The Australia players walk off the field at the end of the match

"Fair-dinkum, we tried, mate"

Chris McGrath / © Getty Images

I Was There

'For the first time, I saw genuine fear in Australia. They might have lost a Test they had dominated'

Craig McMillan, Jason Gillespie, Mark Richardson and John Buchanan look back to a thriller at the Gabba 19 years ago

Interviews by Shashank Kishore and Danyal Rasool  |  

Australia's "final frontier" hadn't quite been conquered in 2001. Their streak of 16 unbeaten Tests had come to a grinding halt that March courtesy VVS Laxman's and Rahul Dravid's heroics in Kolkata. That series was lost, but a revamped team took the Ashes 4-1 in England to brush aside any concerns they were in decline.

Back in familiar climes at home, Australia were expected to intimidate New Zealand, who had only ever won two Tests in the country. Instead, at the Gabba, a graveyard for so many visiting teams before and since, Australia found themselves floundering on day five as they worked frantically to eke out a draw against a New Zealand team that, out of nowhere, were moving in for the kill.

Yet going into the tour, some of the baggage New Zealand carried was in the heads of a lot of players, and it weighed heavily on them. Several players had to work especially hard to convince themselves as much as anyone else that they were good enough to compete with their nearest neighbours and fiercest rivals.

Mark Richardson, former New Zealand opener: We always saw Australian cricketers as better than us, and there have been times through that era where we didn't look at them in the eye; we'd be too quiet. At least that was the case with me, which is why my record was very poor in Australia. I'd be intimidated by them. When I look back, I was weak because of that. I should have manned up a lot more. Even Flem [New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming] was a bit like that against Australia because he wanted to earn their respect, and in the process we let them get on top of us. That's one thing India has done very well recently: they've gone to war against them, and it works. We didn't.

First blood: Richardson catches Hayden on day one

First blood: Richardson catches Hayden on day one Jonathan Wood / © Getty Images

Craig McMillan, former New Zealand allrounder: Going into that tour, we decided we weren't going to be bullied. The previous New Zealand sides that toured would always be intimidated, but we wanted to fight fire with fire. It's a huge rivalry we have with them, not just in cricket but in every sport. It was always like the big brother-little brother kind of contests. We wanted to get out of that pattern. One of things we clearly decided was that we wouldn't be pushed around.

Jason Gillespie, former Australia fast bowler: We never thought we were superior to anyone. We were always up for the battle against New Zealand. They're our nearest neighbours and there's that healthy rivalry: we want to knock them off and they want to knock us off. There's a deep respect between our countries - similar sorts of lifestyles and similar ways of thinking.

On the opening day of the series, Stephen Fleming won the toss and put Australia in to bat. Brave call? New Zealand would soon come to rue it, when Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden set about pounding a hapless attack.

Gillespie: The Gabba wicket looks like it's going to do something in Test cricket always. A lot of visiting captains think if there's going to be anything in the wicket , it's going to be early in the game, so let's try and utilise that and get ahead. Whereas our mentality whenever we played there was, "Okay, it might be tough in the first hour or so, but let's work hard and get through that, and then the wicket will settle down and it'll be a nice surface to bat on and we can drive the game forward."

At tea on day one, Australia's openers had plenty to smile about

At tea on day one, Australia's openers had plenty to smile about Darren England / © Getty Images

And it's as simple as that, really. Sometimes when teams go down that path of bowling first, it puts a lot of expectation on the bowlers to make inroads. Teams think, "We absolutely have to take wickets." Sometimes the bowlers put themselves under too much pressure and try too hard to bowl those wicket-taking deliveries, and Langer and Hayden made the most of that.

Richardson: It wasn't great, was it? It was a bit like what Nasser Hussain did [in 2002-03], put them in on a belter and then they got heaps. There was a bit of weather around and we thought there was plenty in it. We had Justin Langer plumb lbw in the first over, but it wasn't given. From there on, him and Matthew Hayden just smashed us. It was one of those things that could've easily been genius, if that Langer decision had gone our way. But they played with great aggression and put us on the back foot.

John Buchanan, former Australia coach: The Brisbane wicket is always kind of hard to read. It always looks green and it does offer the bowlers some help. We're talking November in Brisbane, so the groundsmen always liked to leave a bit of moisture in it because they know they're going to get some really hot weather through the course of the Test match. So the first day, the wicket does offer a bit for the bowlers, but it's also a bit slower since there's a bit of moisture. But if the bowlers don't get their lengths right, they're going to get punished.

Before tea, Australia had coasted past 200, and New Zealand were yet to make a breakthrough on a surface they had believed would assist them.

McMillan: We spent considerable time going through specific bowling plans for every player, but it was a shame that it didn't work out on that first morning, when we were under the pump. Daryl Harper may have been half-asleep (laughs), when he turned down that lbw call off Justin Langer in the very first over. Oh dear, it was deflating from there on. Shayne O'Connor got injured. Daniel Vettori couldn't bowl because of a wet ball. So it was down to a few part-timers, me and Nathan Astle, to support Chris Cairns and Dion Nash. It wasn't ideal, but we had to work with what we had.

Less hairy, more scary: Gillespie bowls on day four

Less hairy, more scary: Gillespie bowls on day four William West / © AFP/Getty Images

Ideal it certainly wasn't. Australia piled on the runs, and even though New Zealand ran through the middle order cheaply, Adam Gilchrist demonstrated his explosiveness lower down the order, smashing 118 off 158 on a rain-interrupted day. Inclement weather would continue through the third day, as New Zealand toiled while Gilchrist got plenty of support from the lower order, most notably Brett Lee, who chipped in with his own half-century, allowing Australia to amass 486 and declare.

If the battering on the field wasn't enough, in the post-day press conference Gilchrist termed New Zealand's bowling tactics as outright negative. In response, the usually restrained New Zealand captain, Fleming, hit back, telling Gilchrist to "pull his head in".

Richardson: We took those "negative tactics" comments as a compliment, because that is exactly what we were trying to do. We wanted to make them take as long as they could to score those runs. We wanted to play extremely negative cricket, to take as much time out of the game as we possibly could, so that they'd have to force the game later on, because they didn't want draws. So when Gilchrist made comments like that, we were just sniggering. "Oh, shame isn't it, that we haven't come here to play the cricket you want us to?" I think, there was always that feeling that Australia wanted to tell the rest of the world how the game should be played. We thought that was fine but decided we'd play it the way we wanted to.

Make your own entertainment: fans during a rain break on day four

Make your own entertainment: fans during a rain break on day four Chris McGrath / © Getty Images

Buchanan: To put it into context, Australia were a powerhouse at that point and playing exceptionally good cricket. I think New Zealand had a pretty decent side and felt one of the ways they could probably unsettle us was to be a little bit negative and be a little bit negative in terms of field placings. Draw things out as long as they possibly could, essentially, because there was rain about.

Gillespie: Gilchrist is a damaging player, isn't he? The New Zealand attack was trying to starve him of run-scoring or depriving him of the strike. That's a legitimate tactic in our game. Gilly may have interpreted it as a negative tactic, which is fine. It was probably just a little bit of gamesmanship and at the end of the day, we can't ask the opposition to play a certain way and vice versa. You do what you can within the laws of the game and there are various tactics and lots of theories about certain tactics.

Unlike their Australian counterparts, New Zealand's top order couldn't get off to nearly as encouraging a start on the fourth day, and in very little time found themselves reduced to 55 for 4. They did manage to counter Glenn McGrath, but they would have no answer to Gillespie, who got rid of three of the top four, including Fleming for a golden duck.

