On December 29, 1998, Dean Headley bagged figures of six for 60 to steer England to a famous 12-run win at Melbourne during the Boxing Day Test. Karthik Parimal looks back at the spell that caught the Australians unaware on that eventful evening.
Like was the norm during every Ashes series of the late 1990s and early 2000, England were annihilated and the urn lost even before the fourth Test commenced. In 1998-99, they were 0-2 down and looked insipid as ever before the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne. Yet, the thousands of English fans who made the trip Down Under held on to their tickets, for the pattern of the previous series suggested that a one-off victory was in the offing. By the end of the fourth evening, the cavalry would not be disappointed as England, steered by Dean Headley’s brilliance, pulled off one of the most memorable heists.
Headley hailed from a family of cricketers. His grandfather, George Headley, was the first amongst the best of batsmen produced by West Indies whereas his father, Ron Headley, was a First-Class stalwart who donned the Test cap on two occasions. Dean took over the mantle after migrating to England and, through performances for Kent, barged into an unsettled English line-up. His West Indian genes immediately became evident as, even in his brief cricketing career, the Australian batsmen respected his abilities as a seamer after the work over usually meted out to them. On the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) turf came his finest moment.
The build-up to the fourth evening
There was no play on the first day owing to continuous rain and a damp outfield. The next day, having won the toss, and in the absence of Shane Warne, Steve Waugh chose to bowl first so his pacers could have their say on a tricky surface. Michael Atherton and Mark Butcher trudged back to the hut with scores of nought and it was Alec Stewart, the newly appointed English captain, who led the recovery process. In Mark Ramprakash, he found a stoic partner and the two galloped to propel the team to a total of 200 for three. But once Stewart succumbed after notching a hundred, the rest of the middle and lower-middle order collapsed within the next 70 runs. A first innings score of 270 wasn’t intimidating, but Australia’s shaky start reignited hopes.
Mark Taylor and Michael Slater were both flummoxed by a searing Darren Gough and it was Steve Waugh’s blitzkrieg that got Australia out of doldrums. He remained unbeaten on 122 and was duly backed by the tail-enders. At one point, it looked as though the English would narrowly lead, but MacGill’s 43 — his highest score in Tests — ensured it was the Australians who led by 70 runs in the end. As always, Waugh placed his faith in the batting abilities of his bowlers and it reaped rich dividends. Little did he know the same move would cost his team a win on the fourth evening.
England’s reply was off to a faltering start. By stumps on the third day, they trailed by five runs and were two wickets down. Headley, the nightwatchman, perished the next morning and Stewart, too, fell for 52. Nasser Hussain and Graeme Hick then chipped in with fifties but none of the rest offered considerable resistance. They were bowled out for 244 post lunch, and the target for the Australians was a paltry 175 in a little over four sessions. Australia seldom chased small totals nonchalantly, and it was on this syndrome of theirs the English hoped to capitalise.
As Gough and Headley began in tandem, the Australians realised the chase was by no means going to be a cakewalk. While some deliveries took off from good length, a few stayed low. It was the latter that led to Slater’s dismissal. Headley, the lanky fast bowler, kept at the batsman’s stumps and was aptly rewarded. Alan Mullally then bagged Taylor, but Justin Langer and Mark Waugh rallied with ease, as if wondering what the commotion with regards to the pitch was all about. They sauntered to 103 for two before Mullally struck again to dismiss Langer. At this juncture, Steve Waugh strode out to join his brother, and the two carried on devoid of any drama. In a move that would eventually change the course of the game, Stewart tossed the ball to Headley for a second spell.
He instantly had Mark Waugh caught in the slip cordon with a good length ball that shaped away from the right-hander in its last lap. Ten runs later, a full pitched delivery got rid of Darren Lehmann, caught behind by wicketkeeper Warren Hegg. In his next over, he had Ian Healy pushing at the ball, away from his body, as Hick safely pouched it in the slips. Three balls later, Damien Fleming was trapped plumb in front of the stumps and, at 140 for seven — with Steve Waugh still stranded at the other end — the Australians were in complete disarray.
Headley’s sixth wicket came in the form of Matthew Nicholson when he edged one to the ‘keeper with just 14 runs remaining to win. By now, Waugh was ruing the fact that he’d asked the umpires for an extra half-hour to finish the game (rules allow for extension of play if a considerable chunk of time has been lost owing to weather or bad conditions). Stewart, who was fuming a few minutes ago, was now in a state of frenzy. Victory was tantalisingly close. Gough, who was wicketless until that point in the innings, knocked MacGill’s timber before trapping Glenn McGrath for nought — equalling the Australian record of 16 ducks at the time — to conclude matters.
England’s joy knew no bounds. Waugh, unbeaten on 30, was livid with himself as Australia fell short by just 12 runs. He was castigated by Ian Chappell in the press box, but heaps of praise was duly showered on Headley, who finished with figures of six for 60, his best in Test cricket.
England 270 (Alec Stewart 107, Mark Ramprakash 63; Stuart MacGill 4 for 61, Glenn McGrath 3 for 64) and 244 (Alec Stewart 52, Nasser Hussain 50, Graeme Hick 60; Matthew Nicholson 3 for 56, Stuart MacGill 3 for 81) beat Australia 340 (Steve Waugh 122*; Darren Gough 5 for 96, Alan Mullally 3 for 64) and 162 (Mark Waugh 43; Dean Headley 6 for 60) by 12 runs.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)