Ambrose in action, although doubtless the sweater was missing in Perth
It was to be the greater part of the sixteen years immortalised in the opening line of the song from Mr Zimmerman's 1978 album Street Legal
, after Geoff Howarth's New Zealanders had surprisingly defeated Clive Lloyd's men, that a change in the guardians of the title of the world's best cricket teams finally occurred. Over 29 series the men from the Caribbean had swept aside everything in their path, looking fallible only briefly on those few occasions when groundsmen prepared pitches that drew the sting of their fearsome pace attacks.
By May 1995 the tide finally began to turn as the Australian side forged by coach Bob Simpson approached its peak. The West Indies had held the Frank Worrell Trophy through eight consecutive series. The Australians desultory run had begun, ironically enough, with the 1977/78 series in the Caribbean, when the then 41 year old Simpson had, a decade after retiring, been persuaded to lead a young and inexperienced Australian team that had been rocked by almost all of its best players defecting to Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket.
Australia cannot have begun that 1994/95 series in the Caribbean series with too much optimism. Two of their main fast bowlers, Craig McDermott and Damien Fleming, missed the entire series through injury, and their leading batsman, Steve Waugh, was believed by many to be suspect against the diet of pace bowling he was inevitably going to face. As things turned out Paul Reiffel and a young Glen McGrath, ably backed up by Brendon Julian and Shane Warne, bowled with great penetration. As for Waugh Senior he averaged more than 100 for the series. The better he batted the wilder the pace bowling became, but he refused to be intimidated, eschewed the hook, and played everything with a straight bat. It is interesting to read the descriptions of how he dealt with what was unleashed at him. It reads very similarly to the accounts of how, in 1933, Douglas Jardine took the opportunity of a searching examination by Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale to demonstrate how Bodyline
bowling should be played.
Waugh's achievement was the more remarkable because of the manner in which he was mercilessly heckled throughout the tour following an incident in the first Test when he claimed a catch from Brian Lara which, it would seem unknown to him, had briefly been grounded as he completed the tumbling catch. Over the four Tests there were two convincing wins to the visitors and one to the home side. It was a pulsating series in which the ball generally triumphed over the bat, with only the historic partnership between the brothers Waugh in the final Test making batting look relatively straightforward. The West Indies did not take their defeat well, skipper Richie Richardson describing Taylor's side, after the series had ended as ...the weakest Australian team I have played against.
It was to be just over 18 months later that the West Indies, eager for revenge, arrived on Australian soil for a five match series. Richardson was no longer skipper, having given way to veteran pace bowler Courtney Walsh. Brian Lara, who had had disciplinary issues following a major falling out with Richardson, was back fresh from a few months away from the game and declaring himself ready for what he described as ..one of the biggest battles ever
. Australia had just returned from a visit to India where they had lost each of the six international matches they had played (one Test and five ODIs), so the expectation was the series would be a close one.
Those with commercial interests in the series took every opportunity to stoke the fires. The publicity material produced by the Australian Cricket Board for the series included a poster depicting unsmiling facial images of the rival captains, Walsh and Mark Taylor, nose to nose, and captioned The Decider
The first Test was Australia's by 123 runs, Ian Healy's Test best 161* rescuing a first innings that, at 196-5, was wobbling. The second Test began three days later and Australia went one better this time, winning by 124 runs. It was clear by now that the visitors were only a shadow of the great side they had been just a few years before. In the field they were simply pitiful. Runs were given away, catches put down and the nadir was reached when despite both Matt Elliott and Mark Waugh having taken a tumble during a mid-run collision neither were run out. The team's malaise was reflected in the game that the great Curtley Ambrose had. He took just one wicket, for which he paid 139 runs, his batting was woeful, and he was one of the worst offenders in the field. In the last innings West Indies were set 340 for victory. They slipped from 33-0 to 35-3 the third of whom was Lara who, after scoring just 2 in the first innings was well caught by Healy low down for 1. Lara was convinced that Healy had fumbled the catch and was so irate that as soon as he left the field he stormed straight into the Australian dressing room to have his say. The catch appeared good to everyone else, and West Indies manager Clive Lloyd apologised for Lara's outburst, though the man himself did not.
