Caribbean Classics: An oral history of the '99 tour

Fifteen interviews, two teams, one epic series … an oral history of Australia's unforgettable four-Test showdown with the West Indies in 1999

Caribbean 1999: Read part one | part two | part three | part four

When Australia travelled to the Caribbean in February 1999 to face the West Indies, it was the convergence of two legendary teams at opposing ends of their dynasties. The balance of power had shifted gradually during the preceding decade, with Australia's landmark wresting of the Frank Worrell Trophy in 1995 the tipping point. By the end of that year, Australia were the number one ranked Test nation. West Indies, who had started the series in that position, had slipped to fourth.

Two summers later, the West Indies lost in Australia for the first time since 1975, a 3-2 series win to the hosts that consolidated their reputation as the world's best. That status was reinforced across the next two years, with Mark Taylor's side winning series in South Africa, England and Pakistan, and defeating New Zealand, South Africa and England at home. The one blot on their copybook came via a 2-1 series defeat in India, where they had not prevailed since 1969.  

The West Indies returned home from Australia and resumed their winning ways, enjoying series successes against India, Sri Lanka and England in the 12 months that followed. However, in their one series away in that time, they were whitewashed 3-0 in Pakistan. It was in the England series of January-March 1998 that dashing batsman Brian Lara ascended to the captaincy, replacing the great fast bowler Courtney Walsh in a decision that lit a fuse within the idyllic archipelago. Jamaicans wanted the unassuming Walsh to remain in charge; Trinidadians had eyes only for their Prince. The rest of the Caribbean had mixed feelings, but most were cautious about the leadership being thrust so quickly into the hands of the sometimes irascible Lara.

The matter escalated that November, when Lara led a player revolt over pay and terms as the squad was preparing to fly to South Africa for a five-Test and seven-ODI tour against the Proteas, who had risen to No.2 on the ICC's Test rankings.

Lara at a press conference in Johannesburg, Nov 1998 // Getty

The tour carried extra significance as it was the West Indies' first to South Africa in the post-Apartheid era. After initially being stripped of the captaincy, Lara was reinstated, the matter was eventually resolved, and the tour went ahead, albeit a week late. But the wounds the fiasco had opened festered as the weeks wore on. The West Indies were thrashed five-nil for the first time in their proud Test history, and lost the ODIs 6-1.

"There was some disunity, yes," Sir Curtly Ambrose tells cricket.com.au. "I don't think we were all together the way we should've been. We went to South Africa – some of us wanted to tour, and some of us didn't, so we weren't as close as we should've been. We started off poorly and we never recovered.

"That was a terrible tour. A tour that I try to forget."

When they arrived home in January 1999, the spotlight was fixed firmly on Lara. The West Indies Cricket Board's decision to place his leadership on a two-Test probation didn't help, with his tenure only set to continue beyond the second Test of the forthcoming series against Australia on the proviso that Lara make "significant improvement in his leadership skills".

Following the disaster in South Africa, many in the Caribbean were not only questioning Lara's suitability as captain, but fearing for the immediate future of their Test team, which suddenly seemed in freefall. Against Australia, the West Indies would be without two of their middle-order mainstays – Carl Hooper (who returned for the third and fourth Tests after family leave) and Shivnarine Chanderpaul (injured) – while they were still searching for a reliable third seam option to replace the likes of Ian Bishop and Kenny Benjamin, both of whom had played their final Tests the previous year.

By contrast, Australia's leadership overhaul was particularly smooth. Taylor's side had occupied the top rankings position since 1995, and the skipper's retirement at the end of the home summer seemed unlikely to disrupt that dominance. Steve Waugh, the world's number one ranked Test batsman, was the frontrunner to replace Taylor, and the captaincy race became exceedingly clear when, in December 1998, it emerged that perhaps his two main rivals for the role, Shane Warne and Mark Waugh, had been involved in a bookmaking scandal. The lingering remnants of that controversy aside, it looked smooth sailing for Waugh as he took the wheel and steered the Australian ship into what were expected to be calm Caribbean waters.

As it turned out, they were anything but.

Here is the story of an unforgettable series, as told by 15 players who were there in the thick of the action... 

First Test | Port of Spain, Trinidad | March 5-8, 1999

Australia won by 312 runs

West Indies XI: Sherwin Campbell, Suruj Ragoonath, Dave Joseph, Brian Lara (c), Jimmy Adams, Roland Holder, Ridley Jacobs (wk), Pedro Collins, Curtly Ambrose, Mervyn Dillon, Courtney Walsh

Australia XI: Matthew Elliott, Michael Slater, Justin Langer, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh (c), Greg Blewett, Ian Healy, Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie, Stuart MacGill, Glenn McGrath

Jimmy Adams (West Indies middle-order batsman): There was pressure on because of the results in South Africa, and everybody was feeling it to a certain degree, especially the senior lads. Suffice to say (the squad for South Africa) wasn't the most cohesive unit that we've had over the years. The reasons for it were many and varied. We'd had an issue with the Board prior to going to South Africa, and I'm not sure that everybody was singing off the same hymn sheet even from then. So there were issues affecting the unity of the squad going into that series.

Sir Curtly Ambrose (West Indies fast bowler): They appointed Brian Lara captain for only the first two Test matches, which to me didn't make any sense at all. In my opinion, you cannot do that – you are either captain, or you're not. It was like a trial basis. That to me is just ridiculous. I wasn't happy about it – no-one was. I didn't think it was right to change the captain just because we had done so poorly in South Africa. It wasn't Brian Lara's fault why we lost so terribly, it was all of us. So we started the whole series under tremendous pressure; Brian was under pressure, the whole team was under pressure. To me, it was just madness.

Geoff Marsh (Australia coach): When you play the West Indies, you're playing against a number of countries, and the thing about those great West Indian sides under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards was that they were able to pull everyone really close. There was no rivalry, and there always seemed to be a great team spirit; they played for each other. But sometimes when you have so many countries involved, you get one or two who can upset the applecart, and we felt that at the time.

Adams: The history of West Indies cricket is that, if you're getting good results, it keeps a lid on the insularity that is ever-present. The results we were having at the time were reason enough for that lid to be lifted. It's something that's existed in our cricket long before either Brian (Lara) or myself were involved. Occasionally you get leaders who are able to get results and are able to keep that lid on for a while – Clive Lloyd, Frank Worrell, Viv (Richards) to a certain degree, Richie (Richardson) when he started – but it's always there. The inter-island crap is always there. It's hard to find an analogy. Look at the old Soviet Union – Russia in the old days with all of eastern Europe. If you were trying to pick one Soviet team, you're going to have divides between the Russians and the Ukrainians and the Estonians and so on. For us, that's always existed. You get the results like we had against England (in 2019), and it quietens down, changes a few mindsets for a while, but it's never far away.

Steve Waugh (Australia captain): In your first series as captain, you're a bit unsure as to exactly what you're doing – there's no manual on how to become a captain, so you don't know until you actually get that 'c' next to your name. The challenging part was that I'd been a player in the Australian team for 13 years; I was 33 and I'd started when I was 20. So I'd always been one of the boys, starting off as a rookie in the side, through to a senior player. Even going from vice-captain to captain, there is that real change in dynamic. The first thing you notice is you go to a team dinner and the seats around you are the last ones to be filled because no-one wants to be seen to be sucking up to the captain. So it was very different.

Mark Waugh (Australia batsman): It was business as usual for the rest of us really, and for Stephen it was a natural progression. He'd been vice-captain and we'd all been together for a long time by then, we had a pretty strong core of experienced players who knew how things worked. I would've loved to have been captain, but it was just one of those things; I never got a chance because we had so many guys who could've captained the team. But I saw myself, not as a captain, but tactically I was always contributing.

Steve Waugh: We had a team meeting in the lead-up to that first Test where I wrote a number of things down about how I wanted us to play, and the expectations I had on the players. It was a nerve-wracking experience, addressing the team as captain at a team meeting for the first time.

Waugh won the toss and chose to bat on a slow Queen's Park Oval pitch. Led by Greg Blewett (58) and Matthew Elliott (44), Australia battled to 6-174 at stumps. For the hosts, Courtney Walsh took three wickets, and there were debuts to Suruj Ragoonath, Dave Joseph and Pedro Collins.

Pedro Collins (West Indies fast bowler): I'd been performing well in two years of 'A' team cricket, so to get the call-up was a big moment for me, and against an Australian side with Steve Waugh, Michael Slater, Shane Warne, (Glenn) McGrath, (Jason) Gillespie – all the big boys. Curtly Ambrose, straight away he found a nickname for me. He used to call me 'Peddington'. Every time he saw me he'd say in this deep voice, "Peddingtoooon". Him and Courtney Walsh, they were people I looked up to, and there's nothing like playing alongside your idols in a Test match.

Mark Waugh: The pitch was pretty sporting. Walsh and Ambrose were still the mainstays of their attack. Walsh would bowl within himself a lot and then he had the ability to bowl a really quick and intimidatory spell. He could bowl a good bouncer, and he never bowled any bad balls. Curtly was a little bit like Courtney in that sometimes he'd seem to bowl within himself, but then he'd really up the ante when he sensed a weakness in the opposition, or the team needed a bit of a lift. He was a level above Courtney, but it was Courtney who did all the donkey work. You looked up to them in a way, saw them as great bowlers. They had that aura about them.

