The dawn of an Aussie golden age
On this day in 1995 Mark Taylor's men sealed an epic victory in the Caribbean
Less than a fortnight before he was to lead Australia on cricket's impossible mission, Mark Taylor watched in disbelief as his best hope of leading the first team to defeat the West Indies on their home patch in a generation crashed to the earth in front of him.
Out for a leisurely jog to escape the confinement of their hotel compound in the crime-prone capital of South America's sole Test cricket nation Guyana, Taylor watched his bowling spearhead and running partner Craig McDermott step off the thigh-high sea wall that buttresses the mud flats of the nearby Esequibo River and tidal surges from the North Atlantic.
When McDermott missed his footing and tore ankle ligaments so severely he was scratched from the four-Test series that was to begin in Barbados at month's end Taylor sensed the curse that had followed every Australian skipper to the Caribbean for more than two decades was now accompanying him.
Given that McDermott's proposed new-ball partner Damien Fleming had been sent home from the tour with a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder a week before the other strike bowler's tumble, Taylor's attack to take on the world's top ranked team was now a stitch or two short of threadbare.
That an involuntarily recast bowling line-up rolled the heavyweights six times in eight innings without conceding a total above 265 to secure a history-making 2-1 series win – the first time the West Indies had been beaten in 30 series across 15 years – was extraordinary.
But the seismic shift in the balance of world cricket, which was triggered on this day in 1995 when Taylor's team wrapped up the final Test in Jamaica, has been for many as unfathomable as it was unexpected.
True, the West Indies were showing visible signs of decline even though they spanked the Australians 4-1 in the five-match ODI series that preceded the battle for the Frank Worrell Trophy.
Veteran opener Desmond Haynes was an absentee, fighting a legal battle with the West Indies Cricket Board over his exclusion from the team the previous year.
Captain Richie Richardson was returning to lead the side having taken a year out of the game to deal with mental exhaustion.
And the imposing figures from Australia's previous ill-tempered tour to the Caribbean four years earlier – Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Malcolm Marshall, Patrick Patterson, Jeff Dujon and Gus Logie – had reached the end of their fabled careers.
But the cricket world's most feared new-ball attack of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose was still operating in harness if slightly dulled by age, and the middle-order boasted Brian Lara who in the previous 12 months had set new benchmarks for Test (375) and first-class (501no) scores.
Taylor recalls that despite having to entrust his hastily redrawn bowling plans to greenhorn Glenn McGrath (9 Tests), seamer Paul Reiffel (12 Tests) and all-rounder Brendon Julian (2 Tests, rushed into the touring party to replace Fleming) in concert with legspinner Shane Warne, he felt something special was afoot.
"I recall a conversation with Glenn McGrath after the double blow of losing Fleming and McDermott had hit us," Taylor wrote in his autobiography 'Time to Declare'.
"'Mate, you'll be taking the new ball – this is your big opportunity' I said.
"Glenn didn't say much in reply, but it wasn't really what he said so much as how he said it.
"'I'm really looking forward to it', he said in his quiet way. 'I want the new ball for Australia'.
"In a single bound he had gone from 12th man or third seamer to strike bowler."
The other element of that history-changing tour that sticks in Taylor's mind is the way that the players lifted their intensity at training from the moment the one-day series finished and the Test matches beckoned.
The tourists decided practice should more closely resemble match conditions, so the back netting was taken down at training and bowlers were instructed to go flat out at their teammates, employing as many and as angry bouncers as they were expecting to cop from the Caribbean quicks.
The Australians also decided to get in the face of their once-feared foes, their intention to invoke the previously unthinkable and target the West Indian tailenders with short-pitched bowling best articulated by the fresh-faced McGrath when he landed to begin the tour.
"I'm going to try and give it to these blokes," he had said.
Tired of finding themselves in the cross-hairs of the four-pronged West Indian pace batteries over the previous 20 years, and despite the absence of the first-choice new-ball pairing Taylor's team pledged to return fire.
With coach Bob Simpson hospitalised during the first Test due to a blood clot in his leg, the senior players such as Taylor, vice-captain Ian Healy, David Boon and the Waugh twins Stephen and Mark stepped up to set the example.
As per Simpson's calling card, the Australians also came armed with comprehensive plans that their makeshift attack was able to execute.
Lara's vulnerability to full, wide deliveries sliding across him was noted and exploited.
Richardson's frustrations at being cramped for room with balls spearing in at him cost him wicket repeatedly.
And Carl Hooper's susceptibility under pressure became the focus of on-field mind games in which the Guyanese batsman was regularly reminded after the loss of early wickets that the team's batting fortunes rested solely with him.
These bowling blueprints, complemented by outstanding batting contributions from Steve Waugh who had steeled himself for this series and refused to consider a backward step even with an angry Ambrose in his face during the third Test in Trinidad, saw the underdogs grow in stature.
A 10-wicket win in the first Test could have led to a 2-0 scoreline if rain had not accounted for the final day of the second match in Antigua.
Tables were turned in Trinidad when the covers were hauled back on match eve at Queen's Park Oval after days of constant rain to reveal a bright green, heavily grassed incarnation of fast bowlers' heaven.
"One of the worst big match wickets I ever saw in my career," Taylor said, and one that clearly delighted Ambrose and Walsh who scythed through the Australians for 128 and 105 to level the series with a nine-wicket win.
The pitch for the final Test at Jamaica's Sabina Park was an almost laughable contrast – flat, hard and so shiny that Taylor could all but see the look of dismay on his own face when the coin landed in Richardson's favour.
But his bowlers felt they were up to the task, having tuned up for the decider with a feisty net session.
"Tubs Taylor wore a bouncer in his face grille during training, which is exactly how we wanted it to be," Steve Waugh recalled of their fourth Test preparations.
At lunch that day, the West Indies were 1-100 with Richardson on the way to his only century of the series and Lara ensconced, and Taylor admits he was downcast.
He felt much like his captaincy predecessor Allan Border in the previous home series against the West Indies – that the Worrell Trophy having come so close within reach was to be cruelly denied.
But with Border watching on from the television commentary box, where his insights along with the revolutionary introduction of the super slow-motion 'spin cam' that shed new light on Warne's artistry had kept Australian viewers enthralled through the wee hours, Taylor's boys hit back.
The West Indies lost their final seven wickets for 77, and when Australia buckled to 3-73 the Waugh twins produced the most significant partnership of their many epic stands with Steve batting throughout the innings to be the final batsman dismissed with his score on 200.
"Steve had made up his mind to bat and bat, to stay out there and anchor the proceedings," Reiffel recalled years later.
"In the process he copped a lot of blows on his arms, chest and ribs.
"When he came back to the dressing room at the end of day two, we could see the spots and bruises on his body, but as long as he was out there in the middle he just kept going at them."
Waugh was also operating on minimal sleep, having woken in the middle of the night after the second day's play (which he ended unbeaten on 110) to find a local security guard rifling through his bag in his hotel room.
But he battled on next day, with decisive support from Greg Blewett who blazed an aggressive and invaluable 69 in a 100-plus partnership.
From that point, the West Indies succumbed to the sort of free fall into defeat that has come to characterise their diminishing fortunes over the past two decades and were ultimately rolled by an innings and 53 runs.
Even though a faulty public address system meant Taylor's ebullient post-match speech was heard only by television audiences, the message sent by the sight of him clutching the Worrell Trophy was unmistakable.
Australia had re-emerged as a cricket force, though nobody would have dared suggest at that point his young team would grow to become the force that would win 53 of the 74 Test series they contested up to an including the 2015-16 series in Australia, and dominate the game in the way the West Indies had done before them.
Even less foreseeable was the decline in the once mighty teams from the Caribbean that have won just 18 of the 64 series they've played in that timeframe, with half of those triumphs coming against perennial Test strugglers Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
Notwithstanding Richardson's jarring observation at series end that Taylor's team was the weakest Australian outfit he had encountered and whose triumph came because the home team batted badly, this 1995 campaign was more than a turning point in the respective fortunes of two teams.
It represents a divergent moment in the game's history, which has remained indelibly altered ever thus.