Double-declarations from Stephen Fleming and Steve Waugh led to a maniacal run-chase. They continued to play well after the shadows lengthened beyond the usual limits © Getty Images
Double-declarations from Stephen Fleming and Steve Waugh led to a maniacal run-chase. They continued to play well after the shadows lengthened beyond the usual limits © Getty Images

November 12, 2001. Interest in the first Trans-Tasman Test at The Gabba had dwindled after rain. Not even two innings were completed over the first four days. Then both Stephen Fleming and Steve Waugh breathed life into the contest with aggressive declarations, leading to one of the most exciting run-chases in history. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a day’s madness at Brisbane.

“We’re here to play cricket, to entertain and enjoy ourselves. You want to try and win a Test if you can. I don’t see any point in playing out for a dull draw.” — Steve Waugh.

“If we can create entertainment then I’m naturally for it when there’s an opportunity to do it. While we’re disappointed not to win, we were exhilarated by the afternoon’s cricket. It was fantastic, great to play and I’m sure pretty good to watch. I’m convinced it’s the way Test cricket has got to go, entertainment-wise.” — Stephen Fleming.

A mere 15 wickets had fallen over the first four days of cricket. There was no way the Brisbane Test could have finished in anything but a draw. And a draw it was — but not before it witnessed one of the most spectacular fourth-innings run-chases.

Over the past few seasons Waugh’s Australia had crushed West Indies, Pakistan, and India at home. Near-superhuman efforts from Harbhajan Singh, VVS Laxman, and co. meant their incredible streak of Test wins halted at 16, but there was no denying that they were the leading side in the new millennium, that too by a margin so big that the others were not even in the horizon.

In other words, New Zealand were not expected to put up a fight, especially at Brisbane, which has traditionally remained Australia’s fortress. They had not lost at The Gabba since 1988 (they still have not as I write this in September 2016).

Despite their series win in England in 1999, New Zealand’s overseas performances have rarely amounted to anything substantial. The last time they had won a Test on Australian soil (which, incidentally, was also a series win) was in 1985-86, in the days of Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe.

But New Zealand rarely flinched. They were far from being world champions, but Fleming was slowly moulding them into a unit as competitive as any. If they had not won Tests, especially overseas, it certainly did not have to do with lack of character.

And their character was something the Australians would test a lot during the series.

Four days and fifteen wickets

Fleming surprised everyone by opting to bowl. In their last Test, at The Oval, Australia had pushed Justin Langer to the top as a partner of Matthew Hayden. Langer had retired for 102 before adding 156 with Hayden.

Langer was retained as opener for The Gabba. While he was expected to be cautious against the new ball, there was no such perception about Hayden, who came out all guns blazing. Poor Langer was left behind on 9 when Hayden brought up his fifty, from a mere 54 balls.

Hayden fell for 136 after tea following a 224-run opening stand. Langer got to his hundred as well (104), falling at 263. There, was, however, a catch: Langer was the sixth Australian to be dismissed.

Chris Cairns removed Hayden and Ricky Ponting in quick succession. Cairns’ mates Dion Nash and Shayne O’Connor went wicketless, as did Daniel Vettori, but New Zealand found wickets from unexpected sources. Nathan Astle trapped Mark Waugh leg-before before Craig McMillan struck a triple-blow, removing Waugh, Damien Martyn, and Langer in quick succession.

New Zealand rarely flinched. They were far from being world champions, but Fleming was slowly moulding them into a unit as competitive as any.

Shane Warne fell soon next morning. Rain took away most of Day Two, but The Gabba was lit up by the belligerence of Adam Gilchrist (118) and Brett Lee (61). Waugh declared on 486 for 9 (Cairns claimed 5 for 146), but another day’s play was truncated.

Day Four saw about a shade over 50 overs being bowled. Jason Gillespie took out three top wickets while Lee chipped in with a fourth. At 55 for 4 it seemed Australia might push for a result, but Astle and McMillan, not for the first time in the match, dug in.

New Zealand lost McMillan before stumps, but with Astle and Cairns looking confident and Adam Parore in the pavilion, there was little chance that New Zealand would lose 15 wickets in a day. Though both Nash and O’Connor were ruled out of the rest of the tour with injuries, they were expected to bat twice each.

