In the second Ashes Test in 1997, England, 1-0 up, had their momentum punctured by a mesmeric Glenn McGrath spell. This report, by David Frith, originally appeared in the 1998 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
Rain prevented a conclusive result to the second Test, ending Australia’s run of 18 Tests without a draw. But there was never a chance of England ending their melancholy sequence of failure against Australia at Lord’s; their 1934 victory will remain their only success in 23 Tests in the 20th century. By the end, they were not remotely concerned about that; having been humiliated for 77, they were grateful that the weather enabled them to cling on to their 1-0 lead in the series. Atherton lost an important toss on his 42nd appearance as England captain (surpassing Peter May’s record of 41). This time, Taylor put England in, and bowled them out for even less than Australia had managed after choosing to bat in not dissimilar conditions at Edgbaston.
No play had been possible on the scheduled first day, and there was only an hour and a half on the second. In that time, England, fielding an unchanged eleven for the first time in home Tests since June 1991, lost Butcher, Atherton and Stewart – who left an off-cutter – all to McGrath, on a pitch of uneven bounce. Thorpe almost went too, before he had scored, but wicketkeeper Healy was uncertain about his catch and told the umpires so, prompting a burst of applause from umpire Shepherd.
At that stage, England’s supporters were still more concerned about the ruin of the great occasion. On the Saturday, the cricket became more of a concern. The rest of England’s wickets toppled before lunch next day while they scraped together just 39. The tall McGrath, continuing from the Pavilion End, adopted a fuller length than at Edgbaston and bowled with pace, lift, movement off the seam and unwavering accuracy to pick up five more wickets. The batsmen had found no relief at the other end, for Reiffel, flown in to reinforce the ranks because of Bichel’s injury, bowled a tight line and moved the ball away dangerously. He found the edge of Thorpe’s bat for a catch via the pad and later deceived Ealham into playing early. The rigid England batsmen could scarcely score a run an over off him.
McGrath swept away the rest: Crawley played especially limply, probably with Stewart’s fatal leave-alone in mind. When Caddick was lbw, McGrath had taken eight for 38, the best analysis in the 31 England-Australia Tests staged at Lord’s, the second-best for Australia in England (behind Frank Laver’s eight for 31 at Old Trafford in 1909), and the third-best by an Australian bowler in any Test (behind also Arthur Mailey’s nine for 121 at Melbourne against England in 1920-21). England’s 77 was their lowest in any Test on this ground since 1888; only nine times in 287 Tests against Australia had they fared worse. The national spirit of self-confidence which followed victory at Edgbaston had been both drenched and deflated.
The stunned atmosphere was relieved a touch by the early dismissal of Australia’s captain when they began their reply. Gough, rested by Yorkshire before this Test, bounded in and, in his third over, Taylor deflected a widish delivery into his stumps. Blewett soon saw a looping edge off Caddick fall safely as Butcher and Thorpe froze, but settled to play some resonant strokes before edging Croft to slip. It was by no means the end of England’s maladroitness, however. In a bizarre spell of play in the late-afternoon dankness, Elliott was missed three times as he reached 55 – twice by Butcher at slip and, in between, by Malcolm at long leg. Meanwhile, Mark Waugh gave a sharp chance to Hussain at slip and a difficult leg-side stumping opportunity to Crawley (deputising as wicketkeeper for Stewart, who had suffered a back spasm), both off Croft. England were suddenly unrecognisable from the competent unit of a fortnight earlier.
Impatient to level the series, Australia were frustrated again on the fourth day, when only 17.4 overs were bowled as shower after shower sprayed Lord’s. From 131 for two they progressed to 213 for seven, the pace resembling that of a one-day match. Waugh slashed a catch to third man and brother Steve went back to his first ball and was lbw. In between, Warne, promoted to No. 5, had wafted a high off-side catch. And all this happened with the score on 147. Undeterred, Elliott still sought to score from every delivery, and ran to his first Test century from his 171st ball. He fell soon afterwards to his favoured stroke, the hook, having loaded his 112 with 20 fours, an exceptional proportion.
Declaring overnight in the hope of cashing in a lead of 136, Australia were favoured with clearer weather at last, but the pitch had calmed. Prepared for a gruelling final day with their backs to the wall, England firmly reclaimed their poise, though only after Taylor, at slip, had spared Butcher – the fielder who had been so generous to the Australian batsmen – when he was two. But at lunch England were 70 without loss, and they had eased to a lead of 26 before Atherton accidentally kicked his off stump as he played to leg. When light rain forced a slightly early tea-break at 169 for one, the only remaining interest was whether Butcher, seeming more and more comfortable, might reach a hundred. But his hopes were dashed by a well-flighted ball from Warne that spun out of the rough. Warne was looking more like his old self. From there, England batted it out: chastened but still one up.