptly hit Gough back past him. The ball was over-pitched, and Slater did not even bother to move his feet; the ball simply vanished.
The tireless Such tossed yet another one up, and Slater hit him for his third six: the ball soared just past the sight-screen. Australia went to tea at 178 for seven with Slater on 122 and MacGill on five. Slater had scored 68.53 per cent of the runs scored by Australia at this stage — ahead of Charles Bannerman’s record of 67.34 per cent set in the very first Test. Could he remain past Bannerman?
He could not. Immediately after tea he attempted to cut Headley off one that was close to his body and edged to Hegg for an 189-ball 123. In a breathtaking display that lasted for 271 minutes, Slater had hit 11 fours and three sixes. Seldom has SCG seen a better innings.
Such cleaned up the innings with the remaining two wickets. Australia finished at 184, which meant that Slater’s contribution came down to 66.84 per cent. It still remains the second-highest percentage of runs in a completed innings. Other than Mark Waugh (24) nobody else in the innings had gone past eight.
England began well chasing 287, with Butcher and Stewart putting up 57 for the first wicket at over four runs an over. Both batsmen got out stumped while counterattacking, Butcher off Warne and Stewart of MacGill. It was only the fourth time in history that both batsmen had got out stumped in a Test innings. England were still in the Test at stumps: they had scored 104 for two; Hussain was on 17, Ramprakash on 14, and they needed 184 runs more.
Day Four: SCG’s SCG
Taylor wisely started with McGrath, and the decision paid in the fifth over of the day. Ramprakash edged one to Taylor, who, with the catch, went past Allan Border’s world record of 156 catches. Hussain found some support in Hick, but once the latter was bowled by MacGill the floodgates opened.
Hussain fought manly with a 129-ball 53, becoming the only Englishman to score a fifty in the Test. From 131 for three England collapsed to 188, losing the Test by 98 runs and the series by a 1-3 margin. MacGill finished with his best First-Class figures of seven for 50 and match figures of 12 for 107. Wisden called it “intelligent exploitation of the conditions”.
MacGill’s figures were the best in the history of SCG since Charlie Turner’s 12 for 87 in the 1888-89 Ashes. It was perhaps fitting that MacGill’s initials read SCG — Stuart Charles Glyndwr.
On a side-note
Despite remaining in the shadows of Warne throughout his career MacGill actually dominated the proceedings when both of them had played together, as in this case. The table below demonstrates it.
Australia 322 (Mark Waugh 121, Steve Waugh 96; Dean Headley 4 for 62, Darren Gough 3 for 61) and 184 (Michael Slater 123; Peter Such 5 for 81, Dean Headley 4 for 40) beat England 220 (Nasser Hussain 42, John Crawley 44; Stuart MacGill 5 for 57) and 188 (Alec Stewart 42, Nasser Hussain 53; Stuart MacGill 7 for 50) by 98 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)