Rifts, riots and a wild Caribbean ride: Pt I
A look back at a classic ODI series from 1999, as the Aussies faced controversy and chaos against the Windies before the World Cup
Australia's once formidable men's team could scarcely have scripted a less coherent, less compelling preparation for their upcoming World Cup campaign in the United Kingdom.
To begin, there was the crisis that engulfed their captain and his superstar deputy which produced a ripple effect through the entire dressing room and led to a painful examination of the playing group's cohesion and culture.
Further compounding that headache were the injury problems faced by two of their front-line fast bowlers, one of whom seemed destined to be denied any involvement in the World Cup because of ongoing back issues.
And the skipper had found himself so sorely out of form with the bat that he was forced to concede his place in the starting line-up could no longer be guaranteed.
Then there was the fall-out from indefensible on-field scandals, upon which further damage was heaped when the skipper tendered ill-advised remarks at an end-of-day media conference that meant he also found himself facing serious sanctions.
Yet from this seemingly bleak scenario, a squad that might feasibly have descended into disarray instead rallied around a central, unifying call to leave 'no regrets'.
And not only did Steve Waugh's outfit play their best cricket when under the harshest scrutiny, they lifted the World Cup when it was most recently staged in the UK 20 years ago.
As a result, their achievement heralded a golden era for the men's game in Australia.
The first strains in the team fabric that would soon start to unravel appeared in an airy, seaside hotel room that overlooked the shimmering aqua-blue water of Antigua's Dickenson Bay.
It was a few days prior to the start of the final Test of Australia's four-match campaign against the West Indies and – with the tourists trailing 1-2 and at risk of squandering the dominance they asserted in the series opener – the selection panel convened in an air of discomfort.
At that time – April, 1999 – touring team selection was conducted by the coach (then Geoff Marsh), captain (Steve Waugh) and vice-captain (Shane Warne) who were deemed best placed to make judgement calls on the viability of players in their squad.
Those decisions were ultimately ratified by long-distance telephone conversation with the panel's chair (then, as now) Trevor Hohns.
This meeting, however, assumed extraordinary status because of Warne's diminished effectiveness in the first three Tests, his first such outing after undergoing reconstructive surgery to his right shoulder.
With just two wickets at 134 runs apiece from three matches, and with the West Indies' surfeit of left-handers untroubled by balls spinning not-so-sharply into them, Waugh floated the notion that Warne should make way for off-spinner, Colin Miller.
It was a view supported by Marsh, but so spirited was Warne's defence of his own tenure that the group was broadened to include ex-Test captain Allan Border (then also a serving selector) who happened to be in the Caribbean as leader of a supporters' tour group.
When it became clear he was about to be axed, Warne launched a heartfelt final appeal that seemed to sway Border, but Waugh and Marsh stuck to their collective hunch.
According to Waugh's recollections of that tense meeting in such a contrastingly serene setting, as Warne left the room Border told his former Test lieutenant Marsh "yeah, you guys are right – you made the right decision."
It also began a rift that remains unhealed to this day, and would percolate insidiously into Australia's tilt at the World Cup that was due to begin in less than a month.
Without Warne, spinners Miller and Stuart MacGill shared eight wickets as Australia won by 176 runs in Antigua to retain the Frank Worrell Trophy.
In his memoir 'Out of My Comfort Zone', Waugh claimed his vice-captain had "handled an extremely tough situation stoically" and described the immediate impact of marginalising such an influential, if potentially polarising, figure within the playing group.
"Shane needs constant support, encouragement and reassurance that he is the man," Waugh wrote.
"The pressure valve of our team had been released with Shane not being there.
"This isn't meant to be unkind, but when a great player is for some reason unable to achieve what he's used to achieving, players begin to tread on eggshells around him in an attempt to not make his life harder than it already is."
Outwardly, Warne gave the impression he had taken his dumping as magnanimously as could be expected.
Soon after arriving in the UK for the World Cup, he proclaimed that "it might be the best thing that's ever happened to me, missing that last Test in Antigua".
And in his first authorised autobiography released two years later, he noted that Waugh had fronted the pre-Test team meeting and candidly admitted the decision to omit his deputy and star leg spinner was the toughest cricket call he'd made to that point.
"Those words meant a lot because Stephen and I have become good friends over a long period of time," Warne wrote in his self-titled 2001 tome.
Yet, behind the scenes, a different tale was unfolding.
According to Adam Gilchrist, Warne's roommate during the seven-match ODI series that immediately followed the Tests in the Caribbean, the vice-captain was constantly "stewing" over being dropped and regularly voiced his view that he would walk away from the game.
By the time Waugh's outfit landed in London for the World Cup tilt, the captain was becoming aware of his deputy's destabilising influence within the group that Waugh ascribed to Warne being "lonely, hurt, annoyed and frustrated".
Warne would later concede he had been stung by his removal from the Test XI, and he had retreated into a world of self-pity in which he "conducted myself badly ... I wasn’t that supportive of the team, which I regret".
But time has not dulled the pain of what Warne perceives as a personal slight.
When Mark Taylor stepped down from the captaincy at the end of the 1998-99 Test summer in Australia, Warne engaged in a concerted campaign to win support for his candidacy for the job.
It was a push that gained significant momentum in the ODI series in Australia that preceded the Caribbean tour, in which Waugh missed a majority of matches through injury and Warne led the team to a tournament win that enhanced his leadership credentials.
He therefore interpreted his exclusion from the Test team two months later as some sort of payback.
"Disappointed is not a strong enough word," he recalled of that epochal moment in last year's autobiography 'No Spin'.
"When the crunch came 'Tugga' (Waugh) didn’t support me, and I felt so totally let down by someone who I had supported big time and was also a good friend."
It wasn't only the fracture in the relationship with his vice-captain, and the resultant fissures through the team structure that was taxing Waugh in what he rated as one of the most gruelling tours of his 20-year playing career.
The ODI series into which his team and the West Indies immediately plunged comprised seven matches in five separate sovereign nations in the space of just two weeks, and represented both outfits' final preparatory hit-out before the World Cup.
So brutal was the schedule that the home team's skipper, Brian Lara, withdrew after the fourth game citing a wrist injury that he feared might curtail his Cup involvement.
Fatigued and frustrated, Waugh faced injury management issues of his own as it appeared his Test strike bowlers might themselves be in doubt for the onward leg to the UK.
Fast bowler Jason Gillespie was sidelined from the final Test due to a back injury, and was sent home prior to the ODI series, as was fellow seamer Adam Dale who had contracted pneumonia while in Antigua.
In addition, Glenn McGrath had sustained a broken toe and slight ankle sprain in the final Test when he kicked a boundary-side advertising sign in a flash of anger at having Lara dropped off his bowling, and was rested from the first two ODIs.
Upon his return, McGrath then strained ligaments in his other ankle in a fielding mishap after bowling just one over in game three at Port of Spain.
He was then ruled out for the remainder of the Caribbean tour, with no certainty to be fit for Australia's World Cup preliminaries in Britain.
Of even greater concern was Waugh's lack of productivity with the bat.
Mindful of the call he had made on Warne in the weeks prior, and a record that showed he had passed 50 just once in the preceding year (in which he averaged around 10 in ODIs) Waugh conceded midway through the Caribbean campaign his place was in jeopardy.
After the third one-dayer against the West Indies in Trinidad, where Waugh was bowled for two as his team fell to its second defeat of the series, he was asked if he was worthy of retention in the starting line-up come the imminent World Cup.
"No-one is guaranteed a spot but I know I'm good enough and I'm going to prove that I'm good enough to be in the side," he told reporters as they gathered outside the visitors' dressing room at Queen's Park.
"But it's up to the selectors – if there's somebody better for the job, then let them have it.
"That's always been my way of approaching the game."
As it transpired, Waugh's on-field woes were rapidly being swamped by issues that were festering behind the scenes.
In the wake of the game three defeat at Queen's Park, an urgent team meeting was called that evening to try and address some of those matters before the fourth match at the same venue the next day.
Waugh had become increasingly concerned about some of the behaviour he had witnessed since the start of the Test series – his first as captain in the five-day format, having taken over from Taylor at the end of the previous Australia summer.
In particular, he noted the formation of divisive cliques among the playing group, and what he considered to be a damaging drift into the pervasive party lifestyle for which parts of the Caribbean were renowned.
"The rum certainly tastes better in the Caribbean than it does anywhere else in the world," Waugh told cricket.com.au's Adam Burnett for the recent oral history series on Australia's 1999 Test campaign against the West Indies.
"And it is a place where, with the beach culture, you can relax; the people are so friendly, and so chilled, and if you're not careful you can get in sync with their pace of life.
"You've got to be careful that you don't get away from what you're used to, in terms of how you prepare for matches.
"Potentially, that might have crept in."
In particular, Waugh felt let down by veteran keeper and former vice-captain Ian Healy who the skipper felt had let his normally impeccable standards slide during the Test series, as he faced the impending end of his stellar playing career.
He was also blunt in the assessment of his twin brother's minimal influence despite being a senior member of the group, noting in his autobiography that "Mark Waugh had an average tour and didn't get involved enough in the running of the team".
While scarcely a wowser – he had once famously won a player-of-the-match award for Australia in an ODI through which he nursed a crippling hangover – Waugh saw the need to introduce an evening curfew as a means of re-focusing his charges.
That hardline approach would galvanise further after Australia's faltering start at the World Cup which led Waugh to impose a total alcohol ban for every day except immediately post-match, a decision that was soon revoked when it brought players to the brink of revolt.
But there were other longer-lived, more positive changes to emerge from that meeting held in Trinidad's famous 'upside down' hotel, built into a cliff-face that overlooks the sprawling Queen's Park Savannah.
Among the innovations it invoked was Waugh's subsequent decision to have each player's unique ODI number embroidered upon their yellow Australia cap.
It was a move, undertaken during the World Cup that followed, designed to imbue limited-overs players with a similar sense of history and fraternity to those who donned the Baggy Green Cap in Tests.
Waugh and Marsh also called for greater on-field intensity from their charges as they approached the final week of the hectic ODI series, even though many players admitted to sharing their skipper's battle weariness in the wake of the hard-fought Tests.
As they dispersed from the team room and pondered the safe options for evening activities in Port of Spain, the Australians had no inkling of how much more incendiary that on-field fight was about to become.