By the time the 1998/99 Ashes series came around, Australia had complete mental dominance of their English opponents. Not only because they had won the previous 5 Ashes series in highly convincing fashion, but also because they had established themselves as the No. 1 Test side in the world and that Australia was the toughest place for a cricketing side to tour.
However there was expectation in the leadup that this Ashes series would be different and there did seem genuine cause for this belief.
Firstly, after years of on-field and off-field ineptitude, England seemed to finally be getting their act together. The wheels were in motion in changing the culture whereby their international players didn't define themselves as county players who happened to turn out for England on occasion - they were England players first and foremost. This was helped by creating a 'Team England' culture under then coach David Lloyd. As Michael Atherton wrote in his autobiography 'Opening Up', this meant:
"If the players wanted technical help, there would be specialist coaches and video analysis on hand for them. Lloyd was keen to give the players whatever they needed to succeed. He set up Team England, a backroom staff consisting of a nutritionist, sports psychologist, press liaison officer and fitness trainer, as well as various specialist coaches but, in the end, it was down to the players to use whatever they felt necessary."
On-field, it also appeared significant progress was being made as England had just completed a gutsy, come-from-behind Test series win against a very strong South Africa lineup, their most impressive Test series win of the 1990s.
As for Australia, while it had deservedly won their first Test series in Pakistan since 1959, their Test form in the 1998-99 period by their very high standards showed they were more vulnerable than usual. In this time, they lost in India, drew in the West Indies and lost in Sri Lanka. In terms of results, their 1998-99 Test performances were probably their most erratic of the 1995-2005 period.
But despite these vulnerabilities and England winning sessions - even days - in each of the Tests, in virtually all the crunch pressure situations Australia prevailed, retaining the Ashes and winning the series 3-1.
For Australia, there were several players who contributed to their series win but two names stand out due to them possessing qualities their opponents did not - a match-winning leg-spinner in Stuart MacGill and a highly dangerous opening batsman in Michael Slater.
With champion leg-spinner Shane Warne absent for most of the series through injury, it appeared that England had a massive advantage. But despite and being a very different style leg-spinner, MacGill showed he was a more than able replacement and a quality bowler in his own right, taking 27 wickets in 4 Tests, culminating in his matchwinning 12 wicket haul in the Sydney Test which guaranteed Australia's series victory. He wasn't only successful on his own terms, but also important because it would've been hugely demoralising for England that the loss of such a great player in Warne could be covered so ably.
The significance of Michael Slater wasn't so much the runs he got (three centuries in this series) but the way he got them. His ability to score runs quickly and aggressively against the new ball was priceless, as it intimidated opponents and set up greater chances of victory for Australia. A classic example of this was in the opening Test in Brisbane where his counter-attacking 2nd innings century turned a likely draw to what would've been a victory but for rain. That innings was the decisive mental battle in the series, especially as England knew they had no one who could bat consistently to that level (Alec Stewart was the closest in style to Slater but never came close to matching Slater's success in Ashes contests).
As for England, while there were clear improvements in their off-field structure and administration, they still had a way to go, as the process wouldn't be complete until the introduction of central contracts in 2000. Also, there were still problems with their off-field chain of command on this tour. In his book 'Taylor and Beyond', Australian cricket journalist Malcolm Knox observed that the role of Graham Gooch on the tour was:
"... a malign influence as both manager and selector. His presence intimidated the younger players and irritated the older ones. To younger tourists, he was the brooding 'spy' from the selection panel, and to the older men, h was a constant reproach. When an English batsman returned after another failure, he had to walk past the gloomy figure of the prodigious opening batsman, who then went out and spoke to the press, to the effect that he could have done better himself and why didn't these lads show some of the committment that had given him nearly 10,000 Test runs."
Significantly, by the time England next went on tour Gooch was no longer part of the setup.
In terms of on-field performance, the England squad was filled with names who promised a lot, occasionally delivered but generally remained unfulfilled on the international arena. This was either because of injury (Dean Headley), those who couldn't translate first-class dominance into international success (Mark Ramprakash, Graeme Hick) and those who probably weren't just good enough (John Crawley, Alan Mullally).
Probably the biggest wasted talent of all was pace bowler Alex Tudor. He showed great promise on his Test debut in Perth, bowling with verve and intelligence which was highlighted by managing to get the Waugh brothers out in the same spell. But while he had a couple of occasional Test highlights after this tour, his international career largely fizzled out to the disappointment of many.
After Australia easily won the Adelaide Test and retained the Ashes in the minimum 3 Tests, even the Australian media and fans were somewhat dispirited with how comfortably Australia had kept the urn. But - as was so often the case in this era - once the Ashes were decided the competitiveness of the contests improved. Whether it was a case of England lifting their game or Australia dropping off, the final two Tests in Melbourne and Sydney were excellent matches.
The Melbourne Test was extraordinary in many ways, especially the final day which was one of the longest Test days on record. Throughout the series England's tailend batting had been hopeless, verging on embarassing. Not just because they scored so few runs but because they often gave their wickets away in sloppy, careless manners (even with proper batsmen still at the other end) with the main culprit being Alan Mullally, who was dismissed 5 times for ducks in the series. Therefore it was one of the great ironies of the series that on the same day he made his only contribution with the bat, Australia's usually much more reliable tail folded meekly chasing a small total for victory. And while England's win could be dismissed as another victory in a dead rubber game, it seemed all the more impressive as the years rolled by and Australia became unbeatable at home; indeed it wasn't until 2003 when Australia lost another home Test.
Australia's level of performance fell away in the final two Tests of the series and if it hadn't have been for another classic counter-attacking Slater century and MacGill's 12 wickets in Sydney, Australia would've lost that match as well and the series would've been drawn. There was sloppiness to Australia's play at times in this series which usually wasn't prevalent in Ashes contests in this era. As Knox observed:
"The Ashes series, which Australia won 3-1, could as easily have been 5-0, or, given Australia's bouts or carlessness, 2-2. It was a topsy-turvy summer in which Australia lost only two or three sessions and were clearly the better team, yet could have only thrown away the series in the last two Tests."
Probably a prime factor in their falling away was the dropping off in performance of two stalwarts of their side throughout the 1990s - wicketkeeper Ian Healy and captain Mark Taylor. Indeed, it wasn't just a loss of form but that they just had about run out of gas as international cricketers, Taylor would retire at the end of the series while Healy - after a major drop-off in form with the bat - would finish his Test career within the year.
The 1998/99 Ashes series was one of the more entertaining and competitive series in Australia's run of 8 consecutive Ashes victories but when it mattered, Australia was the side who had all the answers.