Steve Waugh (L) and Mark Taylor © Getty Images
Steve Waugh (L) and Mark Taylor © Getty Images


By Adrian Meredith


The 1989 six-Test Ashes series in England, which Australia won 4-0, ranks high in my list. Australia’s emphatic series win followed England’s victory in the 1987-88 Ashes series in Australia.


The Australian team in those days wasn’t overly good. There were glimpses of decency, but the team primarily revolved around its captain, Allan Border. He averaged in the mid- 50s in Tests, and if Australia ever won a match it was often because of him.


Dean Jones was good in patches, somewhat mediocre at other times; he was far more consistent in one-day matches. Australia had a consistent opening pair in Geoff Marsh and David Boon, but both averaged in their low-mid 30s, which even in those days was pretty poor.


Steve Waugh was meant to be the next great all-rounder, the replacement of Richie Benaud, but while his one day form was decent, at least as a bowler, in the Test arena his bowling was decidedly average and he was yet to get a Test century, averaging in the high 20s.


On the bowling front it wasn’t a lot better. Merv Hughes was lucky to make his state team, yet was thrust into the front line just for his “aggression”, while the absurdly wayward Bruce Reid was good in patches. Craig McDermott simply looked out of place. Australia had Geoff Lawson who was kept primarily for his experience, because he played alongside Dennis Lillee, but was so far from being Test standard.


Australia tried an array of spinners. Some like Greg Matthews batted okay, none of them could bowl, certainly not at Test standard.


And as for wicket-keepers, Australia had long abandoned the idea of having the best ‘keeper and instead just decided to have the same ‘keeper – Ian Healy – for ages. But as of 1989, Healy was about to be dumped, as the selectors were sick of his inability to keep properly combined with his inability to bat – as he averaged around 13 in Test cricket as a batsman, without ever getting above 50.


The team was in shambles, and were regularly losing to all and sundry. New Zealand beat them regularly, they struggled to beat lowly India, and in the space of just a few years they had gone from competitive with the mighty West Indies to being disgraceful, possibly the worst test team out there. And England, at the time, were one of the best.


England were expected to win the series 4-0. England held the Ashes and Australia had done nothing in between time to suggest that they could win a single Test. Commentators were looking at which Test Australia could, perhaps try to get an upset victory. Perhaps draw a couple and escape with something like a 3-1 scoreline, with some measure of credibility. That was as much as was hoped for. Even in Australia, few even saw the point of them going ahead with it. While it was televised, they only showed the 2nd and 3rd sessions of the day on TV in Australia, because few people really wanted to see it as Australia were expected to lose so badly. England had Ian Botham, Graeme Gooch, Allan Lamb, David Gower, Robin Smith, an array of brilliant batsmen and some very good bowlers to boot. They also had, arguably, the best wicket-keeper in the world at the time in RC “Jack” Russell. How could they lose?


There were two hopes for Australia to pull off a miracle. The first was that Mark Taylor had finally made it into the Test team, having previously had to wait for Peter Taylor, who was accidentally put in the team instead of him. Mark Taylor’s debut was some four years later than it should have been. And Mark Taylor, after two Tests, was yet to do anything. But he had immense potential. So much that they had even split up the opening pair of David Boon and Geoff Marsh. Boon was put into No 3, a position he had always wanted to bat. And Dean Jones had to move down to No 4, which he didn’t like. Such was the confidence in Mark Taylor that the whole batting line-up was shuffled around.


The other hope came in the form of Terry Alderman. He had done well for Australia in 1981, on the then Ashes tour, taking 40 wickets in England, before going off to South Africa for the rebel tour and was subsequently banned. His ban was up and there were hopes that, some eigh years later, he may reproduce something like his 1981 form. It was a long shot, as Alderman hadn’t really played much in between time and he wasn’t exactly in form. But it was a hope.


1st Test – Headingley, Leeds – Australia won by 210 runs


The first Test began with some hope, but soon faded to be much like what we expected. A 44-run opening stand, decent but not great, then something of a collapse. But then, Mark Taylor produced. And produced. And produced. Border held the match together with another half century but Mark Taylor got his first-ever Test century. And then, incredibly, so too did Steve Waugh. Few could believe it when the score ticked over to 400 and they were still batting. Then 500. Then 600 even. Merv Hughes, who was something of a batting bunny in those days, actually got a half century. Steve Waugh could have probably got 200, but ended up with 177 not out, his first-ever Test century. His batting average went up from about 28 to about 35 with just that one innings!


Australia declared at 601 for seven. While it didn’t look likely that there’d be a result, at least they’d start off without a loss. A draw was expected. They had batted into day three before declaring their first innings. It was a confidence booster.


England came out and batted very professionally, but Terry Alderman incredibly bowled like he did eight years earlier, while Geoff Lawson bowled like he was Dennis Lillee in disguise. It was incredible. Australia went from having no decent bowlers to suddenly having two attacking spearheads. Two bowlers who had done nothing of note for a long time were now miracle workers.