Collins: I remember fielding at fine leg. Ambrose and Walsh started their spells. Nobody was out yet, so I knew it was time for me to bowl soon. I was sh-tting myself. I had my head down, trying to avoid eye contact with the skipper. As soon as I looked up, I saw him, rolling his shoulders over, telling me to warm up. At that time, I couldn't feel nothing. I went numb. I bowled one to Slater, he skipped across to off stump and just flicked the ball right down to (Mervyn) Dillon at fine leg. Dillon held it and oh man, everybody was just delighted and happy for me to get my first Test wicket. That took away all the nerves.

Greg Blewett (Australia batsman): Batting at six, I knew how tough it was going to be to make runs. Because of the attacks the West Indies have had, people assume it's a great place for fast bowling, and it's actually completely the opposite; the pitches are really slow and it can be difficult to get on with things. It can be really dour cricket, and like on the subcontinent, the best time to bat is with the new ball. Once the ball got a bit older, a bit of reverse swing and bowling stump to stump, it was difficult to score. The opening day was hard cricket. I had to try and get on with it as much as I could, while knowing it was going to be really tough to get things moving. Curtly and Courtney were never going to make it easy for any of us, but they had a fairly inexperienced fast-bowling line-up after that. So we thought if we could get through those two, then we might go alright.

In the final session of day one, Walsh became the third man to claim 400 Test wickets. Writing for Trinidad newspaper The Express, Garth Wattley detailed the scene: "Thump! A Courtney Walsh delivery thundered into Ian Healy's pads, low, low down. The teeming Queen's Park Oval seemed to catch its breath. The appeal had been raised. And slowly, umpire Peter Willey lifted the finger. Then 18,000 faithful started giving praise. Palms wide open, fingers trembling, face a contorted picture of joyous thanksgiving, he could have been a baptist disciple celebrating on the mourning ground. But this was the Oval ground and brother Courtney had just ascended Mount 400."

Ambrose: Courtney's greatest asset was his stamina. I've always said to him I don't know how he did it – he could bowl all day. I certainly couldn't. People always say to me, 'You and Courtney, you had such a great partnership – what was the magic?' There was no magic! It was simply that we never competed against each other, and we never tried to outdo each other. We complemented each other very well, and that's what it was all about.

Walsh arrives at his landmark 400th Test wicket // Getty

Australia fell to 9-203 on the second morning, bringing together 23-year-old quick Jason Gillespie – who was playing his 11th Test – and renowned batting bunny Glenn McGrath, who was averaging 4.52 in Test cricket. The pair combined for a 66-run partnership – the highest of the Australian innings. Both batsmen posted then career-best scores: Gillespie 28no, and McGrath 39.

Jason Gillespie (Australia fast bowler): It was so much fun. They were bowling back of a length, and I always felt pretty comfortable with that. Growing up, you would watch Ambrose and Walsh on the TV and think, 'That must be a nightmare to face'. It wasn't actually as bad as I was anticipating. Admittedly the guys were at the end of their careers, but that's when I knew – from a batting point of view – that I could handle Test cricket. These were guys I looked up to as heroes and I'm thinking, you know what, you're mixing it with the best here and you're holding your own. I took a lot of confidence out of that. And I really enjoyed batting with Glenn, because we were chalk and cheese. Glenn believed he had all the shots, and he didn't, whereas I probably had a few shots, but I refused to play them. When I was batting with Glenn, we could have a little bit of fun and look to play our shots a little more, but I still had the basic premise of protecting my stumps. Whereas Glenn was the opposite – he was gonna show everyone just how many shots he had in his repertoire. He'd say 'Righto, this is what I'm going to do against this bowler', and then he'd do the exact opposite. That's why you'd see me at the other end laughing my head off.  

Australia made 269 and as West Indies began a promising reply courtesy of Lara – who had gone after the leg-spin of both Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill in making 62 – and debutant Joseph (50), a key moment in the match arrived. The late Tony Cozier, writing for UK newspaper The Independent, saw it thus: "Lara was positively unravelling himself from the shackles of negativity, public criticism and self-doubt that have enveloped him since the 5-0 drubbing in South Africa when he played his old adversary Shane Warne firmly to silly mid-on. Under the mistaken notion that the ball had gone through, he drifted out of his crease and was run out by Justin Langer's alert underarm flick to wicketkeeper Ian Healy."

Steve Waugh: The wicket of Lara was the crucial one. He seemed to save his best cricket for whoever the best team was and we were the number one side in the world, so we knew he'd love the challenge. You need a bit of luck sometimes against the great players, and that run-out was a turning point in the match. The guy was just a match-winner. The way he played quality bowlers, he was probably the best player I've ever seen on his day.

The West Indies lost their last seven wickets for 18 runs to be bundled out for 167. The tourists then built on their 102-run lead largely through opener Michael Slater, whose 106 on an increasingly challenging pitch was later described by Australian journalist Malcolm Knox as a "neglected masterpiece of the era".

Marsh: Slater had the ability to produce an innings like that, and it didn't matter whether it was a flat pitch or a green pitch – he still batted the same way. When he played well, he won Test matches for us, or put us in great positions to win Test matches, and that's exactly what he did in Trinidad.

Ambrose: I never played much against Adam Gilchrist, but when you talk about being aggressive, Michael Slater, now he was the most aggressive of the lot. He was a no-nonsense cricketer. If you weren't on top of your game, he could really destroy you.

Steve Waugh: Slats was an extremely talented player. He was capable of playing innings where you wanted the rest of the team to go out on the balcony and watch them because they were such high quality. He was a match-winning batsman on his day and this was one of those occasions. It definitely put us in control of the Test match.

Australia were bowled out for 261 early on day four, leaving West Indies needing an unlikely 364 to win the Test. What followed was the worst batting performance in their 71-year Test history – bowled out for 51 in 19.1 overs. Two short rain breaks delayed the inevitable, before McGrath finished with 5-28 and Gillespie 4-18. Waugh wasn't required to make a single bowling change, as his spearhead McGrath claimed a maiden 10-wicket haul in Tests.

Sherwin Campbell (West Indies opening batsman): The wicket was quite green and doing a bit for the seamers, but you never expect a collapse like that. We had a new opening batsman, Ragoonath, it was the first time I'd batted with him, and a new number three (Joseph). It did make it tough trying to get off to a good start in the series with the new combinations. But I think the team was under pressure from the South Africa series as well. Coming into the Test, it did feel like a team under pressure. It was said openly that Brian was under pressure from the Board. Maybe all that played a part in the result as well.

Gillespie celebrates another wicket // Getty

Collins: I was last man out, having a woof at a ball. I was young and inexperienced, but I really shouldn't have gotten out in that fashion. I heard about it from the coach (Malcolm Marshall). Don't just give your wicket away – always fight to the last, no matter what. It was something that stayed with me. But to walk off the field, bowled out for 51, it hurt. You're representing everybody in the Caribbean, not just the team. You could see the disappointment on people's faces.

Gillespie: We ended up bowling them out for less than what the stand between me and McGrath had been. It was quite bizarre. It's funny talking about this, because in my backpack at the moment I've actually got a photo of the scoreboard from that innings – McGrath with five wickets, myself with four. I've been meaning to get Glenn to sign it for me.

The scoreboard details West Indies' 51 all out // Getty

Stuart MacGill (Australia leg-spinner): I remember McGrath and I walking off after one of the (rain) breaks discussing who was going to get the last few wickets. In the end, myself and Warnie didn't even get a bowl. I thought it was going to be business as usual for us from there for the rest of the series; I saw us just steamrolling them.

Ambrose: It was a tough pill to swallow. To be bowled out for 51 was disappointing, disheartening, even embarrassing. I mean 51 all out? But it was fantastic bowling by the Australians, you have to give them credit for that. They had us under pressure from the very start, and we never recovered. I do admire Glenn McGrath. The two bowlers in this world I have a lot of respect for and admire greatly are Wasim Akram and Glenn McGrath. We all have our favourites, and they are mine. Glenn and I were so similar. Tall, and we could hit one area all week long without even trying, and take wickets in the process. So we were very similar, though I think I was a little bit quicker than him.

Adams: It was a pretty low feeling, because I thought we were a better team than what we'd shown. I didn't think we'd done ourselves justice.

Steve Waugh: To bowl them out for 51, I walked off thinking, This captaincy thing's not too bad – I wouldn't mind a bit more of that. They're smallish changerooms in Trinidad, and we stayed in there for a number of hours. It was a big get-together but still pretty intimate, everyone had a great time. We pulled out the Caribbean rum, had a few of the local beers. We enjoyed each other's company and enjoyed the win, because we knew it was going to be a tough series; the Windies were still a quality side with some really good players. The fact we'd won the game so easily was pretty surprising for us. And there was the ever-present danger of Lara. Whenever you've got a guy like him in the opposition, you can never be complacent.

Marsh: When you're playing in the West Indies, you've got to respect that they're a very proud cricket team. And they had the best player in the world playing for them. So we knew it wasn't over.

This four-part oral history of the 1999 Caribbean series will continue on March 13, which will mark 20 years since the beginning of the second Test in Jamaica

Caribbean 1999: Read part one | part two | part three | part four