However, they still needed 101 to save that follow-on mark. They were safe once they were there.

Fleming sends a message

Seldom has Cairns looked comfortable in first gear, and this was no exception. He took on Gillespie from the beginning, counterattacked McGrath, and brought up his fifty in 55 balls, and almost threatened to catch up with Astle, who was on 38 when Cairns had walked out.

Then, just when it seemed Cairns and Astle had done enough to see New Zealand through, Lee took out both of them in the space of 3 balls. Suddenly New Zealand were 243 for 7, still 44 short.

Vettori was nowhere close to what it would be in a decade’s time. Fleming sent Nash ahead of him. Nash, battling an abdominal strain, hung on grimly with Parore as the target came closer and closer.

Lee had Parore, his fifth wicket, brilliantly caught by Waugh. Vettori walked out, and the first ball flew to Warne at first slip. It was a difficult chance, but had it been taken, New Zealand might have had to bat again, for they were still 15 short at this stage.

Thus reprieved, Vettori batted on, and helped save the follow-on in the company of Nash.

And Fleming declared immediately, just before lunch.

Flashback

Less than two years ago Hansie Cronje had approached Nasser Hussain with a proposal at Centurion. The match had panned out in a manner similar to that at The Gabba. England declared their first innings and South Africa forfeited their second, and England chased down 251 in the gloom, winning by 2 wickets.

At that point it seemed an extremely positive move. Only much later did it surface that Cronje had sold the sport.

Thankfully, though the incident had not taken place long ago, no aspersion was cast on Fleming — or Waugh.

Waugh reciprocates

In hindsight, Fleming’s move made sense in more ways than one. There was no point in making Nash battle on despite his injury or get O’Connor to bat with his knee tendinitis. However, the declaration also meant that New Zealand would have to take field with only Cairns and Vettori as specialist bowlers.

Waugh responded to Fleming’s declaration in spectacular fashion, getting Gilchrist to partner Hayden. Fleming used McMillan as Cairns’ new-ball partner, and Gilchrist and Hayden wasted no time.

The first 2 overs fetched 17. Gilchrist’s breezy 20 ended in the fifth over when Cairns hit the stumps. Hayden was run out two overs later, but Langer joined Ponting, and runs kept coming, in boundaries as well as singles.

Australia raced at 6 an over. Cairns bowled 5 overs before giving way to Vettori. The run rate did not slow down. Waugh declared at 84 for 2 after 14 overs. A mere 34 of the runs had come in boundaries.

New Zealand needed 284 in 57 overs. Wisden called the declaration “remarkably generous”.

The chase

At this point of his career Mark Richardson was still making a mark as a dour opener whose long innings were mostly results of concentration and technique. This was different, for they needed to score at 5 an over against McGrath, Gillespie, Lee, and Warne.

Waugh tossed the new ball to Lee, then Gillespie, ahead of McGrath. The first ball resulted in an overthrow and 5 runs for Richardson. The first 5 overs fetched 33. Astonishingly, Richardson had scored 25 of them, in a mere 21 balls. The chase was on.

On came McGrath, and sanity was restored when he trapped Matthew Bell leg-before first ball. This brought Mathew Sinclair to the middle.

McGrath, having obtained the breakthrough, bowled a maiden each to Sinclair and Richardson, but runs kept coming at the other end. Richardson’s fifty came off a mere 54 balls. New Zealand were 71 for 1 after 17 overs, and they batted deep, right till Parore at No. 8.

The runs dried up slowly, and as it is often the case, the deceleration led to wickets. Warne had Richardson leg-before and Sinclair stumped, and New Zealand slumped to 90 for 3.

Astle was already acknowledged as one of the most explosive batsmen in ODIs. Four months after the match Astle would decimate England with a 168-ball 222. He was in tremendous form as well: in his last tour match, against Queensland at the same ground, he had smashed 223 at the same ground. He also got 66 in the first innings of the ongoing Test.

He started with two boundaries off Warne. The confidence rubbed on to Fleming, and runs kept coming from both ends. Waugh used his bowlers (including his brother) in short spells, but in vain.

There was no breakthrough. Worse, runs kept coming.

