Steve Waugh's two centuries in the third Test at Old Trafford changed the direction of the Ashes 1997    AFP
Steve Waugh’s two centuries in the third Test at Old Trafford changed the direction of the Ashes 1997 AFP

On July 6, 1997, Steve Waugh became the first batsman in 50 years to score two centuries in an Ashes Test. The twin knocks well and truly swung the momentum in Australia’s way, which was evident the following day as the visitors registered a 268-run victory. Karthik Parimal remembers Waugh’s finest innings.

In 1997, it was widely believed that England had the required ammunition to win the Ashes. The Australians were, without doubt, sturdy competitors, but yet to be world beaters. Nasser Hussain‘s double-century in the first Test followed by persistent rain in the second saw England take 1-0 lead in the six-match series. As the two teams headed to Old Trafford for the third fixture, little did one expect the tide to reverse. Mark Taylor‘s decision to bat first upon winning the toss, on one of the greenest surfaces on offer, topped by obnoxious weather conditions, further doused the hopes of many an Australian supporter.

Mark Taylor’s ‘massive gamble’

On most occasions, the Australian dressing room is aware of the call the captain is set to make when he walks out for the toss. On this day, though, suspense prevailed, as Taylor himself was undecided. He won the toss, was interviewed first, but indicated nothing from the centre with his hand a usual signal to convey what they are about to do to his team-mates waiting anxiously in the confines of the pavilion. When he finally walked in and told his side that they were batting first, the players looked at each other in disbelief. Hussain later termed Taylor’s move as “brave”. Steve Waugh thought the decision was “foolhardy and a massive gamble.”

Taylor, however, justified his move by reasoning that if the Australians got through the first day unscathed, the pitch would deteriorate and allow Shane Warne to play an instrumental role in the fourth innings. He’d backed his gut feelings.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man

Prior to the commencement of the third match, Steve Waugh told one of the journalists that it was going to be the most important Test of their [Australian players’] careers. Although the statement raised a few eyebrows, it perhaps reflected Waugh’s situation at the time. His last few innings yielded little and he felt it would indeed be the last Test he would ever play if amends were not made. At 42 for three, when thoughts of castigating Taylor were just beginning to pop up in the minds of the players, Waugh walked out to the middle, amidst buoyant English supporters and a chilly breeze.

Waugh survived a convincing appeal for leg before wicket (lbw) in the first delivery he faced. Andrew Caddick bowled full but, against the backdrop of a red-brick pavilion, Waugh couldn’t sight the ball and it hit him, according to Hussain, “stone dead in front.” The umpire thought otherwise and Waugh immediately knew he was extremely fortunate. He’d made up his mind to make the most of it.

On the other hand, the English bowlers couldn’t let go of the umpire’s faux pas. Instead of bowling full and allowing the ball to swing intimidatingly, they pitched it short, thereby letting Waugh duck and weave and reach a point of certainty. Their energy had been wasted in the process of aiming for his helmet, and by the time they reverted to bowling on good length, the pitch dried out and conditions for batting significantly improved. Waugh timed the ball with conviction and began to step out of the crease as well. At one point, while facing Darren Gough, Waugh moved towards the off-stump to a ball that was pitched full on middle-and-leg and flicked it towards the deep square-leg boundary. That shot reflected his confident state of mind.

Dismissing Waugh was proving to be an arduous task. He unleashed cover drives, fierce square cuts and sweeps at will. Nonetheless, wickets continued to tumble at the other end and the English bowlers tried to get rid of the tail as quickly as possible from there. Attacking fields were set for the incoming batsmen whereas Waugh was allowed to get away with a single. But he was never one to shield lower-order batsmen; he simply refused to give in to the concept of keeping strike when batsmen of lesser ability were at the other end, for he felt it was a clear mark of disrespect.

At 160 for seven, Paul Reiffel joined Waugh and launched a counter-attack . If the opportunity did arise, Waugh gladly handed over the strike to Reiffel in the first ball of the new over. Michael Atherton, the English skipper, was now bewildered and unclear on the field to set. The duo made hay and although light was offered on several occasions by the umpires, the batsmen politely declined. In the penultimate over of the first day, in fading light, the off-spinner Robert Croft bowled short and wide, and Waugh cut it past the offside field to notch up one of his best hundreds ever. It was his 13th Test century and his fourth against England. “The sense of satisfaction was intense, because I’d beaten the pre

game blues, crafted on a difficult wicket an innings of quality that altered the course of the match, and executed it in front of my family,” recalls Waugh in his autobiography Out of My Comfort Zone.

And again

The Australians mustered 235 in their first innings, Waugh scoring 108 of them. Then, like Taylor had predicted, Warne did play an instrumental role, albeit a lot earlier than anticipated. He took six English wickets for 48 runs, bundling them out for a paltry 162. In response, Australia’s score read a dicey 39 for three, and Waugh walked out again, with a calm demeanour and bat momentarily tucked in his arms. The conditions on offer were a lot better than the first morning, but he had his own predicaments to deal with

this time around. The sesamoid bone on his right hand had been jarred continuously during his first innings knock, and that left him in excruciating pain. Nevertheless, he batted like his life depended on it.

On the fourth morning, Waugh registered yet another ton, becoming the first man in 50 years to score two centuries in an Ashes Test. He was finally caught by wicket-keeper Alec Stewart off Dean Headley for 116, and Australia declared 468 ahead, leaving England 141 overs to reach the target. But the hosts were bowled out 268 short of it.

What followed?

Steve Waugh was adjudged the Man-of-the-Match. Australia won the next two fixtures to retain the Ashes as England’s dream fell by the wayside. It’s safe to say that the two knocks changed the direction of the tournament. “Such a comprehensive win, and the manner in which we achieved it, gave us the belief that the momentum had swung well and truly our way. We sensed that the English knew their moment had passed and in the next two Tests they played accordingly,” Waugh aptly writes in his book.

Brief scores:

Australia 235 (Steve Waugh 108, Matthew Elliot 40; Dean Headley 4 for 72, Darren Gough 3 for 52) and 395 for 8 decl. (Steve Waugh 116, Mark Waugh 55, Shane Warne 53; Dean Headley 4 for 104, Robert Croft 2 for 105) beat England 162 (Mark Butcher 51; Shane Warne 6 for 48, Glenn McGrath 3 for 40) and 200 (John Crawley 83; Glenn McGrath 4 for 46, Jason Gillespie 3 for 31, Shane Warne 3 for 63) by 268 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)