Gillespie: The key to bowling at the Gabba is getting your lengths right. Sometimes on Australian pitches in general, you can get carried away with the bounce. It makes you think you're a little bit faster than you really are because it's nice to see that bounce and carry. You can get sucked into bowling back of a length instead of getting the ball up there and getting the batsmen thinking about driving the ball. That's the length you want to try and bowl - where the batter is thinking about defending off the front foot but also where he's thinking about scoring off that delivery by trying to drive it, even though it's not quite there to drive. It's quite a delicate balance.

The old firm: Cairns and McMillan made 172 runs and took nine wickets between them in the match

The old firm: Cairns and McMillan made 172 runs and took nine wickets between them in the match Chris McGrath / © Getty Images

All teams do their research and opposition analysis but with New Zealand it was pretty obvious. I remember in that series, one thing that stood out was that they played Glenn McGrath very well. From memory, they left a lot of deliveries alone outside off stump, and that was an area where Glenn got a lot of wickets. I read somewhere that New Zealand had learned that a very high percentage of the deliveries that Glenn bowls don't actually hit the stumps. So they had a plan to leave him alone and to let the ball go a lot and get Glenn to change his game plan. He ended up not getting the edges and looked to bowl a lot straighter and they were able to score runs off him.

Richardson: There was a bit of weather around, the wicket had spiced up. I hadn't played McGrath before. I'd played against Gillespie and he was in his prime, the quickest of them until Brett Lee came around. I was trying to get a feel for their attack, bide time, which was my game plan at the best of times. I started to get myself in and was disappointed to make just 26. It was just a game of survival. We had one goal and that was to get past the follow-on. And then Lee ran through our middle order.

The covers kept coming on and off. They were on overnight and there was life in it, but Gillespie was bowling outstandingly, early-mid-140s. He'd hit an impeccable length, the ball would just wobble away. You could see him landing it on the seam. You had to get onto the front foot always. McGrath you could play him off the back foot, but Gillespie was a real threat for lbws because he was hitting dangerous lengths.

McMillan: Sure, Brett Lee was the quickest of the lot, but Jason at that time as dangerous as they came. He'd be accurate, he wouldn't budge an inch with where he kept landing the ball, and he'd get steep bounce and movement from there. It was a huge challenge facing him.

On the final morning, once we avoided the follow-on, the plan was always to put the ball back in their court and ask them if they wanted to dangle a carrot to us. Credit to Steve Waugh for actually doing that. The Test turned out pretty exciting because of that declaration, really.

Brett Lee goes full tilt on an appeal on day five

Brett Lee goes full tilt on an appeal on day five Chris McGrath / © Getty Images

At that point, the game was well into the fifth day and seemingly destined for a draw. But Australia wouldn't give up a shot at a win so easily, and they made that perfectly clear in a second innings that lasted under an hour, where they clobbered 84 in 14 overs, setting New Zealand 284 in just under 60 overs. The carrot had been dangled.

In turn, New Zealand too made their intentions clear; they wouldn't be playing for a bore draw either. In 43 overs, they were 190 for 3, and with a smidge under ten overs to go and Nathan Astle and Stephen Fleming in full flow, they needed 94 to steal a sensational win.

Richardson: We had an aggressive middle order, and I knew we had guys who could capitalise on a reasonable start. Our one-day team at that time was quite different, had a different vibe and balance. So we got into a scenario where we needed to play one-day cricket.

There was confidence. We needed a reasonable start. It's probably the best I played in Australia, that innings. I stopped playing the players, McGrath, Gillespie or Warne. I was just playing the situation, letting myself play positively. It was a really good deck. I was finding gaps effortlessly and they were rattled.

When I got out to a poor shot, I sort of went, "B****r, I was enjoying that." Cairns went on off on me [in the dressing room]: "Unacceptable, you had them on toast. This isn't about enjoying it, it's about winning." It was a right roasting. We were right in it - at one point we all thought we'd win, and we forced them into negative tactics, and that was damn cool.

