England walk back through celebrating fans

Pass the champagne, please: England had good use for the bubbly at the MCG

William West / © Getty Images

I Was There

Dean and Daz make merry in Melbourne

When England snatched the 1998-99 Boxing Day Test from Australia's firm grasp

Interviews by Scott Oliver  |  

England embarked upon the 1998-99 Ashes tour having beaten South Africa at home that summer, and arrived in Australia relatively upbeat. Or at least, they ought to have done…

Alec Stewart: The South Africa series was the first time we'd beaten a major team in a four- or five-match series for 13 years, I think.

The public were getting behind the team, we were on a bit of a high, and then we get to The Oval for a one-off Test against Sri Lanka, and instead of the pitch being an English-friendly surface that both myself and David Lloyd had suggested we would like, we turned up to see that we might as well have been playing in Colombo. There wasn't a blade of grass on it. Murali got 16 wickets.

So instead of going out to Australia on the back of a series win, we're going out after a defeat. That said, and although we were the underdogs - throughout that period that was always the case - there was good and decent belief within that squad.

It didn't take long for that Murali-damaged belief to ebb away. A rain-affected draw in Brisbane, followed by defeats in Perth and Adelaide, meant that by the time England got to Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test, the Ashes had already gone. With an injured Shane Warne sitting out the first four Tests, it was a missed opportunity. However, there was still a series to be drawn, but not before things got a little worse.

Nasser Hussain: The wheels were definitely off our tour leading up to Melbourne. We had that fiasco against Australia A in Tasmania, where there was a bit of disquiet over whether Athers should have declared.

Angus Fraser: The Australia XI ended up with only one seam bowler after [Paul] Reiffel and [Michael] Kasprowicz went down and runs were easy to come by, so we ended up setting them 376 and they got them in about 50 overs, one down. It was carnage. There were a few words said in the dressing room at the end of that match. That was a pretty negative week.

Alec Stewart:

Alec Stewart: "It's one of my proudest moments as a player, because I only made the one century against Australia unfortunately" © Getty Images

Stewart: I'd had the game off and Nasser, my vice-captain, had the game off, so Ath [Mike Atherton] was captain. He went against instruction - because we were going to bat until tea on day four and then just have 20 overs of bowling, game dead, move on to Melbourne. Ath got bored and decided he would declare. The rest is history: they knocked off three hundred-and-plenty with 30 overs to go. It did the bowlers no good, the morale no good, and certainly upset Bumble.

Hussain: Bumble was really ticking behind the scenes leading up to Melbourne. He wasn't happy with the way we were playing. But then Christmas came round, which brought us all together. We did some small things away from the cricket - Secret Santa, things like that - and had a bit of a laugh in the dressing room and got ourselves together. [Darren] Goughie was brilliant in situations like that. It's times like that on tour, when the wheels are coming off, that you need real characters. We had characters in that dressing room, like Gough and Fraser, [Dominic] Cork and [Dean] Headley, Atherton.

And then there is one of cricket's iconic occasions to look forward to.

Mark Butcher: It's a major event, regardless of the situation in the series. It was the first Boxing Day Test I played in, and it's a major part of cricketing folklore just to be involved in one. Despite the fact that we were a laughing stock prior to the match, we just gave it a go. It was Christmas time, families were around, and you just turn up and do the best you can.

Hussain: A lot of Barmy Army and tour groups fly in for the MCG and SCG Tests, so being around Melbourne you realise how important it was for people. The Ashes were gone but there was still huge motivation: there are careers on the line, jobs on the line, and you're playing for your country. You want to score runs for England and you want to win a Test match for England, especially at the MCG. So personal pride, doing it for the crowd - there was still a lot of motivation there.

Boxing Day was rained out, so the game got underway on day two. After losing his fourth straight toss and giving up the gloves to Warren Hegg, Stewart underpinned England's middling first-innings score of 270 with 107, moving up to bat as an opener.

