Waugh v Ambrose: ’95 Windies tour oral history, Pt 2

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Steve Waugh defends a bouncer // Getty

(On the 25th anniversary of Australia lifting the Frank Worrell Trophy in 1995, we continue a three-part feature on how one dynasty ended and another began, as told by those who played in it)

AUSTRALIA’s 1-0 lead was preserved after the second Test in Antigua, which had been intriguingly poised when the hosts’ fourth-innings pursuit of 257 was halted at 2-80 due to rain.

As the teams travelled south to Port of Spain, the two major protagonists in what would be the series’ defining moment arrived under heavy strain.
Steve Waugh, who had struck crucial half-centuries in each of the first two games, received a series of abusive phone calls to his hotel room as well as an in-person volley from an elderly Trinidadian as tensions over his catch off local hero Brian Lara in the series opener continued to simmer.

Curtly Ambrose was at his destructive best in Trinidad // Getty

Former West Indies captain Viv Richards further inflamed feelings when he labelled Australia’s win in Barbados a “hollow victory” and cast doubt over the legitimacy of Waugh’s catch.

Waugh would later hit back in his tour diary, writing: “News of this attack shook me for a couple of hours until I came to realise that it had come from someone who was probably struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is no longer at the centre of attention.

“I used to have great respect for the man (Richards) but not any longer.”

The emotional toll of what was already a seven-week long tour was beginning to tell, with his wife Lynette battling a bout of tonsillitis back in Sydney. Waugh’s only counter was to ensure the runs continued to flow.

“I made a conscious effort to play well away from home because you had those extra difficulties in touring – loneliness, homesickness, missing what was going on back in Australia with your family,” Waugh told cricket.com.au. “I probably compartmentalised.”

Curtly Ambrose was also feeling the heat after taking just three wickets in the first two Tests, with captain Richie Richardson (who had elevated himself to open the batting after the first Test to stabilise the Windies’ top-order) even suggesting his star paceman may need to be rested.

“I’m under a bit of pressure,” the Antiguan told his former teammate Michael Holding in a television interview before the third Test. “I haven’t done myself or the team any justice. I’m way below my best.”
It set the scene for one of Test cricket’s most iconic exchanges.

Third Test | Queen’s Park Oval, Trinidad | April 21-23, 1995
West Indies XI: Stuart Williams, Richie Richardson (c), Brian Lara, Jimmy Adams, Carl Hooper, Keith Arthurton, Junior Murray (wk), Winston Benjamin, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Kenny Benjamin

Australia XI: Mark Taylor (c), Michael Slater, David Boon, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Greg Blewett, Ian Healy (wk), Brendon Julian, Paul Reiffel, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath

Mark Taylor (Australia captain):
I’m standing here right now in my home looking at my backyard and my grass is about an inch long. It was about the same length at Trinidad. We kept waiting for them to cut the grass, but they didn’t. All they did was roll it. It was almost impossible to bowl a straight ball if you hit the seam.

Steve Waugh (Australia batsman): It was one of those pitches where you turn up and you think, ‘Gee I wish we weren’t playing the West Indies today’. This was going to be pretty tough against Ambrose and Walsh and they had some good backup bowlers – Kenny Benjamin was a very good bowler, and so was Winston Benjamin. They still had a serious attack for those conditions. Maybe the instructions were to get the deck really juicy so it suited the West Indies attack.

Richie Richardson (West Indies captain): I didn’t have any input, that’s something I never did. I never discussed pitch preparation with anybody. It was seaming around but it was very slow. It wasn’t the kind of wicket we would ideally like. We would ideally want hard, bouncy tracks. There was a lot of talk and people believed that it was prepared specifically for our fast bowlers. The soil in Trinidad was different to anywhere else in the Caribbean and it would get loose pretty quickly, so I believed a lot of grass was left on the wicket to hold it together.

Jimmy Adams (West Indies batsman): Let me tell you something. I had never seen a pitch with that much grass on it anywhere in the world. Generally because the Queen’s Park wicket would crumble on top, there were times where they’d keep some grass on it so it would hold together. But they didn’t need it that high.

Paul Reiffel (Australia fast bowler): Someone asked the groundsman, ‘Did your mower break down?’

Taylor: They weren’t going to put out a Trinidad turner when we had Shane Warne and they didn’t. I don’t know if there was any direction given, but the groundsman no doubt made it a sporting wicket because that was going to bring about a result. You didn’t need to be Einstein to work out they were going to back their quicks and their batting over ours – which was a risk. It turned out to be a good gamble, but it was a gamble.

Brendon Julian (Australia fast bowler): There had been a lot of rain so we didn’t think we’d be starting at all. Maybe tea time at the earliest.

Ian Healy (Australia wicketkeeper): I asked the question, ‘Are we starting on time’ and I got a look of incredulity from ‘Tubby’ (Taylor) going, ‘Yeah, of course, what are you talking about?’ I don’t think he realised how wet it was. I was thinking, ‘Holy hell, it’s going to be really hard work if we lose the toss’.

Julian: We were just sitting around in the changing room and someone came in and said, ‘Hey, we better start getting organised, they’re marking out the pitch.’ We all ran out onto the balcony and I remember thinking, ‘What!?’ They were putting the stumps in. We couldn’t even work out where the pitch was, it was so green. Within 45 minutes, we were warming up and Tubby was tossing the coin.

Taylor, much to his team’s dismay, lost his third straight coin toss and Richardson did not hesitate to put the visitors in to bat. The under-fire Ambrose quickly reduced the Aussies to 3-14 in a sparkling return to form. Steve Waugh, already persona non-grata in Trinidad, shaped as the only obstacle between him and the West Indies levelling the series.

Waugh: I was a bit on edge going into the Test match. Every time I was on the street I was getting threatened or getting phone calls in the hotel, and then getting booed when I went out to bat. Ambrose, at the same time, was under pressure from the press in the Caribbean. They thought he was past his best and were asking was he still good enough to be at that level. At the time, I saw it as the biggest Test match of my career.

Adams: The team that had the crown were being pushed to the wall and it was affecting everybody. With Curtly, yes, you’d usually get a stare but even when Dean Jones got him to take off his wristbands in a one-dayer, Curtly was proper mad, but it wasn’t the same kind of reaction. It was a little bit out of character, because Curtly would (normally) just bowl. I’d seen Curtly get mad on the field but normally if he was going to blow his fuse, he’d blow it in the dressing room. I don’t think we were the happiest unit at that time either. It would have been a combination of things that affected him, but it was symptomatic of where we were at a unit.

Waugh: The conditions exaggerated all those emotions. The pitch was doing a fair bit, I couldn’t lay bat on ball. He was all over me. He was probably too good, to be truthful. He was a world-class bowler in any conditions but when it suited him, he was near impossible. I was a bit frustrated at my own game.

Every ball he’d follow through and be in your face, just staring at you not saying a word, which was probably the best form of sledging. You didn’t know what he was thinking, whether he was trying to get me out or just trying to physically hurt me. So I was just standing there thinking, ‘I’m trying my best here but you’re just too good’. It just kept happening and I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose, I’ll try to put him off his game’. I had a few words to him which he didn’t enjoy too much and then Richie came in and broke us up. I probably had a few more words that I shouldn’t have said. Thankfully Richie dragged him away.

Richardson: I just grabbed him and said, ‘Come on, let’s get on with it’. Rather than just standing there staring, I just wanted to get on with it and that’s what I said to him. I believe in playing tough cricket, but it just didn’t look good. Standing there in his face, it wasn’t a good spectacle and it wasn’t the sort of thing I would promote. I promote aggression, I promote the exchange of a few words (but only) as long as you keep it in control.

Healy: Curtly thought (Waugh) swore at him and then he walked right in and looked through his helmet. How scary would that be? He said, ‘Don’t cuss me, man’. If we had known they would get that upset by swearing, we would have done it a lot more!
Junior Murray (West Indies wicketkeeper): You didn’t want to get the big man upset. You’d see a different side of him.

Greg Blewett (Australia batsman): I was in next and I was just thinking, ‘Mate, what are you doing? Why would you try to stir him up even more?’ He’s difficult enough to face as it is. The next ball he bowled nearly took his head off. The crowds were loving every moment, especially incidents like that. It just got the crowds going and that got the bowlers fired up.

Julian: Both ‘Heals’ (Healy) and I were padded up. Ambrose was getting cranked up and I was thinking, ‘I’ve still got to bat!’ You could always tell when he was starting to bowl quick because he’d click his heels up when he ran into bowl.

Waugh: The next ball was probably the quickest, nastiest ball of my whole career. I played it with my gloves in front of my face, maybe even above my helmet. We were both fired up for the occasion and knew the significance of the Test match. That passage of play could determine the whole series.

Winston Benjamin (West Indies fast bowler): The captain made it look worse than it was. Steve is a competitor. We all knew he did not play the short ball that well, but he was going to fight tooth and nail. Curtly was having a go at him and Steve was giving back as good as he was getting. The verbals between them were not, to me, to the level that required what transpired from the captain. It was two guys having what I would call competitive banter. There was nothing too much in it.

Richardson: Curtly and I will always be friends. That happened and it was done. As far as he was concerned it was not that big a deal. He was pumped up, he wanted to get him out. The incident happened and that was that.

Benjamin: It only lasted about 10-15 seconds, but it showed that the fear teams had for the West Indies attack in the past was no longer there.

Adams: The Australians didn’t see any reason to back down. I was at bat-pad and I figured guys were thinking, ‘Why am I going to back down? What’s the worst thing that could happen? Another bumper? I’ve faced 20 million bumpers from Curtly and Courtney over the years, so what’s another two?’

Waugh: While it might not have been a great look I think people remember it pretty fondly because it showed the passions of the two sides. Everyone knew what was at stake. It wasn’t just a Test match meandering to a meaningless result. Everyone was on edge, knowing it was a crucial moment in the series. Two players at the top of their game, tussling head-to-head. When you watch Test match cricket you want to see that sort of passion and confrontation. Maybe it went a step too far, but I think people look back on it and see it as a really important moment in Test match cricket. It didn’t affect Ambrose too much – he took (5-45). So I’m not sure if it was a good move or not.

Reiffel:
I was just in survival mode. It was impossible to bat on that pitch for a period of time against Walsh and Ambrose without copping a few bruises. But batting with Steve was always good, he gave a lot of confidence to lower-order players. He never tried to shield you and always spoke to you as though you could bat.

Julian: That was an unbelievable knock (from Waugh). That was worth 120. It was one of the best digs I’ve seen. It gave us a glimmer of a chance when we really needed it.

Richardson:
It was remarkable. Steve Waugh would watch the ball very closely, he’d watch the ball late and he was determined. He stood out the entire series. He was one of the players who believed they could beat us. Every single Test match, every single innings you could see that determination in his face.

Waugh: I was probably at the peak of my game. That’s what I had steeled myself for. As a Test match batsman, it was like a graduation ceremony. If you can get through Ambrose and Walsh on a green top, you think, ‘All the hard work was worthwhile and I’ve really made it as a batsman’

Adams: I remember having a conversation with Brian (Lara) when we were fielding and talking about what we were going to do when it was our turn to bat. By then we knew what we were up against with the likes Paul Reiffel and Glenn McGrath being very stingy fast bowlers. We both decided we would try to pounce on anything short because anything on a (good) length was a bit of a lottery. I remember seeing him pull out a few pulls and hooks early – early for him – and I thought that might be the way to go. Because when it was short it wasn’t flying, you had time. We both played a couple of shots square of the wicket early in our innings. You just felt like you were sitting ducks otherwise.

Blewett:
The bowling attack really gelled – Brendon Julian did a great job for us at times – and they just kept us in games. That was the spirit we had among the team and the whole squad. That was probably the making of Glenn McGrath and he never looked back after that tour. It gave him some real self-belief. We had lost Craig McDermott who was probably the leader of the attack and all of a sudden Glenn had to really step up.
McGrath proved just as much as a handful as Ambrose, snaring 6-47 (his second five-wicket haul in three Tests) to have Australia right in the mix, trailing by just eight runs. Adams was the only West Indian to last longer than two hours at the crease.

Taylor: We passed the deficit in our second innings with ‘Slats’ (Michael Slater) and I still in. In essence we had 10 wickets in hand with an innings each to play in the Test. But we only made a further 100 runs. I made 30 in that second innings and that was about as disappointed as I’d been in the whole series. If I could have made 60 or 70 and someone else could have chipped in, we might have made 250 and won the series. That’s how tight it was.

Reiffel: It was ‘even-Stevens’ after two innings, but their bowling in the second innings was frightening. The first innings it had been quite slow. That pitch became more difficult as the game went on and it quickened up. It was nearly impossible to face the West Indies attack on that pitch. We got bowled out very cheaply in the second innings and the game was over in a flash.

Chasing 98, Windies openers Stuart Williams (42 off just 56), Richardson (38 not out off 57) blazed away in an 81-run partnership before Brian Lara hit Shane Warne, largely neutered by the fast-bowler friendly conditions, for six over long-off to seal the Test and set the ledger at 1-1 heading into the final Test in Jamaica.

Healy: The fact we didn’t play well in the third innings disappointed us and then Lara caned us. We were a bit rattled, a bit disappointed we’d given them confidence back again.

Reiffel: We were a bit shell-shocked because we had been knocked over that quickly. All of a sudden we were out bowling and they played their shots, Richie and Brian. They got away and the pressure was off. We blinked and it was all over, and they were back in the series.(Cricket.com.au)