There must have been many who, after their initial enthusiasm for the series, now feared it would become something of a damp squib. They need not however have worried. The curator of the Melbourne Cricket Ground produced a fast and bouncy track for the traditional Boxing Day Test and, given a bit of variable bounce thrown into the mix, the wounded lion that was Ambrose came back to life. In a match that lasted only three days his match figures of 9-72 in a West Indian victory by six wickets brought the series back to life.
Sadly the rejuvenation did not last for very long, as the fourth Test was the most one-sided yet. It is true that the tourists were missing Ambrose, who was suffering from a hamstring strain, but as the West Indies batted first and crashed to 130 all out it is difficult to see how he would have made very much difference. It may be that Australia would not have got as many as 517 in reply, and that Matthew Hayden might not have scored the only century in the series from an Australian specialist batsmen. But the big man would not have altered the fact that three regulation catches went down, a stumping was missed, and three Australian batsmen were dismissed with what turned out to be no balls. This lack of discipline was, once again, the surest sign that the men from the Caribbean had reacquired the status of mere mortals. It did not help that the Adelaide wicket favoured spin, the part-time unorthodox slow left arm of Michael Bevan securing him match figures of 10-113, for once removing the mercurial Shane Warne, whose figures were a still reasonable 6-110, from the limelight. The only "positive" for the West Indies was some sort of a return to form for Lara as he top-scored in their second innings with 78, after previously managing only 86 runs in 7 innings, 70 of which had come in the first Test.
With Australia 3-1 to the good, and retention of the Frank Worrell Trophy guaranteed, it might have been expected that the final Test at Perth would have been a case of the two teams simply going through the motions. In fact the dead rubber turned out to be one of the most ill-tempered Tests ever played, as West Indies narrowed the winning margin to 3-2 with a comfortable ten wicket victory.
Perhaps the problem was simply the game being played at the WACA. Certainly no Test has been played there in February since, and only two in January. Temperatures at one point rose to 42. The wicket was parched at the start of the game, with not a blade of grass in sight. There were ugly cracks that were so wide that by the morning of the third and, as the game turned out, final day, Ambrose was run out, stranded when his bat became stuck in of the wider ones. Four years previously the WACA curator had prepared a green top on which the West Indies won inside three days. He lost his job. This time, perhaps because of the general spirit of bonhomie surrounding the series win, David Crane kept his, the powers that be stating that he had been caught out by the extreme heat
at the start of the game. I have never been to Australia, let alone Perth, but am given to understand that temperatures of more than 40 degrees in February are really not that unusual.
West Indies began the match by selecting an unusual looking side, with just three specialist bowlers, Walsh, Ambrose and Ian Bishop. Having tempted fate in that way Walsh broke down, and then there were just two, backed up by the part-time off spin of Carl Hooper and medium pace of Phil Simmons. But on a pitch like that Ambrose in a bad mood was enough. Because of the conditions the bowlers were rotated over by over, rather than given spells in the conventional sense, but from the moment Ambrose removed Hayden, caught at slip in the first over for a duck, no one fancied the home side's chances. The bounce was remarkable, even the less than express pace of the Australians Andy Bichel, Reiffel and McGrath sending deliveries bouncing over Healy's head on occasion. Australia slumped to 49-4 before Mark Waugh and Bevan put on 120. Then Waugh drove lazily at Ambrose and was caught at third slip. After that the lower order could not stay with Bevan long enough to see him through to what would have been a richly deserved maiden century, and he was left unbeaten on 87. After his bowling at Adelaide it finally seemed that the 26 year old had come good. In fact such were the riches available to Australia at the time that his Test career would be over in less than twelve months time.
When West Indies replied Sherwin Campbell and Shivnarine Chanderpaul did not last too long, but Lara played one of his great innings. Matthew Engel wrote Perhaps he was not quite as inventive as he once was; it was an innings of power as much as imagination. Nonetheless his batting was breathtaking.