Stewart: I was going to keep, and Alex Tudor was going to play. Then he did a groin on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Athers and Butch at the top of the order hadn't really fired, and so although it's a bit random, a bowler gets left out and we bring in a wicketkeeper. Heggy made his debut on the back of Tudor being injured. I said I'd go up to open with Ath, and Butch can drop to three, to see if we can shuffle the batting around to get enough runs. Ath got a pair, Butch didn't get many either, but thankfully I got some runs.

Dean Headley: The thing with Stewy, he didn't grind it out. He played his shots. He took the game to them. You needed to do that against that team, as was shown by Michael Vaughan's team in 2005.

Dean Headley changed the course of the game by taking three wickets in 12 deliveries. Here Ian Healy falls for a duck, one of four in the innings

Dean Headley changed the course of the game by taking three wickets in 12 deliveries. Here Ian Healy falls for a duck, one of four in the innings © Getty Images

Stewart: It's one of my proudest moments as a player, because I only made the one century against Australia unfortunately. The fact that I was the captain and that we won adds to that.

England's indefatigably upbeat spearhead, Gough, was exceptional in Australia's reply, taking five wickets as the hosts stumbled to 252 for 8.

Headley: I did like playing with Goughie. We played five Tests together and I think we took 53 wickets between us. My cricket was based on heart. Darren Gough was another cricketer who played with his heart on his sleeve. Nass was the same. Stewy was the same. We weren't the best but we did have a bit of fight.

With Australia on the ropes, once again the knockout punch - well, the stiff jab that would have given them a rare first-innings lead down under - wouldn't quite come for England. Steve Waugh made a typical backs-to-the-wall hundred, which, in tandem with an unlikely career-best 43 from Warne's deputy, Stuart MacGill, steered the Australians to a crucial 70-run lead.

Stewart: MacGill chanced his arm and came off. Ideally, you want to knock them over for a lead, or at least parity. We tried to dispel that "here we go again" thinking - and you might be kidding yourself by doing it, because it had happened so many times that you think you're ahead of the game, and pretty quickly it was taken away from us during that period.

Headley: MacGill's innings was unbelievable. It was like there was a force field around his stumps.

In England's second innings, Stewart, Hussain and Graeme Hick made half-centuries, but at 221 for 9 and only 151 ahead, the game looked over. Enter Alan Mullally.

Hussain: Mullally wasn't a great batsman, but he enjoyed his batting and worked hard at it. He was a very popular member of that side, and to see Al Mullall smash McGrath a couple of times not only lifts the scoreboard, which was vital, as it turned out, but also lifts the morale of the dressing room.

Butcher: It was a bit of a laugh. McGrath had a bit of a pop at him and the crowd were giving Al a lot of stick, which they did anyway, with him having grown up over there. But it gave us a little bit of a boost before we went out. We had a little bit of something to be in a good mood about.

Fraser: There was supposed to have been this legendary tête-à- tête between McGrath and Mullally. I was at the other end and don't remember any of it. I think there's been a bit of poetic licence there.

The longest day: play on the fourth day at the MCG lasted eight hours and three minutes after the umpires decided to take the extra half-hour to force a result

The longest day: play on the fourth day at the MCG lasted eight hours and three minutes after the umpires decided to take the extra half-hour to force a result © Getty Images

Stewart: Mullally's runs were massive. It sounds stupid, but with 150 you think it's going to be hard work, but 175 gave us a chance.

Headley: Mullally probably should have got Man of the Match for those 15 or 16 runs. Those were the difference.

Hussain: We set them 175, and the Australian side of that era had a bit of a mental block about chasing small targets.

The potentially ticklish target didn't seem to be presenting too many problems as Australia cruised to 103 for 2, at which point Justin Langer pulled Mullally hard toward square leg.

Butcher: [Mark] Ramprakash's catch was huge. And his reaction as well - he went slightly nuts. Things from that moment turned around. The energy boost that gave us - and also the crowd as well, because we were well supported - was massive. It changed the body language, the wickets started to fall, and as so often happens in that situation, the ball starts rolling downhill and is difficult to stop.