Steal one in the dark? Ultimately New Zealand fell short

Steal one in the dark? Ultimately New Zealand fell short Chris McGrath / © Getty Images

McMillan: Once we had a foot in the door, we saw it as an opportunity to win the Test. We knew if we were 50 for 4, like in the first innings, we'd be gone. Mark Richardson started superbly and set us up. And a couple of hours into the chase we saw them just starting to wonder if they'd erred.

For the first time, I saw genuine fear because they were in a position from where they could lose the Test despite dominating for a bulk of the match. I think Chris Cairns and I put on 50 in 30 balls or something. We picked Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne for 30 in two overs or so. Suddenly their meetings got longer, they were taking time, McGrath was bowling down leg or wide outside off. You knew they genuinely feared losing at that point.

The tables had been turned. Days after Gilchrist had accused New Zealand of being negative, Australia found ever more innovative ways to stifle the scoring and slow the over rate. It was they who clung on for a draw as Cairns found himself in the sort of one-day groove that had seen New Zealand snatch a glorious win in the ICC Champions Trophy final against India a year earlier, and Australia would need to use every trick they possessed to bring it to a stop.

Buchanan: I think we felt we'd made all the running in the game. For us to declare after only 14 overs in the second innings, whereas if we wanted to be totally negative, we'd have shut the game down totally. We were always trying to take the game on, and we declared to keep the game alive, and so, of course, New Zealand got reasonably close. I think maybe at that point we decided, no, it's time to shut the game down, because we didn't believe New Zealand deserved to be in a position to win the game.

Gillespie: I can't speak for anyone else but there was no sheepishness about playing that way from my perspective. You play the game as long as you can to try and win and when that's out of the equation, you try to save the game. That's Test cricket. We always play to win but there are games that you play where you need to try to find a way to save the game. If the win is out, what's the next best thing? Saving the game. That's tactics. I see that as adapting to the situation. The situation called for looking to try and save the game, and that's what we did.

Nathan Astle top-scored with 66 in New Zealand's chase

Nathan Astle top-scored with 66 in New Zealand's chase Jonathan Wood / © Getty Images

Richardson: Eighty per cent of the game, we were outplayed, so it wasn't a case of, "Oh we're better than you, we dominated you", but there was a sense of satisfaction that our strategy had paid off and they'd played into our hands, but we were under no illusion that they were playing damn good cricket for most of it. We had no issues playing what they thought was negative cricket, because it gave us the best chance of maybe sneaking a 1-0 victory and a streaky series win. That may have been huge.

Down to the pointy end, with New Zealand 20 runs from victory, Chris Cairns bludgeoned Lee to the long-on boundary, the ball looking like it might well clear the rope. Ricky Ponting, perched under it, held his nerve and took the catch, ensuring New Zealand would be forced to shake hands on a draw just ten runs shy of glory.

McMillan: That catch was a turning point. Back then, you really didn't train like you do today for boundary catches. Had that gone for six, possibly we would've won. But we took a lot of heart and confidence from that spirited chase and it stood us in good stead for the rest of the series.

Richardson: Cairns was going well, we thought, going into the last ten overs, the game was ours. Game of inches, isn't it? Think of the World Cup final [2019]. McMillan was going well. He was annoyed because he thought he could've done better towards the end with McGrath bowling wide yorkers. We could see the game slipping away, though he was such a good hitter of the cricket ball. I think if you put the same situation to a modern-day cricketer, they would've done better, because they're now a lot more adept. There was no T20 in those days, we played more traditional cricket. If they'd lost, Waugh would've said, "Fair game to New Zealand, I set them a sporting declaration." He did a lot for that Test by being prepared to set a reasonable target.

Had we lost wickets and survived, we would've been deflated. But because we nearly chased it down, and you don't often get 280 to win a Test anywhere in the world, let alone Australia, we were on an absolute high. It would've been a poor feeling had we just survived to draw. We wouldn't have taken much satisfaction in drawing a rain-affected game where we were completely outplayed for three of the four innings.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor