Cricket: Suddenly, a tour catches fire

I sat alone on the viewing balcony and looked out on to the great old ground and the scenes of euphoria
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The Independent Online
WHEN Australia reached 100 for 2 in their second innings in the Fourth Test at Melbourne last week I was thinking of withholding today's column. What more was there to say? For weeks, it seemed, I had reported only doom and gloom. Could the readers possibly want more of that? No, I simply wouldn't pick up the phone.

It was somewhere around this time that Justin Langer, the in-form Australian No 3 and my colleague at Middlesex last summer, launched into a full-blooded pull shot. It headed in my direction at square leg. The resultant catch was purely down to reaction. When the ball is coming at you that hard and you are advancing towards the pitch as I was to try to stop the annoying Australian habit of stealing sharp singles, there is no time for legislating how you might take the catch.

I just flung myself to my right and quite honestly was relieved that it stuck. Oh, I was elated as well. Nothing had been happening for too long, Australia were well beyond halfway in their quest to make the 175 needed to win the match and the series and Langer and Mark Waugh were set. As the rest of the lads gathered round I said: "Come on, come on, we can do this, we can win it." All right, it might have been a shade stronger than that, but that was the gist.

I know the catch gave us a lift. It brought a new batsman to the crease. A renewed belief ran through the whole team. At the start of the Australian reply the general feeling was that we ought, and certainly would have liked, to have set a target of 250. But if 175 it was then we had to make sure that was enough. We just had to. They would be made to fight for every run.

We didn't stop fighting, but at 100 for 2 they were looking more comfortable than England. They added another 20-odd for the fourth wicket but there was a distinctly positive feel about England now. We could do it, we would do it. Dean Headley, of course, transformed the match and possibly the series.

This had not been a particularly auspicious tour for him. He had been in the West Indies last year as one of the spearheads, but has not been sure of his place here. He was also tired. It had been a long session and a long match before it. The bowlers had all flogged their guts out for three days. But from somewhere Dean found something.

The ball was not swinging a great deal, the pitch was not offering much help but he summoned up his strength and some of that deceptive pace of his. Mark Waugh went, Darren Lehmann followed and then, wonder of wonders, Ian Healy was dispatched first ball. The sense of achievement and relief at Healy's dismissal was palpable. He has hung around for so long in so many situations, but now here he was gone in a trice. The Australian tail was exposed, we could win it.

All the time we were being encouraged and cheered by the Barmy Army. The Barmy Army have copped some flak in certain sections of the media. True, not every cricket watcher might want to sit among them, but in a Test match in a stadium like the MCG with 20,000 people present the noise of support and goodwill from those 300 or 400 people is amazingly uplifting for us in the middle. They kept supporting us when things were not going well. If they were up for it, we had to be.

It was tense and intense at once. It was a long session but England were running on adrenalin now. We knew we could get Damien Fleming because he had not shown much as a defensive player and he duly went. But then Steve Waugh and Matt Nicholson put together a little partnership. A little partnership in the context of this target could be a match-winning one.

But we spurred each other on. Nasser Hussain in the gully and Mark Butcher were imploring us, Alec Stewart had a 101 things to think about. Then it came to the end of normal play. We wanted to go off. We remembered Headingley against the South Africans last year when we needed two wickets in a tight finish. Allow the bowlers to rest overnight, regroup.

Australia, however, claimed the extra half-hour, as they were entitled to do, so we did not have a choice. We steeled ourselves. If that was the way it had to be, so be it. If we had to win it now, then we would. A few balls later Headley got Nicholson. It was a good piece of bowling because Nicholson had looked good defending, hitting down the line to balls on the stumps, but Dean placed this a tad outside the off stump and had him pushing at it.

Two wickets to go; Darren Gough was exhausted but willing. We had long since adopted the policy of allowing, or rather trying to lure Waugh into taking the single by setting the field deep. But off the first ball of a Gough over he took one. We didn't expect him to because it left Stuart MacGill to face five balls.

We knew Waugh shouldn't have done it, in fact, and immediately we were boosted. Five balls at the tail in such a tight situation. Gough produced two peaches, fast late-swinging yorkers. They would have been good enough for batsmen much more accomplished than MacGill and Glenn McGrath. Gough deserved that. This had been a long and, up till that point, unfairly unfulfilling series for him.

We were engulfed by support. My first feelings were for David Lloyd, the England coach. This has been an up-and-down tour, another in the life of the helter-skelter England team and there were rumours after our defeat in Hobart two weeks ago that he was on the verge of quitting. I just wanted to congratulate him on the victory.

The changing-room was a sea of delirium. We had won, sure, but we had shown the Australians we could play. It had taken a big mental effort, but a huge physical one as well. For a few minutes while most of the team assembled in the downstairs changing-room at the MCG I sat alone on the viewing balcony upstairs and looked out on to the great old ground and the scenes of euphoria among our supporters, and savoured it. They deserved this too.

We know we have not played well too often on this trip; we have held our hands up to the charge. But this demonstrated another side to England. The Australians concentrated on their own shortcomings, how they lost it. Well, they would. With one eye on Sydney we celebrated that night. We all knew that the Fifth Test was a different challenge but the mood had changed markedly. We gathered in the bar of the hotel where hundreds of fans joined us. It was a night for dozens of photographs, scores of autographs.

It was an unforgettable win, wonderful to be part of, what makes the game worth playing. And it ensured this column.