Headley: It was a great catch, but I think Australia thought they'd won the game anyway by that stage.

Justin Langer: I remember clear as day being in the change room just after I'd got out and Michael Slater saying, "I'm just going to put the champagne on ice, skip". I remember Mark Taylor going, "F***, Slats, sit down, mate. The game's not over. Celebrate after." It was a great lesson. Well, eventually. I remember on the 2001 India tour: we'd won 16 straight Test matches and made them follow on, we've got Tendulkar out overnight and they're four down and we're on course to beat them in India for the first time in 30-odd years, and Slats bought a box of Cuban cigars to celebrate this 17th straight victory. We'd organised some black-market alcohol as well, so we could have this amazing party - and we'd brought it in that morning, because we thought "this is all over" - but then VVS Laxman and Dravid batted all day and we ended up losing. We celebrated too early then, and probably did in Melbourne that day - at 130 for 3, you think you're going to win it, but we didn't and that's the big memory I've got from that game tattooed in my brain.

Man-of-the-Match Headley got on a roll, and just kept bowling and bowling and bowling.

Fraser: Headley bowled magnificently. He was a competitor. A strong lad who skidded on to the bat a bit quicker than you thought. Quite slingy. A very good bowler, and it was a shame that injury stopped him playing a lot more, really. But that was his day - his evening - when everything came together for him.

Hussain: Dean Headley was a fabulous bowler, especially to left-handers. Once he got on a roll, things just seemed to click into place.

Stuart MacGill is bowled by Darren Gough

Stuart MacGill is bowled by Darren Gough © Getty Images

Headley: I didn't mind hard work. You talk to all my captains - if they wanted me to bowl, I'd bowl. I enjoyed that level of… masochism, if you like.

Mark Waugh fell next, as 130 for 3 became 140 for 7, with Darren Lehmann, Ian Healy and Damien Fleming also tumbling in quick succession, all to Headley.

Headley: The three wickets on 140 obviously flicked the switch for us. And they had a tail. They had McGrath, MacGill, [Matthew] Nicholson. Fleming could bat a bit, but was probably a bit high at eight. It was definitely a tail you could get through. The ball was reversing, and I had some massive lbw shouts against Nicholson, who kept hiding his bat behind his pad. No DRS, see. But then Lehmann might have said DRS would have saved him. Did he nick it? Did he not? Who knows. I don't care, really.

Hussain: Healy obviously wasn't as good as [Adam] Gilchrist, but he was still dangerous. And you can't just think when you get past him that it's job done, because Steve Waugh batting with the tail could still be a problem. You just have to be mentally strong in those situations.

By the time Nicholson edged Headley behind at 161, England had been out in the field for three and a half hours, at which point an extra half hour was added in the belief that a result could be reached that evening.

Butcher: Alec was trying to get us off the field because the guys were dead on their feet. It had been a three-and-a-half hour session as it was. But once the umpires made the call that the game was going to reach a conclusion that night, you just get on with it.

Stewart: We were all using a bit of kidology. I just took the bails off and gave them to Steve Bucknor, knowing full well that they were going to continue. It was a massively long session anyway, so that extra half hour took it up to four hours. I wasn't in the box seat, so I just tipped the bails off and exchanged a few pleasantries, while suggesting it wasn't good for the game and everything else, but I didn't have a leg to stand on because the regulations allowed it.

Hussain: Stewart and Steve Waugh were two real street fighters going at each other. Both would do anything to win, both trying to outdo each other with the gamesmanship or whatever you want to call it.

Butcher: But it was less about whose decision it was than Steve Waugh being happy turning the strike over, whereas a lot of other players would have been happy farming the strike. Steve was happy taking a single off the first ball of the over if we gave it to him.

Allan Mullally chirps at Pidge

Allan Mullally chirps at Pidge © Getty Images

Hussain: Steve Waugh was the master of batting with the tail, although I don't think he got it entirely right in that game.

