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Caribbean '99, Pt IV: 'Dropped and gutted'

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

How had it come to this? What had beckoned as a five-week Caribbean cruise for Australia had turned into the fight of their lives. The sixth-ranked West Indies had overcome a volatile set of circumstances to be leading the series 2-1, with one Test left to play.

There had been a number of significant contributions at key times in the hosts' wins in Kingston and Bridgetown: Jimmy Adams' support acts of 94 and 38; Nehemiah Perry's 5-70 on debut, Sherwin Campbell's 105, and Courtney Walsh's 5-39.

But there was no masking the fact that the series, from a West Indies perspective at least, had increasingly become a one-man show. That man was of course Brian Lara, who had leapfrogged Steve Waugh into number one on the ICC Test batting rankings and again loomed as the decisive figure in the fourth Test.

Ominously for the Australians, the match was to be played at the Recreation Ground in St John's, Antigua – scene of Lara's world record 375 against England five years earlier.

Waugh meanwhile, had greater concerns than even the threat of Lara. His own superstar, leg-spin wizard Shane Warne, had struggled to make an impact through the series, taking two wickets at 134 as he battled with the aftermath of the previous year's shoulder surgery.

Shane Warne was controversially overlooked for the deciding Test // Getty

Waugh and coach Geoff Marsh ultimately chose to drop the still-recovering Warne and select the versatile Colin Miller, who could bowl both off-spin and medium pace. Miller's recall to the side would serve the dual purpose of helping cover the major loss of Jason Gillespie – who had been ruled out with a back injury sustained in Barbados – and providing an alternative slow option to better complement leg-spinner Stuart MacGill.

Also covering for the loss of Gillespie was Queensland seamer Adam Dale, who was set to play just his second Test after debuting in Bangalore a year earlier.

Greg Blewett, who had missed the Bridgetown Test through injury, was the final change, returning to the side at the expense of out-of-form opener Matthew Elliott.

And so, after 13 pulsating days of Test cricket, the immediate fate of the Frank Worrell Trophy came down to this.

Here's how the players themselves remember it…    

Fourth Test | St John's, Antigua | April 3-7, 1999

Australia won by 176 runs

West Indies XI: Sherwin Campbell, Adrian Griffith, Dave Joseph, Brian Lara (c), Carl Hooper, Jimmy Adams, Ridley Jacobs (wk), Nehemiah Perry, Curtly Ambrose, Corey Collymore, Courtney Walsh

Australia XI: Michael Slater, Greg Blewett, Justin Langer, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh (c), Ricky Ponting, Ian Healy, Adam Dale, Stuart MacGill, Colin Miller, Glenn McGrath

Steve Waugh made it a clean sweep when he called correctly and opted to bat first for the fourth time in the series. Perhaps the biggest news of the series became official when Waugh handed in the Australian team sheet: Shane Warne, the vice-captain, had been dropped. Warne details his version of events in his book, No Spin, in which he concedes he was "bowling pretty ordinary" but was adamant Waugh "should have backed me".

Steve Waugh (Australia captain): The only thing in my mind was, We've got to win this Test match and make it two-all. We made that decision to drop Shane and to bring in Colin Miller. That was, I guess, an extremely risky strategy and one that was fraught with a bit of danger. But they had seven left-handers, who Colin Miller would take the ball away from. It was an extremely difficult decision, but in my mind, I went to Antigua thinking, 'We can win this Test match'.

Geoff Marsh (Australia coach): We just didn't think Shane had recovered 100 per cent, but being the person he is, he was super competitive and wanted to play, but we felt the game off would've been the right call.

Jimmy Adams (West Indies batsman): We didn't think he would be dropped, but we knew he wasn't playing at his best – we knew his shoulder still wasn't quite right. We just didn't think the Australians would do it.

Jason Gillespie (Australia fast bowler): He was dropped, and he was gutted. He probably didn't handle it as well as he should've. I reckon if he had his time again he probably would handle it differently. One thing was clear: MacGill was out-bowling him. Miller, a right-arm off-spinner, who was quick through the air and spun the ball away from Lara and Jimmy Adams, was a good option. With Colin as well, you had a genuine third seam option. So you could argue quite strongly it was the right call.