England nonetheless avoided the follow-on and when they were finally all out for 430, the match looked certain to end in a draw. It was halfway through Day Four and with just a day and a half to go, Australia were finally entering the 2nd innings.


After a slow start, seemingly heading for that predictable draw, Border and Jones (batting at No 5) suddenly started going for shots. They were going at a run a ball, as if in one-day mode. And, just before lunch on Day 5, Australia declared, setting England an improbable 402 runs for victory.


Getting the 402 never looked likely, but seeing out the 65 or so overs for a draw was looked pretty easy. There were no demons in the pitch. It wasn’t deteriorating.


England were going along fairly safely too, at 134 for three. Not much time left, plenty of batsmen to come – right up to Phil DeFreitas at No 10. It was looking easy to hang on for the draw.


But then Lawson took two wickets in four balls and Hughes got rid of Gooch, and suddenly the equations changed. England ended up losing their last seven wickets for just 57 runs. They lost by some 200 runs and lost a match that had “draw” written all over it.


Australia were just pinching themselves that they were actually leading the series – 1-0 up after one Test!


There wasn’t quite the belief that they could win the entire series, but Mark Taylor had finally shown his promise by getting a Test century. Ditto for Steve Waugh. Two players who had under-performed before were showing their promise. Alderman was bowling like he did eight years ago and Lawson was bowling better than he ever had in his entire life. If this kept up maybe they could do it. 


2nd Test – Lord’s – Australia won by six wickets


England made four changes for the 2nd Test, an absurd amount really. They went from a long batting line-up to a long bowling line up, for one thing. Gatting came in and a host of other bowlers did. For Australia, Trevor Hohns was in, replacing Greg Chappell, as Australia went in with a spinner.


England started off well enough but just kept losing wickets, as not only were Alderman and Lawson continuing their fine bowling, but so too was Merv Hughes. Trevor Hohns bowled a solitary over as England were all out for just 286.


Australia started terribly with Marsh out cheaply but then Mark Taylor picked up where he left off with another half century, as he and Boon put on 145 for the 2nd wicket. There were contributions down the order and then Steve Waugh, incredibly, improved on his first test. From 265 for six, Australia looked like maybe having a slight lead but guided by Steve Waugh‘s 152 not out, Australia reached an absurd 528, with this time Geoff Lawson scoring a half century at number 10.


Australia had a lead of 242 and an innings victory was on the cards.


England were for a while looking headed for that innings defeat ,but captain David Gower came out and smacked a century and Robin Smith all but got there as well, falling four short of a hundred. England had a lead of 117 and the target was a worrying 118. Memories of “Botham’s Test” came flooding back. Australia often failed when chasing these smallish totals.


Marsh was out for one. After a 50-run partnership, Taylor fell. Then Border and Jones. Steve Waugh, the man who could not be dismissed, came out. Even though Australia were 67 for four chasing 118, Waugh injected hope. Australia lost no more wickets and won the match by 6 wickets.


2-0 up after 2 Tests! Absurd! Unbelievable! Australia could actually win the series!


But it was a six-Test series, so one could not count the chickens yet! England could still win 4-2, or 3-2 if there was a draw. Even a drawn series would see England retain the Ashes.


3rd Test – Edgbaston, Birmingham – Draw


The 3rd Test saw an array of changes for England, as they seemed to be getting quite desperate. Batsmen were brought in from obscurity and thrust into the limelight while quality players were dumped over virtually nothing. Ian Botham returned, but only captain Gower, Gooch and keeper Russell remained from the 1st Test lineup. And this was only the 3rd Test!


Australia struggled along and at 299 for seven it looked like they might just sneak over 300. But Dean Jones batted with the tail to take Australia to an imposing 424, being last man out for 157. Statisticians everywhere were also upset that Steve Waugh actually got out for the first time all series, bowled by Angus Fraser for just 43. Not even a century!


Unfortunately, though, the match was marred by rain. Allan Border’s policy at the time was “don’t lose”, and he was more than happy to go for the draw. It meant Australia stayed 2-0 up after three matches, rather than the chance of being precariously perched at 2-1. England would have to win all three Tests to win the Ashes. Or win two to draw the series and retain them.


It should be noted, though, that in between the rain, England were bowled out for just 242, and, if it weren’t for the rain, they may have lost that match too. Australia were certainly on top.


4th Test – Old Trafford, Manchester – Australia won by nine wickets


The 4th Test saw even more changes for England while Australia again went in with the same team they had used since the 2nd Test – using just 12 men with Campbell being replaced by Hohns after the 1st Test, while England had used around 25.


In spite of Robin Smith holding the innings together with 143 and in spite of Alderman actually having a wicketless innings, England were all out for just 260 and Lawson had taken another 6 wicket haul. Trevor Hohns was also useful with 3 wickets.


Australia responded with everyone contributing. No centuries, but four half centuries in the top six and one other that was close. All of the top six got to double figures as Australia got to 447 – a lead of 187.