The pair added exactly 100 in a mere 111 balls before Warne claimed Astle. Fleming promoted Cairns, and rightly so: with less than a hundred left there was no point in holding his most explosive batsman back.

Lesser men would have got carried away by the drama of the last day. Not McGrath.

Cairns started cautiously. Unfortunately, Fleming was run out shortly afterwards, which brought McMillan out.

The floodlights had come into action with almost no one noticing. They needed another 71 from 49 balls. It was perhaps doable, but Australia had excellent bowlers, The Gabba was huge, and New Zealand had two relatively new batsmen.

Then Cairns lofted Warne for six. McGrath pulled things back with a quiet over, and Warne with another. New Zealand needed 52 from 32 balls. Surely it was beyond them at this stage, for there were no restrictions on fielding, wide balls…?

McMillan started the carnage, with a huge six off McGrath before settling for a single. Cairns responded with a two and a boundary. The over eventually went for 14.

On came Warne. 38 from 24. The back-lift, the swing, and the follow-through happened in one single motion. The ball soared straight over Warne, landing in the top tier of the grandstand.

McMillan got to face a solitary delivery in the over. He could not have been happy about the fact that Cairns had been promoted above him. He responded with six. The crowd cheered momentarily before slumping into silence.

Warne’s over went for 17. New Zealand needed 21 from 18.

The camera zoomed on to Parore and Vettori, waiting anxiously. Fleming waited, stony-faced, his emotions unfathomable. And those back home, at Wellington and Christchurch and Napier and Auckland, they suddenly took notice, for they believed they could pull this off.

But they still had McGrath to contend with. Cairns secured a single off the first ball. 20 from 17. Surely it was New Zealand’s match?

It was, however, for a reason that McGrath would later be acknowledged as a legend. He knew this was no time for bravado. He knew runs had to be cut down. He bowled wide of off, wide enough to be outside McMillan’s reach, but close enough to be not called a wide in Test cricket.

McGrath later told BBC: “Fair enough, we bowled a bit negatively but we had to do that to tie them down. They had to play the shots so if we bowled in one area they could only score in one area. It took me until the last couple of overs before I finally found one point outside off-stump where I wanted to bowl. Before that it was a bit all over the shop.”

McMillan could not score off those 5 balls. New Zealand needed 20 from 12.

Warne had done his bit, taking 3 crucial wickets, but Cairns and McMillan had handled him in the most magnificent of fashions in the previous over. Waugh replaced Warne with Lee.

Cairns could not score off Lee’s first ball. He hit the second towards long-on. A six would have spelled doom for Australia. Waugh later confessed to ESPNCricinfo that “if that ball went for six they probably would have won the game.”

But Waugh had read Cairns well, and had placed his best fielder at long-on. Ponting did not drop, and Australia’s most formidable foe walked back for a 38-ball 43.

The batsmen had crossed. Unlike McGrath, Lee stuck to a straight line, though there was little chance of capturing 4 wickets from 10 balls. McMillan and Parore managed 5 from the rest of the over, leaving 15 to score off the last over.

Lesser men would have got carried away by the drama of the last day. Not McGrath. He knew that if he bowled aggressively, an Australian win was less likely than a New Zealand win. So he went back to his old strategy.

Every single ball was bowled precisely where McGrath wanted to, which pretty much summed up his career. One, one, one, one, dot, one, and that was that.

New Zealand finished on 274 for 6, ten short of the target, but Test cricket lived on.

The Kiwis would later move to Hobart for the second Test and to Perth for the third. As Nash and O’Connor would return home, they would call up a young policeman to join hands with Cairns, Daryl Tuffey, and Chris Martin.

But that is not part of this story.

Brief scores:

Australia 486 for 9 decl. (Justin Langer 104, Matthew Hayden 136, Adam Gilchrist 118, Brett Lee 61; Chris Cairns 5 for 146, Craig McMillan 3 for 65) and 84 for 2 decl. drew with New Zealand 287 for 8 decl. (Nathan Astle 66, Craig McMillan 45, Chris Cairns 61; Jason Gillespie 3 for 56, Brett Lee 5 for 67) and 274 for 6 (Mark Richardson 57, Stephen Fleming 57, Nathan Astle 49, Chris Cairns 43; Shane Warne 3 for 89).

Man of the Match: Brett Lee.