The West Indies had not lost a series since the late 1970’s. For nearly two decades it had been the greatest Test team in the world, feared and reviled in equal measure for the brutal unrelenting four-pronged pace strategy that Clive Lloyd had implemented, but looked up to with awe for the results they had achieved.
Finally, more than 15-years after their last series loss against New Zealand, when the West Indies came to Adelaide Oval for the 4th Test of the series 0-1 down, Australia sensed that the responsibility and indeed the possibility of halting this juggernaut rested with them. They had won the Melbourne Test and drawn at Brisbane and Sydney. A win here would dethrone the world champions but a loss would put the Aussies at the receiving end of the bruising West Indies pace battery at the WACA in their quest of an unlikely victory.
The Drama starts early
The day before the match, the ominous signs were already out for Australia.
As coach Bob Simpson raised his hand to signal the completion of the training session, Damien Martyn backing up for a throw from Tim May during a fielding drill, ran into Simpson’s thumb, suffered a cut in the eye and was ruled out of the Test.
The selectors called up fellow West Australian left-handed batsman Justin Langer to make his debut against the latest pace quartet of Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and Ken Benjamin. The aircraft doors on the last flight from Perth to Adelaide had to be kept open a few minutes beyond schedule for Langer to take his seat and his kit to make it into the hold.
The debut itself would be, as Langer was to say years later, “an absolute baptism by fire”.
He has two overriding memories of the first innings of the match – a suffocating hug from Merv Hughes as he walked out for the first time wearing his baggy green and a resounding whack on the back of his helmet from a rearing Ian Bishop bouncer on the third ball of his debut innings. He has never quite decided which frightened him more.
An Unremarkable Start
Notwithstanding the unfortunate episode with Martyn, when the match actually started on a pitch that was by no means benign but appeared for the most part to favour the batsmen, there was no hint of the drama to follow.
Richie Richardson won the toss and chose to bat. Although Brian Lara scored 52 to follow up on his previous match score of 277 and Haynes, Simmons and Murray scored 40’s, by the end of the first day West Indies had been dismissed for 252. Merv Hughes bowled a fiery spell to take five wickets sending down almost a third of the overs clocked by the Aussies.
The Aussie response was less than stellar.
Curtly Ambrose’s unrelenting pace bounce and accuracy took its toll on the Australian batsmen while Bishop kept them hopping at the other end. It was only a brave 43 from the unruffled Merv Hughes and some resistance from Steve Waugh and David Boon that prevented a more embarrassing score than the 213 that Australia finally finished at.
Langer’s 20 on debut from 98 balls was a sign of his grit that would come to mark his career. He recalls the innings thus: “I just kept getting hit and I remember Desmond Haynes saying, “Come on, Bishy, he’s scared, he’s scared.” And (Keith) Arthurton kept saying from point, “He should be in high school, Bishy, he’s not playin’ Test cricket.” They were into me. Bishop bowled as fast as I’d faced at that stage; it was unbelievable.”
Tim May sets up a thriller
On Day Three, with the West Indies comfortably placed at 124 for 4 with a lead of 185 and the Richardson -Hooper combine going along merrily, all indications were that the Aussies would have their work cut out to win the match. Then, as it often happens in Test cricket, out of nowhere, off-spinner Tim May, known more for his flight and accuracy over long periods than for being a game changer, proceeded to bowl the spell of his life.
Recalled for this Test on his home ground, May sent down a remarkable spell of off-spin to first dismiss Carl Hooper then wicketkeeper Junior Murray followed soon after by Richie Richardson for 72. He then rapidly wrapped up the tail finishing with remarkable spellbinding figures of 6.5 – 3 – 9 – 5. This would remain May’s best bowling figures when he finally hung up his boots a couple of years later.
West Indies had been bowled out for a stunning 146, leaving Australia a very achievable target of 186 runs to get the next day for what almost seemed a fated victory on Australia Day.
Not quite Australia’s Day
Thousands flocked to the Oval anticipating an Australian victory on the nation’s special day.
Curtly Ambrose started his run-up, white wristbands flashing, top button was undone, the massive lithe figure bounding in, bowling with a purpose, keeping the normally unruffled David Boon struggling to get off the mark. From the other end, Ian Bishop was doing what he did best – suffocating and intimidating the batsmen. Something had to give, and when Ambrose brought a ball back from the off stump onto the knee roll of Boon’s pad, West Indies had the first breakthrough with Boon gone for an uncharacteristic duck having faced 17-balls.
When Mark Taylor edged a ball from Kenneth ‘Charlie Griffith’ Benjamin (those seriously are his middle names!) to Murray behind the stumps Australia was precariously placed at 16 for 2. Mark Waugh decided to hit his way out of trouble, but four boundaries later, he had no answer to a snorter from Walsh, edging it to Hooper.
Debutant Justin Langer batting at the other end was justifying his selection, showing his grit and ability to hang around. Langer, however, has an unexpected take on the invaluable innings of 54 he was to play during his over four hours stay at the crease. “In a lot of ways it was probably detrimental to my career. I had to fight hard and I didn’t score runs quickly. The only area I really scored was with a couple of nudges down to fine leg now and then. I reckon there’s been a perception ever since that, for example, I can’t play one-day cricket . . . it’s very difficult to change people’s perceptions.”
The presence of stalwarts Allan Border and Steve Waugh in the line-up gave Langer the hope that if he hung around long enough the runs required for a win would come. Unfortunately for the Aussies, Ambrose was in a ‘zone’ such as he would be in the next match at Perth where he would take 7 for 1 and be forever immortalized for the spell.
But back in the present at Adelaide, Ambrose and Walsh ensured that Waugh, Border and the usually gritty Ian Healy were all back in the pavilion with Australia’s score at 73. The pitch was now displaying uneven bounce and Ambrose was nigh unplayable. When Merv Hughes also fell soon after to Ambrose, Australia was in dire straits at 74 for 7 and the Adelaide holiday crowd had gone silent.
Shane Warne displayed the determination at the crease that he would exhibit many more times in his career when Australia was in trouble, facing up to the hostile bowling from both ends with resolve. With Langer, he took the score past 100 before failing to keep out a full-length Bishop delivery from his pads. This brought in Tim May.
May was a useful lower order batsman, but on this day, with his team in trouble on his home ground, his recent spell of bowling filling him with confidence, he faced up to the fearsome attack with doggedness and resolve. The two took the score to 144 before Langer finally fell. Bishop bowled a short ball that did not rise and Langer miscued the pull only to edge the ball behind the wicket. Craig McDermott walked in.
The West Indian elation at the prospect of imminent victory slowly turned into frustration as May and McDermott went about picking up the runs slowly but surely, heading towards the 186 mark. The holiday crowd found their voice. Chants of Waltzing Matilda filled the stadium. Australia marched towards their target. West Indians shoulders began to droop.
Then with two runs to get, Walsh ran into bowl to McDermott, who turned his back on a bouncer. It was a bad mistake. The ball hit something, Junior Murray caught the ball, the West Indies went up in appeal, and Darrell Hair raised his finger. Australia had lost. By one measly run.
The South Australian Cricket Association would make the West Indies team pay for the damage to the dressing room that resulted from the “outpouring of emotion” following their win.
That night at Tim May’s pub in Adelaide, McDermott would relive the dismissal a million times in his mind. “To this day, I really don’t think I hit it. Over a few beers that night I watched it on the big screen about 400 times trying to work out if I’d hit it,” he would recall.
Be that as it may, the West Indies had pulled off a miracle victory and squared the series. The teams would go to Perth, Ambrose would take 7 for 1 and West Indies would win the series 2-1 and remain unbeaten in a series one more time.
The impact of the Adelaide Test
What the Adelaide Test achieved, however, would go beyond the result of the series. Australia would take on board what they had managed to do until the moment Murray held that last catch. They had come agonizingly close to dethroning the world champions from their perch after 15-years, becoming the first team to reach that position.
It would give them the confidence in their core team and their ability to stand up against adversity and the best in the world and fight on equal terms. They would go on to win the Ashes in England that year and lay the foundations for their own later reign as a world-beating team.
It would not be a stretch to say that Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting led Australia’s astounding dual run of victories in Test cricket over the next decade would owe its origins to a one-run loss to the West Indies at Adelaide on Australia Day in 1993.