At 57 for six, England were staring down the barrel of an innings defeat and handing the Ashes to Australia in humiliating fashion, but wicket-keeper Russell scored a rare Test century and John Emburey a half century as England at least set a target.


It was just 78 runs to win though and England were going to need some kind of a miracle to win. It has happened before though and if England could fall to 57 for six then you never know perhaps Australia could too.


But Taylor and Marsh got Australia most of the way there without even losing a wicket, with Marsh finally falling with 62 runs on the board and just 16 for victory.


Australia regained the Ashes with a boundary and there were leaps for joy everywhere. Everyone in Australia was proud, and quite amazed too. All of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, Australia actually looked like a good team. Sure, Border kept telling everyone Australia were after the 1987 World Cup triumph but nobody paid that too much attention. This, though, was telling. This was significant. Beating then second or third best team in the world England, at home, having lost the Ashes in Australia, and winning it so convincingly, now 3-0 after 4 Tests, it was just incredible. It was the greatest victory certainly in my lifetime.


The 5th and 6th Tests didn’t really matter as the series was already won, but now Border said that he didn’t want to lose a match. The whitewash wasn’t possible as there had been a draw, but he wanted to win 4-0 or 5-0, or at least stay 3-0 up.


5th Test – Trent Bridge, Nottingham – Australia won by an innings and 180 runs


Day 1 of the fifth Test finished with Australia 301 for no wicket. No wickets down. No chances. They would finally be out, with Marsh out for a slow 138 with 329 runs on the board. Another 101 runs later, Taylor was out for his first double century. Australia finally declared for 602 for six, one run more than they had scored in the first Test.


By this stage England looked nothing like their first Test eleven; even Graeme Gooch was dumped. Only captain Gower and ‘keeper Russell remained from the first Test. With such uncertainty, it is little wonder than England were all out for 255. Robin Smith scored a century, but there were two ducks and a string of low scores.


Border ordered them to follow on. Atherton top scored with 47, but there wasn’t much else of note and England never looked like getting the 368 runs they needed to make Australia bat again. The match was over before the end of Day Four. And there was a rest day between Days Three and Day Four just to add to the drama.


6th Test – Kennington, Oval – Draw


The 6th Test came and for England they just wanted to win 1, just for some pride, to finish 4-1 rather than 5-0 or 4-0. For Australia, they wanted another win. They wanted to stamp their authority on the series. They wanted to say that they were better than England, something that nobody would have dreamed of before the start of the series.


Mark Taylor again scored a half century, part of what would be a record-breaking run of consecutive half centuries for him, Dean Jones scored a century and for the 6th Test in a row Australia scored more than 400 in the first innings, also part of a record for most Rests in a row scoring 400 or more in the first innings.


England again capitulated but just managed to avoid the follow-on. Just. At 201 for eight, they looked like they might not get to the follow-on figure of 269, but they got there, just. Thanks to Gladstone Small and Nick Cook, the No 9 and No 10.


Australia batted a bit slowly going for the declaration and, like in the first Test, set England just over 400 runs to win, this time off even less overs.


England were in danger of not lasting the overs – the victory was never on – but Robin Smith’s 77 not out kept the innings together and Russell again kept his head to see out the draw, five wickets down when rain came. England had survived.


But the series was still comprehensively Australia’s – 4-0 in a six-Test series. Australia, then ranked miles and miles behind England in the Test rankings, had upset the in-form England.


One of the keys to the victory was the form of Mark Taylor, who after that series soon became ranked as the world’s best batsman, living up to the potential he had. Steve Waugh also showed great early form while basically every one of the top six batsmen did well. Of the bowlers, it was mainly Lawson and Alderman. The latter again took 40 wickets like he had done eight years earlier. Lawson had the best series of his career while Merv Hughes did okay. Trevor Hohns was a better spinner than Australia had for at least 15 years, actually being a positive for the side, rather than just having a spinner for the sake of a spinner. It’d be another three years before we’d see Shane Warne, but Hohns had laid the foundation for Warne to come, by showing that we could actually have a decent spinner.


For England, they were actually okay in the first Test, but after that it all went down to the selectors. Four changes from the 1st Test to the 2nd Test was absurd, but in the end they weren’t just getting rid of fringe players, they were getting rid of solid dependable players like Allan Lamb and even Graeme Gooch. It was just absurd. They used something like 35 players for the six Test series, while Australia only used 12. That, more than anything else, is what cost England. Selectors can cost teams the chance of victory and never had there been worse selectors than England’s on that 1989 Ashes series.


For Australia, this would lay the foundation for a belief that they could be the No 1 team. It’d be another six years before they’d officially hold the title, but from this moment on they were on a path to greatness. England’s selectors probably helped Australia’s cause.


This was Australia’s greatest series, at least the best in my living memory.


(Adrian Meredith, an Australian from Melbourne, has been very passionate about cricket since he was seven years old. Because of physical challenges he could not pursue playing the game he so dearly loved. He loves all kinds of cricket – from Tests, ODIs, T20 – at all levels and in all countries and writes extensively on the game)