Langer: I know Steve Waugh's copped some criticism for that - I heard Ian Chappell say he was selfish and all that - but to be fair to him, he was consistent through his whole career. He backed the tail. There might have been a couple of times where it didn't work out, but it worked in the other way a lot of times where they scored a lot of runs. It did in the first innings of this game. When you lose, what tends to happen is, you focus on things like Steve Waugh taking the single off Goughie, but you forget to look at the blokes earlier on, me included, who were meant to get the job done and didn't. So I'm not going to blame him for batting through on 30 not out. That doesn't rub with me.

Whether reckless or legitimate tactics, mind games or brain fade, Waugh's single exposed the two McGs to a pumped Darren Gough, who duly produced two laser-accurate reverse-swinging yorkers to win the game, before erupting in deranged, wild-eyed jubilation.

Hussain: Gough didn't do those sorts of thing for show. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he had raw emotion about winning a game for England. The jubilation was simply that it was the Boxing Day Test match, one of the great venues, and we were down and out going into the game. So it was more about winning a game from nowhere - not only in the game from nowhere, but from nowhere in the series. You don't get many opportunities to beat Australia over there.

Headley: I wasn't interested whether I was going to get those two wickets. I just wanted the game done. Finishing the game, I emotionally shut down. I didn't jump around. I just felt a sense of relief that I'd stopped fighting. I went in the dressing room and just sat there. It was like a switch had gone off. People were jumping around all over the place but I couldn't do that. I was never like that.

It was a rare and famous victory - Australia wouldn't lose another home Test until January 2003, when England, 4-0 down and almost out, won a whitewash-averting dead rubber at the SCG - and the visitors' euphoria was well merited.

Indeed, many of them felt that but for a contentious third-umpire run-out decision in the final Test, in Sydney, that went against them (Michael Slater would score 123 out of 184 all out in a 98-run victory), they might even have drawn 2-2. Was this the one that got away? Not for the Australian captain, Mark Taylor, who believed that but for a thunderstorm in Brisbane, when Australia looked odds-on, and the "complacent batting" in Melbourne, it would have been 5-0.

Didn't we make a splash? Darren Gough and Dean Headley chill after the win

Didn't we make a splash? Darren Gough and Dean Headley chill after the win William West / © PA Photos

Butcher: It's ifs and buts. I'm 100% sure we'd have lost the game at Brisbane had it not rained. And I'm 100% sure we'd have won in Sydney had the Slater run-out been given. But neither of those things happened.

Headley: Sydney was a great Test match spoiled by one umpiring decision. I'm not saying we would have won, but it would have been a damn sight closer. Then again, being honest about it, Australia played the better cricket for 80% of this Melbourne game, but we played unbelievable cricket for the last session. The only time we got totally outplayed was at Adelaide, where it was 46 degrees and we lost the toss and fielded. At Brisbane, Gus Fraser dropped Healy down at third man, a catch you've got to take, and Steve Waugh should have been run out but Al Mullall got in front of the stumps and dropped the ball. If he'd just left it, it would have hit and he'd have been run out. Without those, that's an even Test match.

Butcher: We were less far behind this team than we were subsequently to become when [Adam] Gilchrist came in, when [Ricky] Ponting really emerged as the great player that he was, when Brett Lee and Damien Martyn got in. That team was better than the one we lost to in 1997 and 1998-99. The whole dynamic of their team went into hyperdrive after that.

Hussain: You put yourself in Bumble and Stewy's position. It would have been great on their CV, against that great Australian side, to have drawn 2-2. That would have been a magnificent thing to do. The way we fought back at Melbourne and the way we played at Sydney, we maybe deserved something out of the series. The record will say they were the better side, who played the better cricket, and you can't sit there years later and say, "Maybe if we'd got that run-out…" Well, as a player you can't, but as a captain or a coach you do tend to look back on every decision because it's held up against your name, and that would have been great for those two. As players, if we were brutally honest with ourselves, we probably didn't deserve 2-2 in that series, but we can be proud that of all the England sides since Gatting's [in 1986-87], other than Strauss' team [in 2010-11], we were the closest.

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper