In this post, we go back to the sixth and final Test of the 1997 Ashes series. Despite England showing early promise with a resounding win in the opening Test at Edgbaston, Australia came back in familiar fashion to win three of the next four Tests to retain the urn and win their fifth Ashes series in succession.
Thus, this final Test was of no consequence to the series result as Australia had an unassailable 3-1 lead. However, the game produced a stirring low-scoring contest with some fascinating bowling performances.
From their eleven which were beaten in the fifth Test by 264 runs, England dropped John Crawley, Dean Headley and Robert Croft and replaced them with Mark Ramprakash, Peter Martin and Phil Tufnell. Mark Butcher was also recalled.
Australia too tinkered with their bowling attack, bringing in Michael Kasprowicz and debutant all-rounder Shaun Young in place of Jason Gillespie and Paul Reiffel.
After electing to bat, England began poorly, slumping to 24/2 with Glenn McGrath sending back openers Mark Butcher and captain Michael Atherton cheaply. Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain revived the innings with a 73-run stand for the third wicket before McGrath trapped the former (out for 36, the highest score of the innings) leg before.
A depressing English collapse ensued, with 128/3 becoming 132/7. McGrath was in deadly form, as he mopped off the top six all by himself. Bowling fast and straight, his accuracy was found to be too hot to handle for the hosts’ middle order.
Andrew Caddick and Martin staged a momentary counter-attack, resulting in Kasprowicz leaking almost five an over. However it did nothing to boost the innings, which ended at 180 when Kasprowicz dismissed Devon Malcolm for a golden duck.
Left-arm spinner Tufnell then removed the Australian openers within 54 runs, including captain Mark Taylor who was looking in good touch during his 38. Australia ended the eventful first day at 77/2 and in control.
Early on day two, Tufnell added a third wicket, that of Mark Waugh, to make it 94/3. Mark’s twin brother Steve then joined Greg Blewett and the two appeared to be taking the game away from England before Waugh’s dismissal limited their stand to 46.
Tufnell then proceeded to give the Aussies a taste of their own medicine, as he made full use of a dry pitch – which was seeming to crumble already – to reduce them to 164/7, including the wicket of top-scorer Blewett for 47.
Phil Tufnell gave England some consolation in an Ashes series defeat, taking 11/93 at the Oval to help his side snatch a 19-run win (source – paphotos/espncricinfo.com)
England were right back in the contest. Ricky Ponting added 41 for the eighth wicket with Shane Warne, but Tufnell was in his element and he removed Ponting for a gutsy 40 to help bowl out Australia for 220, the lead restricted to 40. ‘Tuffers’ bowled unchanged for 34.3 overs including 16 maidens and finished with a memorable 7/66.
In the second innings, England’s top three were sent back with the score reading only 26 – Kasprowicz taking two of them – and the hosts were still trailing by 14. They ended the second day at 52/3, leading by 12. The Test was hurtling towards a quick finish.
Off the third ball on day three, Hussain was dismissed by Warne and the score now read 52/4. With such a pitch on offer for the guile of Warne, many England fans would have thought of yet another easy win for the Australians.
But there was a glimmer of hope – Warne was far from fully fit due to a groin strain which occurred late on the second day. Graham Thorpe and Ramprakash (48) steadied the ship with a partnership of 79 for the fifth wicket. Kasprowicz ended the resistance by accounting for Thorpe for 62 – the game’s only half-century.
This dismissal was the opening that the visitors needed, as Kasprowicz then made short work of the English tail. The last four wickets fell for three runs as England were bowled out for 163. Kasprowicz, playing just his fifth Test, took 7/36 and thus, three bowlers had taken seven wickets in an innings in the same Test for the first time.
Australia’s target was a 124, but going by the pattern of the match it was not going to be an easy task. And so it seemed when Matthew Elliott was out leg-before to Malcolm to make the score 5/1.
Taylor and Blewett took the total on to 36, but the combination of pace and spin from Caddick and Tufnell respectively kept up the pressure on the batsmen. Yet another middle-order implosion was witnessed, as Australia went from a steady 36/1 to a pathetic 54/5.
Caddick got rid of Taylor, Blewett and Steve Waugh while Tufnell sent back Mark Waugh. Blewett was unfairly given out caught behind, as the television replays confirmed that there was no edge. Ponting was still there, and he kept his team alive by adding a valuable 34 with Ian Healy for the sixth wicket.
However, Tufnell trapped Ponting in the front before Caddick took a return catch offered by Healy to reduce Australia to 92/7. Batting with a runner, Warne too was out quickly and as expected, the tail provided no resistance.
The final wicket was that of McGrath, who was caught by Thorpe off Tufnell. Australia were skittled out for 104 and lost the Test by 19 runs. Caddick bagged 5/42 while man-of-the-match Tufnell took 4/27 to finish the match with a career-best return of 11/93. The match was over by 5.24 p.m on the third day – the first three-day Test at the Oval since 1957.
This win, though not enough to stop Australia from laying their hands on the urn yet again, surely delighted England’s supporters. Given the state of mind in which England entered this Test and the total they were defending, it can be said that this was one of their most memorable Ashes victories.
But such victories were to be rare occurrences in the coming years as well. England lost the following three Ashes series by margins of 3-1, 4-1 and 4-1, stretching Australia’s unbeaten streak to a record-equalling eight Ashes series wins in a row.