FOR THREE days this Sydney Test refused to lay down and die. When it finally did, the end was hastened, as it so often is with Alec Stewart's side, with a batting collapse. For once, the subsidence was understandable, and with the ball turning alarmingly, Stuart MacGill took 7 for 50, to give Australia victory and a well-deserved 3-1 win in the Ashes series.
Starting the day at 104 for 2, and needing 186 for a remarkable victory, England were all out 20 minutes after lunch, their last eight wickets falling for 88 runs. It may not have been the close ending many had hoped for, but Australia's victory by 98 runs, with a little over four and a half sessions to spare, was about par for the conditions. This season, the SCG has been a spinner's paradise and few teams batting last could have realistically expected to make more than 200.
"Once we lost the toss," said Stewart, "we always knew we were going to be up against it, especially against their three spinners. And it proved too much for us. At the start, we backed ourselves to get the 180-odd runs, but after losing two early wickets, we collapsed."
Early finishes have been a feature of this series, but with the riveting nature of the cricket here, no one was complaining. Over the four days 145,000 people came to the watch this thrilling match. Unless too much strong drink is consumed in the aftermath, none will forget it in a hurry and for once the England players could accept defeat with their heads high, something they could not have done after Adelaide.
Of course, they went into this match a spinner light, which is a bit like a golfer going into a deep greenside bunker without a sand wedge. Perhaps they felt that playing Ashley Giles, selected for the one-day side only, would have left them open to ridicule had it backfired.
The omission left Peter Such with a lone battle to fight, though one he rose to well, despite the absence of a left-armer paceman (a tactic on which England's selectors justified the selection of two off-spinners in the tour party) to create some early rough.
Generally though, England acquitted themselves well. In trying circumstances, Stewart's men cannot have played with any more passion than they did here after losing a crucial toss.
At the post-match press conference, Mark Taylor admitted as much, pointing out that here was an enhanced performance from England. "The most satisfying moment in the series was this game," Taylor said. "We got a big scare in Melbourne. Everything was going along beautifully until then.
"If anything I felt England played even better here than in Melbourne," he said. "They knew they had a sniff and they came out hard. They gave it everything in the field as well as with the ball and bat. That they still came out 90 odd runs short shows me that we've got a good side in that changing room."
He can say that again, and any potential upset England had in mind disappeared fairly quickly in the morning session when they lost Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick in the space of five overs.
With the ball having lost its hardness, runs became far harder to come by. Indeed Ramprakash, having failed to add to his overnight score of 14, became largely inert and it was his attempt to change that, with an injudicious cut shot off Glenn McGrath, that cost his wicket.
Against Australia these days, one man's mistake seems to be another's world record and Taylor's catch, low enough at first slip to require confirmation from the umpire at square leg, was his 157th in Tests. Afterwards he admitted that his poor batting form had led him to wear his baggy green cap.
"I don't really know what might happen over the next 12 months. I'm available for the West Indies but that's down to the selectors. If it was my last day of Test cricket in Australia, I just wanted to be sure that I wore the right outfit."
Hick, who was wearing a sunhat when he got out, was a mass of uncertainty, despite getting off the mark with a cut for four off McGrath. Normally a powerful player of spin, he looked incapable of scoring and his demise at noon, bowled round the legs trying to sweep MacGill, looked like a man fighting rigor mortis.
Thereafter, only Nasser Hussain, with another fighting half-century, and Dean Headley, with some lusty blows, held up the victory parade for any length of time. In fact, when Hussain went even the Barmy Army knew the game was up. For a while the singing stopped, as MacGill brought England finally to their knees.
Only John Crawley, given out lbw padding up to Colin Miller from around the wicket, could have had any complaint, though Such's dismissal, caught and bowled by MacGill after the No 11 had crashed a long hop into Michael Slater's heel at silly point, was bizarre.
Considering MacGill's success in the first innings, it was interesting that Taylor had first called on Shane Warne. But if the man with 315 Test wickets to his name was the obvious choice, it was MacGill, the newcomer, who stamped his authority on the match with another superb performance.
Four years ago, MacGill was one of England's net bowlers; here he was their nemesis. In the interim England's batsmen have become no better at coping with a turning ball, which, considering they do not see many wrist spinners is not all that surprising.
Before this series MacGill, a big spinner of the ball, was felt by many as being too excitable to bowl wrist-spin at Test level. Yet as his tally has grown - he finished the series with 27 wickets, the highest on either side - so has his confidence.
"He gets better every time he plays," ventured Taylor. "He used to bowl a bad ball every over. Now it's only every two or three overs."
MacGill was also made man of the match, his 12-107 in the game just shading Slater's excellent second-innings century. But while England were left to contemplate yet another defeat at the hands of their oldest foe, at least one celebration was being planned.
"Normally I'd be uncontrollable if I got seven wickets in a grade match for North Sydney," MacGill said. "God knows what will happen now I've taken them at the SCG in an Ashes Test and helped win the series."
Henry Blofeld, Tour and Test Averages, more cricket, page 22
Fourth day; Australia won toss
AUSTRALIA - First Innings 322 (M E Waugh 121, S R Waugh 96; D W Headley 4-62).
ENGLAND - First Innings 220 (S C G MacGill 5-57).
AUSTRALIA - Second Innings 184 (M J Slater 123; P M Such 5-81).
ENGLAND - Second Innings
(Overnight: 104 for 2)
N Hussain c and b MacGill 53
170 min, 131 balls, 2 fours
M R Ramprakash c Taylor
b McGrath 14
60 min, 46 balls, 1 four
G A Hick b MacGill 7
39 min, 25 balls, 1 four
J P Crawley lbw b Miller 5
21 min, 14 balls
W K Hegg c Healy b MacGill 3
10 min, 10 balls
A J Tudor b MacGill 3
27 min, 21 balls
D W Headley c Healy b MacGill 16
25 min, 23 balls, 2 fours
D Gough not out 7
21 min, 16 balls, 1 four
P M Such c and b MacGill 2
11 min, 12 balls
Extras (lb5,w1,nb3) 9
Total (269 min, 66.1 overs) 188
Fall (cont): 3-110 (Ramprakash), 4-131 (Hick), 5-150 (Crawley), 6-157 (Hegg), 7-162 (Hussain), 8-175 (Tudor), 9-180 (Headley).
Bowling: McGrath 10-1-40-1 (nb3) (4-0-26-0, 6-1-14-1); Miller 17-1-50-1(6-1-19-0, 3-0-7-0, 8-0-24-1); MacGill 20.1-4-50-7 (w1) (8-1-27-1, 12.1-3-23-6); Warne 19-3-43-1 (15- 3-31-1, 4-0-12-0).
Progress: Fourth day: 150: 208 min, 49.5 overs. Lunch: 175-7: (Tudor 3, Headley 12) 60 overs. Innings closed: 2.02pm.
Hussain 50: 152 min, 124 balls, 2 fours.
Umpires: R S Dunne and D B Hair.
AUSTRALIA WON BY 98 RUNS AND SERIES 3-1
Compiled by Jo KingReuse content