Mark Waugh (Australia batsman): I didn't see it coming but Stephen, along with Geoff Marsh, their job was to pick the team to win the Test match. It's tricky when you're good mates with a player you've got to drop, but you have to keep it professional. We're all big boys. I mean it didn't affect Warnie's career too much – he was a pretty good bowler after that. He might hold the odd grudge, Warnie, for Stephen, but I think it's just … they're fine … you just move on.

Greg Blewett (Australia batsman): Warnie really didn't say a lot to many people for most of that game. He was sulking in the sheds for a lot of the time. He has said he regrets that.

Colin Miller (Australia bowler): He came around by the end of the Test match, but certainly for the first few days he was disappointed. He's a superstar of the game and he was also vice-captain at the time, so he probably thought he'd earned a second, third or fourth chance. But I just think in that series, Brian had the better of him. He didn't look threatening.

Stuart MacGill (Australia leg-spinner): Shane was incredibly frustrated on that tour. Sure, he'd played in the Test match in Sydney, and he'd played in the one-day series (in Australia), but he was still well short of full fitness. I always thought he was a little bit hard on myself, and a little bit hard on everybody around him who was ultimately making decisions, because it was clear to us that he wasn't at his best – Shane at his best was a freak of nature. I sensed we were going to have to do something different for that last Test match.

Miller: I had a lot of confidence in my own ability. I knew that given the opportunity, I'd do well. The wickets over there turned a little bit, so I knew there was going to be something for me. You don't really think about who you're replacing – you can't be thinking, Jeez, I feel bad for Shane. I had to get myself up to play a game of cricket.

While the Warne news stole the headlines, one giant quietly began the final chapter of what had become a legendary ongoing battle with Australia.

Curtly Ambrose (West Indies fast bowler): I knew for a fact that it was going to be my last series against the Australians. I really wanted to win the Frank Worrell Trophy. We were leading 2-1 and I felt so good – we had one hand on the trophy.

Steve Waugh: Away from the game, I've got to know (Ambrose) a bit better since, and he's a genuinely good guy. He always had the respect of our team and he was a real ringleader in their team. You'd go in at the lunch break, and Curtly would be holding court with their side and they'd all be laughing their heads off. So he was a joker off the field, but once you stepped across that line, he gave you nothing.

The Antigua Test was Curtly Ambrose's last against Australia // Getty

Ambrose: I was contemplating retirement even before that series. I mentioned to a very good friend of mine that after (the 1998 regional) first-class series I might call it a day. However, my good friend told someone else, who was a reporter – in confidence, I might add – so the story broke that I was contemplating retirement. That wasn't the way I wanted to go out, so I denied everything. I wanted to give the West Indies Cricket Board a letter, officially stating my retirement. But after that most of the commentators around the region started saying I was all washed up. I didn't like that either. I figured I'd worked too hard all these years to go out on a negative note. So I said to myself, You know what? Put off retirement for a while. Show all these cricket pundits. England toured that same year and I took 30 wickets in the series, won myself a nice car, gave it to my wife. I just wanted to prove that Curtly Ambrose still had a lot left in the tank.

The tiny Recreation Ground buzzed with expectation of another spirited showing from the West Indies. Australian cricket journalist Andrew Ramsey later described the unique venue in his book, The Wrong Line: "Its amalgam of whitewashed concrete walls and bare steel and timber grandstands only highlighted the fact that the soul of a cricket ground can transcend the sum of its graceless parts. It held scarcely 10,000 people, but when fully packed it pulsed with a passion that left the world's mega-stadia feeling decidedly soulless. It was like no other cricket venue on the planet – part open-air nightclub, part house of worship ... (and) the prospect of the home team wresting back the Frank Worrell Trophy meant the ground was beyond bursting for the decider."

Miller: I'd been told I was playing the evening before, and I just remember being elated. I was actually a West Indies fan growing up as a young kid, watching the Windies play, so to play against them was going to be awesome. The ground was rocking.

Blewett: Ricky (Ponting) had got his chance in Barbados and made the most of it, so I came back in as opener. The first ball I faced from Ambrose, I thought, I might actually get a half-volley from him here; he had the brand new ball and he might've been looking to see if there was a bit of swing around. And that's exactly what I got – a half volley – and I smashed it straight to mid-off. I reckon that was the only half volley I ever got off him, and I'd wasted it.

Australia's new opening pair provided the tourists with their first 50-run opening stand of the series, but at 3-96 midway through the opening day, the contest was in the balance.

Steve Waugh: I was fiercely determined, I must admit. I knew the pressure was on the team and myself – my first series as captain, we'd made the big call to drop Shane Warne, we were two-one down and we were at Ambrose's home ground in Antigua, which was a hostile place to play. There was a lot of noise around the ground, a fair few distractions, and I really had to focus.

Steve Waugh contributed a vital 72no // Getty

Adams: There was a mutual respect with Steve Waugh, you know? He played hard cricket but there were no airs and graces; he never tried to be something that he wasn't.  

Waugh was 52 not out at stumps on day one, with Australia 5-221. The following morning, Ambrose took three wickets in four overs, before Waugh was joined in the middle by the recalled Miller, who at that point in his career had 20 Test runs to his name from seven innings.

Miller: Steve Waugh was a stonewall, the sort of guy you'd want to bat for your life. But in that innings, don't let him tell you any different, I took the brunt of the fast bowling (laughs). I really protected him that whole partnership, which was just over 50 and I reckon he got about two of them.

Steve Waugh: My enduring memory of that is Colin Miller hitting Curtly Ambrose for six into the neighbouring jail. That was probably one of the greatest shots I've ever seen – hooking Ambrose off his nose, out of the ground and into the jail. The shock on Ambrose's face – he couldn't believe what had happened.

Miller: I get sent the video at least once a month on social media, someone saying, 'Hey, have you ever seen this?' Yeah, about a million times, but I watch it every time anyway, just to remind myself how far those two sixes did go out of the ground – in front of square, by the way. I think after the second one Curtly might've smiled, and then he even snuck a look to see how far it went. It was good fun. The third bouncer he bowled to me he actually tried to dig in, and I got a top edge, off the top of my helmet, and one bounce into the sightscreen. 'Tugga' (Waugh) just walked down to me and said, 'That nearly f-cking killed you'.

Colin Miller enjoyed a remarkable cameo with the bat // Getty

Miller's furious 43 helped Australia to a total of 303, with Ambrose claiming 5-94. Waugh's unbeaten 72, made across more than five hours, had anchored the tourists' innings.

Steve Waugh: I rate that knock pretty highly. It was just an immense mental battle to get through that innings, and make sure we batted for a long time. I knew I just had to keep batting and batting to put ourselves in the best position I could to win the Test match. That was the number one thing in my mind.

Ambrose: He may not have been the most attractive player you would see, like his brother Mark, but Steve Waugh, I've got a lot of respect for him. A determined, gritty, stubborn cricketer. He would come to the rescue when his team needed him most.

Steve Waugh: To score runs against Ambrose was the ultimate, really. That's what you trained for – to score runs against the best bowlers in the toughest conditions in the hardest circumstances, and that was always the case with Ambrose. If you wanted to find out how good you were, facing bowlers like Ambrose and (Wasim) Akram let you know.

Sherwin Campbell (West Indies opening batsman): Waugh was a tough guy. He never backed down from a fight. He played to his plan and ground out that situation through great concentration.

Miller: I got both their openers out bowling medium pace early on. The biggest advantage of having me in the team was that I was like the 11th and 12th man – I could open the bowling if I had to, bowling medium pace, and if the wicket was doing something I could bowl some offies.

The Aussies embrace versatile veteran Colin Miller // Getty

Miller's two wickets brought the West Indies' talisman to the crease at 2-20. Ramsey again: "As Lara ambled on to the ground midway through Easter Sunday afternoon, his slightly knock-kneed gait giving him the misleading appearance of a small boy kitted out in too-big protective equipment, customers vacated the bars and food stalls to take up any spare vantage points. Many of the venue staff followed them."

Geoff Marsh (Australia coach): By that point, when Lara came in, you were nervous until he got out.

Miller: I was at mid-on and Lara wasn't very many (he was 14). The background in that stadium is the old wooden stands with the terraces, with all the people in there, flags flying around. Glenn (McGrath) was coming around the wicket and he bowled a short ball that didn't get up. Brian went to pull it – most times he's going to pull it square – and it just came straight at me. When you're fielding, it's quite often hard to pick up a ball that's come straight to you … and I dropped it. On TV it probably looked like a sitter, but it was a lot harder than people think. McGrath went down to the boundary at the end of his over and kicked one of the flags on the boundary line, without realising that directly behind it was a concrete wall. He had to play the rest of the Test with a broken toe. After that, Brian just let loose.

Having taken 14 balls to get off the mark, Lara unleashed a sudden and staggering assault on Australia's bowlers. Sixty-eight deliveries later, he had registered his third century of the series, moving from 50 to 100 in 21 balls. The left-hander took a particular liking to MacGill and the recalled Dale, who was taken for 22 from one over. 

Adam Dale (Australia bowler): Lara's one of the greatest players of all time, so if you're going to get belted by someone, he probably wasn't a bad one. He played beautifully. He went from 50 to 100 very quickly, and it was at the expense of a couple of us. All of our figures would've looked a bit better if 'Funky' (Miller) had taken that catch (laughs).

Steve Waugh: (Dale) was a quality bowler. He had a fantastic first-class record … but it was obviously a huge challenge coming up against Lara, who saw someone like Dale and probably thought, I'm just going to charge this bloke, put him off his game.

Campbell: Lara was just in the zone. He took apart Dale. Whoever bowled was going to get it. Once he started, he just kept going.

Lara celebrates his third hundred of the series // Getty

Miller: Lara didn't mind facing the leggies, and 'Chippen' (Dale) copped it as well; I don't think Brian had a lot of time for his medium-pacers that day. Unfortunately the ball wasn't swinging or seaming. It was one of the better wickets you'd see, and it was coming onto the bat nicely.

Steve Waugh: The consolation with Lara was, you really wanted to get him out, but if he got runs, you'd actually enjoy watching him bat. He was such a great player, so easy on the eye. He'd mess with the captain a bit though, because you'd swap fieldsmen around and all of a sudden he'd see that as a challenge; he'd hit the ball to where you've just taken someone from.

Gillespie: I've always said Lara was the toughest batsman I ever bowled to. If I'm in Mumbai speaking to a crowd I say Sachin, just so I can leave the building, but I've always said Brian. I could bowl my best ball, which was fourth stump, top of stump line and length, and most batsmen in the world would be respectful and play it quite orthodox. Whereas Brian, very unorthodox, depending on his frame of mind he could hit that ball anywhere he wanted to. He put pressure back on the bowler. He could target you and get you away, look to put you on the back foot as a bowler. For that reason, I always put him that bit higher than the likes of Sachin, (Rahul) Dravid, Michael Vaughan, (Kumar) Sangakkara, (VVS) Laxman, (Virender) Sehwag. He's fractionally higher than those guys for me.

Adams: I would say at junior level, (Carl) Hooper had more talent, but Lara was far tougher mentally, and far more driven, than most people. His approach was to dominate. There came a point where you sort of realised, if there was a record close by, he wouldn't leave it out there. Whereas Viv (Richards) wasn't so much driven by records. Viv was more, I want to dominate, and once I've dominated you, and I've shown you that I can dominate you, I'll leave the scene – I've got what I want. Brian wanted to leave his name in the record books, as well as dominate.

Dale: I'd played two tour games and taken a seven-fer and a six-fer, so I was bowling well, and I was very confident, but unfortunately I'd gotten crook. You don't want to say anything because all you want to do is play a Test match for Australia, and I just thought it was a bad flu, maybe a few nerves, and I'd be able to play through it. But during the Test, I just got worse and worse. I felt terrible.

Steve Waugh: We found out later (Dale) was actually suffering from pneumonia, which obviously affected his pace and his energy. He was trying his hardest and to his credit he got through it – it was a courageous effort.

Dale bravely fought through a bout of pneumonia // Getty

Justin Langer (Australia batsman): It was actually hilarious. Lara was smashing the ball everywhere and Adam was this ashen grey – we thought he was buckling under pressure. We thought he was soft, just couldn't handle the pressure of Test cricket. He was lying on the massage table, lying on the cold floor at one stage, he was just that sick. We were like, 'Harden up mate, what's wrong with ya?' But he was actually the sickest man in the world, and it was a pretty flat pitch. He was a bloody good bowler, Adam Dale, and Lara's just smacking him all over the place.

Dale: I didn't know it was pneumonia at the time. There was a bed in the back of the changerooms, and when we were batting, every chance I had, I went back there and had a lie down. It just really hit me badly.

Lara had become the second West Indian after Sir Clyde Walcott to score three hundreds in a Test series against Australia. However, a collapse of 7-46 gave the visitors an 81-run lead going into the second innings. With the match delicately poised, Langer, playing his 20th Test, stepped up.

Steve Waugh: 'Lang' was such a determined person. He went on the previous tour of the West Indies, never played  a Test match, but still got the celebration tattoo of the victory – that's what it meant to him to play for Australia and beat the West Indies. He was desperate to play in the Caribbean, and he liked the big moments as well. He was a big student of the history of the game and it was a chance for him to make his mark.

Langer: I knew from that '95 tour how important the Frank Worrell trophy was to Australians. You could say the West Indies were starting to decline from that point, but it was still hugely important for us. And we were under the pump in a series that we weren't expected to lose, so we needed something. It was in Antigua where I felt, if I can make runs against Curtly and Courtney in their backyard, that I might be able to play Test cricket. So it was important for the team, but incredibly significant for me as well.

Langer took Australia through to stumps on day three at 2-209 – an overall lead of 290. Mark Waugh was out for 65 early the next morning, dismissed by Ambrose for the 15th time – a record in Tests between the two sides. Langer though, pressed on to reach his third Test hundred, handing his team a decisive lead.

Blewett: He'd been in and out of the side, trying to establish himself, but this felt like the emergence of Justin Langer at number three.

Justin Langer produced one of the most important innings of his career // Getty

Langer: The fact that I knew Steve Waugh, the captain, had backed me in, that had a big impact. I'd got a hundred against Pakistan and one against England but that was the one for me; it was as significant for me as any innings I played. I felt like I belonged in Test cricket.

As had happened with the West Indies, Australia collapsed, losing their final seven wickets for 65. Ambrose took another three to finish with eight for the match. Fittingly, one of those wickets was Steve Waugh, dismissed by his old adversary for the 11th time, but the first in the Caribbean. As they went into bat, West Indies faced the daunting task of chasing 388 to win, or surviving more than four sessions to draw. Either result would see them regain the Frank Worrell Trophy.  

MacGill: As far as I was concerned, what we had to do was bowl them out to win the Test match, and that was what was going to happen. I expected to win.

Griffith: I got hit on the elbow by McGrath early on and it just started to numb up. I couldn't use my hand – couldn't grip the bat – so I went off (retired hurt).

Dale: I'd gotten (Dave) Joseph out lbw in the first innings so he was batting about a foot out of his crease to try and avoid that. I was never as quick as McGrath, and many batsmen had done that to try and take the lbw out of the game, although I don't think Lara bothered – he just belted me. But Joseph hit a couple of fours and then he mis-hit one to Colin Miller. McGrath was bowling beautifully, and watching him versus Lara, it was great to be able to see it first-hand. He'd busted his toe in the first innings but he didn't complain, he just kept bowling, and he bowled to the plans and got the wickets.

McGrath captured the vital wicket of Lara for seven in the second innings // Getty

McGrath dismissed Campbell and then claimed the massive wicket of Lara, trapped lbw for seven. With Dale struggling due to illness, Waugh turned to Blewett, who snared the wicket of Carl Hooper. Griffith returned to the middle and saw out the day with Adams, with the score at 4-105. After the final ball of play, McGrath was alleged to have spat in the direction of Griffith, an offence for which he was later reprimanded.

Griffith: It was the last ball of the day and I was just happy to get through to the close, so I was just in my own little world. I knew (McGrath) was close to me, because he had followed through, but I didn't even know what had happened. It was tough cricket against Australia, but that's what you looked forward to; you knew you were in a fight. McGrath would have a word, but I liked that, because one, it meant I was out there, and two, it meant I must've been doing something right, because he was trying to get under my skin. I smiled a lot, which they didn't take too kindly to. It was good banter. I enjoyed it.

The equation for the final day was in Australia's favour: they needed six wickets, while West Indies still needed 283 runs. Adams went early without adding to his overnight score, and while Griffith hung on admirably for almost five hours to be the penultimate man out, the result was never in doubt. McGrath meanwhile, got through 63.1 overs for the match – only once in 20 years since has an Australian fast bowler had a greater workload in a single Test.

Langer: You could tell McGrath was cooked, but you'd ask him how he was going and without fail he'd say, 'Mate, never better – never felt better'. His toenails were falling off, he was bleeding from his feet, we knew how many overs he'd bowled, but he'd just back up and say, 'Never better mate'. I admired him for that, I thought it was a great attitude.

'Never better' - McGrath's relentless drive made him the best, says Langer // Getty

Marsh: McGrath's ability to compete and to sustain his unbelievably high standards for such a long period of time just made him the best there was.

Griffith: I'd walked off at the end of day four saying, 'I've made it through this day – tomorrow, I'm going to bat the entire day'. And that was my goal. We were just trying to draw the game. Each person that came in, we just said, 'Let's bat for periods'. In the end, it was bittersweet. I got my first Test fifty, played a part for the West Indies, but falling short, you feel like you didn't do it … ultimately whatever you do, you want to feel like you've benefited the team. The lbw from MacGill, I definitely would've reviewed.

Nehemiah Perry (West Indies off-spinner): I just did the best I could (Perry made 26). Tried to hold my wicket, stay competitive right until the end of the series. But Australia came back well, they showed the true mettle of the world's best team to come back like they did.

MacGill: I was pretty happy we got there in the end. After that last day, I saw video of myself bowling and I thought, Oh my God – I was just exhausted. Totally spent. I didn't realise. So to have taken those wickets, I just thought, You know what, I am exhausted, I have played more than I've ever played before, I wasn't expecting to feel like this, but I did my job.

MacGill took three wickets after lunch before McGrath claimed his 30th of the series to wrap up victory in the middle session. With the series finishing two-all, Australia had retained the Frank Worrell Trophy.

Adams: They outplayed us in that last Test. We just didn't put enough runs on the board. To show you the kind of pressure he was under, respected people in the Caribbean were adamant that we lost because Brian batted too quickly. I mean, the man scored a Test hundred, threatened to take the game away from Australia, we've got six other batsmen in the team – how do we get to this point? But you reflect on some of these things after the fact, and you get a little bit older and wiser. I think in hindsight two-all was a fair indication of where both teams were at the time. And I say at that time because I think Australia, with a fit Shane Warne and one of their third seamers, would that have been a better option? But when you have somebody the calibre of Brian Lara batting the way he's batting, and when you have your two match-winners in Walsh and Ambrose with a bit of support, maybe across four Test matches it was a fair representation of where both teams were at the time.

Dejected Windies players are left to rue what might have been // Getty

Dale: We'd held onto the Frank Worrell Trophy and it was wonderful to be a part of. The celebrations were in full swing but all I wanted to do was go to bed. There was so much going on around that Test match, and that series, that my being diagnosed with pneumonia was always going to be a very minor part of the story.

Ambrose: I was a part of the team in '95 when Australia won the Frank Worrell trophy, so I wanted to make sure we won it back before I left. That was my driving force, but unfortunately it wasn't to be. But I always had a good rapport with the Australians. I never had issues with them – well, only once, with Steve Waugh, my good friend, but we won't go there – and there's mutual respect between us. They tended to bring the best out in me.

Miller: The celebrations were unbelievable. We sang the team song in the dressing room, then we found a bar close to the ground where there were a bunch of Australians happy to buy you a beer.

Dale: Being in the Australian team, watching 'Heals' (Ian Healy) lead the team song after we'd won a Test match away from home to hold the Frank Worrell Trophy, that to me was the highlight.

Waugh with the cherished Frank Worrell Trophy // Getty

Steve Waugh: It was a great series, really up and down. I loved playing in the Windies, it was one of my favourite places to play cricket, with the passionate people there. It was an enjoyable tour in some ways, in others it was confronting, and it pushed me to the edge a few times. There were a lot of life lessons gained, and I think I became stronger as a captain because of it.

The series marked the end of a golden era of the battle for the Frank Worrell Trophy. In 26 Tests between the two sides since until 2019, Australia have won 21 and lost just once.

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