August 24, 2001. Many believed Steve Waugh’s Ashes were over after he tore his calf midway through the third Test. But the gritty character that he is, Waugh returned for the final fixture at The Oval, against expectations, and smashed an unbeaten 157 on one leg to drive the final nail into England’s coffin. Karthik Parimal looks back at one of most memorable innings in Ashes.
At Trent Bridge, when Australia was on the verge of retaining the Ashes, Steve Waugh was stretchered away after a tear in his lower left calf put an abrupt end to his innings. As he sat in a wheelchair in a deserted hospital room, he was led in on two different bits of information. The good: with a third consecutive victory, Australia had retained the urn. The bad: he was advised a three-to-six-month lay-off, for the tear had caused a breaking point higher up in the muscle, where a rip had occurred. That, Waugh reckoned, was virtually the end of his tour.
He sat with mixed emotions in the Trent Bridge dressing room while the rest of the cavalry took the celebrations a notch higher with each passing minute. A call to his wife, Lynette, dramatically changed Waugh’s perception. “You’re the captain, they need you and you should be there at The Oval to accept the trophy,” she said. That statement pushed Waugh to devise a 19-day recovery program with the team’s physiotherapist Errol Alcott and, with 10 hours of torturous exercise each day, he was in contention for the final Test at The Oval.
Despite not being a hundred per cent fit, Waugh insisted on leading. He missed the fourth game at Headingley as Australia succumbed to England owing to Mark Butcher’s brilliance. Moreover, certain critical decisions pertaining to the future of Michael Slater and also the formation of a new opening pair had to be taken. In the end, it was agreed by all that Waugh’s presence was a necessity.
A story of grit
A turf full of runs greeted the two captains — Waugh and Nasser Hussain — at toss and the moment Waugh called the right side of the coin and opted to bat first, the English cringed. In Slater’s absence, Justin Langer walked alongside Matthew Hayden as the other opener. In due course of time, the two stormed into the annals of cricketing history as one of the finest opening pairs of all time, and glimpses of it were evident on that first morning of the Oval Test. Hayden went about his innings in characteristic fashion but it was Langer who dominated the first session. After adding 158 at almost four runs per over, Phil Tufnell’s slow left-arm orthodox got rid of Hayden, but Langer dropped anchor to score his eighth Test century. Minutes later, he was hit on the helmet trying to hook Andrew Caddick and was hence retired hurt.
If it was respite the English bowlers were looking for, then it was in vain. Ricky Ponting and Mark Waugh carved the attack in a manner that gave an impression they were to board a plane soon. Fifty-six runs later, Ponting fell to medium-fast bowler Jimmy Ormond. At 292 for two, Steve Waugh was greeted with a standing ovation — half because he walked in despite the injury, but mainly since the crowd believed the Test would be his swansong in England. While gently acknowledging the reception, Waugh tried to calm his nerves, for he was constantly thinking of his tentative calf and how he would have let his team down if he were to walk off injured, again. He survived the last session of the day, remaining unbeaten on 12, and the scoreboard reading 324 for two.
The next morning, after briefly studying the surface, Waugh unfurled a cover drive off Tufnell that sped to the long-off fence for a boundary in his third over. That shot broke the shackles and allowed him to breathe a little easy. However, after reaching 30, he felt a sudden, sharp pain, this time in the middle of his calf. The laws didn’t allow him a runner. Extra workload on other muscles soon led to a buttock strain and, realising the fact that he couldn’t afford risky singles, told his brother Mark, who was his batting partner at the other end, to not take too many ‘tight ones’ as he was struggling and ‘going to have a slog’.
The English bowlers soon faced Waugh’s wrath. When Caddick bowled full, he was driven down the ground through the off-side. Under pressure, he pitched it short and wide and Waugh duly obliged, cutting him fiercely through the point region. On 44, Waugh fetched a looping delivery off Tufnell from outside the off-stump and, kneeling down on one knee, deposited the ball over the deep mid-wicket fence to bring up his half-century. The next ball was swept away towards the deep square-leg boundary. Darren Gough was roped in for a short spell to restrain Waugh, but two unforgiving square cuts welcomed him.
Even during his peak, Waugh wasn’t regarded as an elegant batsman, but none could doubt his efficiency. In this innings, too, he hardly looked graceful, but runs were flowing through his blade at will; and the score was beginning to look ominous for England. With the sun shining, the turf was devoid of any moisture and the twins began to operate at their highest gear. Mark was the first to century, but the other wasn’t far behind. On 84, Waugh hit Caddick for two fours — one smashed through the off-side and the other almost a neat straight drive — before meting out similar treatment to Tufnell, who was now bowling from over the wicket.
Wobbling at the crease with strain on his muscles, on 99, Waugh punched Gough down the ground and took off for a tight one single. With the fielder closing in, he was forced to stretch and dive into the crease to cover the last couple of yards, but he nonetheless made it. A sense of disbelief, and perhaps relief, washed over Waugh and, while still lying on the pitch, raised his bat with a smile to acknowledge his euphoric team-mates and the crowd. It was his 27th Test hundred and only Sunil Gavaskar (34) and Don Bradman (29) had scored more at the time.
A few overs later, Mark fell for 120, from 176 deliveries, 16 fours and two sixes to his name. His knock lacked nothing, but it was clearly overshadowed since the man at the other end was tearing into the English attack on literally just one leg. The two put on 197 for the third wicket, the second highest stand in their career back then.
After getting to his 100, Waugh wanted to keep going, his hunger insatiable. England’s captain Hussain employed fields that made long singles to the outfielders easy, but that didn’t stop Waugh from thwacking six more boundaries. The bowlers had left the ground mentally a while ago, like bots, they had to run in and bowl, and the resultant was insipid. Gilchrist scored a brisk 25 and once he departed, Damien Martyn smashed a 54-ball 62. These knocks allowed Waugh to cool his heels, however little possible. At 641 for four, after adding 317 runs in two sessions, the Australians declared. Waugh remained unbeaten on 157 and, if ever there was a list of memorable Ashes innings compiled, the knock is a certainty to feature in the top five. The English now had an Everestesque task ahead of them to save the match.
England’s reply was one of tenacity. Around Mark Ramprakash’s stoic 133, the rest chipped in with scores enough to push the total to 432, this despite the wily Shane Warne bagging seven wickets for 165 runs. They nevertheless narrowly failed to avoid the follow-on. It had its repercussions. In their next dig, England were bowled out for 184, conceding five wickets to Glenn McGrath and four to Warne, losing by an innings and 25 runs.
As Lynette hoped, the Ashes were presented to Waugh, the victorious captain, but on learning it was a replica Waterford crystal trophy, the team poured kerosene over the four bails used in the Test and set them alight, giving themselves their own ‘Ashes’. The celebrations continued long into the night and culminated in a nude lap of the Oval around midnight. The players, however, refrained from urinating on the pitch.
Australia 641 for 4 decl. (Steve Waugh 157*, Mark Waugh 120, Justin Langer 102; Usman Afzaal 1 for 49) beat England 432 (Mark Ramprakash 133, Marcus Trescothick 55, Usman Afzaal 54; Shane Warne 7 for 165) and 184 (Darren Gough 39*; Glenn McGrath 5 for 43, Shane Warne 4 for 64) by an innings and 25 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)