He put on 108 with Robert Samuels, a decade older than younger sibling Marlon, but it was to be the last of Robert's six Tests. The Australians apparently deployed to the full their range of mental disintegration techniques. Lara, doubtless still smarting from the incident in the second Test, was furious.
West Indies were already 110 to the good with three wickets left to fall as the third day dawned. They had added 16 more before the ninth wicket fell and Walsh came out to bat with a runner. That of itself, given the five wicket haul that the visiting skipper managed in the Australian second innings, gave rise to a little controversy, but not as much as the identity of the runner. Out strode vice-captain Lara, who was clearly still livid about the perceived ill-treatment of Samuels the previous day, and indeed had said so publicly the previous evening. The atmosphere, after that open criticism of the Australians, was poor to begin with and got worse when Lara was knocked over by Hayden, in the Australian's mind accidentally and after minimal contact. The umpires, Darrel Hair and Peter Willey, had words with both captains and told them their players were being petulant, and bringing the game into disrepute.
In their second innings Australia could total only 194. They quickly lost Taylor to Ambrose who then removed Greg Blewett first ball with a good length delivery that completely failed to lift, and hit the stumps no more than a couple of inches off the ground. Ambrose then left the field with a thigh problem and it was at this point that a partially recovered Walsh took centre stage. The captain had torn a hamstring and medical opinion was he would play no further part in the Test. Perhaps he would not have done had West Indies not been in such a strong position, or had they had another specialist bowler to partner Bishop and the creaking Ambrose, but with his side on top he spent most of the night receiving ice treatment and did some static stretching before he went out to bat. Physio Dennis Waight thought he might manage a handful of overs off a shortened run. In fact he bowled 20, and by the time Ambrose came back the captain had taken five wickets, Australia were eight down and were barely past West Indies first innings total. Walsh was unable to walk properly for a fortnight after his exertions, but was doubtless untroubled by that.
But the match was not quite over yet. Andy Bichel and Shane Warne were showing the sort of grit that was typical of them, and a snarling Ambrose delivered a 12 ball over on his return to the field, followed immediately by a 15 ball over. The no balls were clearly calculated to intimidate and nothing else. It was not simple over-stepping. Many were two or three feet over the line, and some were delivered from wide of the return crease as well. When Ambrose switched to bowling round the wicket after Darrell Hair called him for a third time the intent was clear. It was probably fortunate, given that Hair had made it clear to Walsh that he would not tolerate Ambrose continuing in that vein, that at this point Bishop removed both of the stubborn pair and the innings quickly folded. Samuels and Campbell proceeded to knock off the 57 needed for victory without alarm. Bizarrely, given his behaviour in the Australian second innings generally, and the quality of Lara's innings in the West Indies reply, Ambrose received the match award.
In the commentary box Dean Jones said he had not seen a more disgraceful act than Ambrose's intimidation in 20 years of Test cricket, but by and large the legacy of Perth '97 has not tarnished anyone's reputation. Warne was critical in his autobiography of Lara's public pronouncements about the sledging Samuels endured, but he made no complaint about the going over that he and Bichel received. Perhaps surprisingly, given that he had rather less to pad out his life story with, neither did Bichel when he came to write his book more than a decade later. As for the captains neither Walsh nor Taylor made any mention of Ambrose's antics in their memoirs. Darrell Hair made something of the incident in his, but in fairness to him only to make the point that it was unfortunate that the last appearance on Australian soil of such a great bowler should have left such an unpleasant aftertaste.
As an Englishman I cannot help but spot an interesting dichotomy here. Eighty years ago when Harold Larwood and Bill Voce bumped a few down at the Australians specialist batsmen, without breaching the laws of the game, the entire nation of Australia, with a few noble exceptions, whined so long and hard that the very future of Anglo-Australian relations were said to be strained. Sixty five years later another top-class pace bowler flung down a stream of bouncers at a couple of late-order batsmen, in clear contravention of the laws, and the Aussies just got into line, shrugged their shoulders and got on with the game - did the nation's psyche change in the interim? Or was it just the difference between winning and losing?