As the main protagonist of a Boxing Day Ashes Test victory when 2-0 down, Dean Headley knows exactly how England’s players will be feeling this week and the challenges they must overcome.
‘First of all, Australia is a very tough place to go and play. The country’s quite harsh in the sense that you do feel that you’re playing against everybody,’ Headley, man of the match in Melbourne 23 years ago, tells the Mail On Sunday.
‘When you’re getting outplayed, as we did on that tour, you just have to show some heart because if you do, you might force a change in momentum.
As the protagonist of a Boxing Day Ashes Test, Dean Headley knows how England are feeling
‘With us, we were outplayed for about 70 per cent of the game and only outplayed them for the last three hours. We needed a spark to change things.’
That spark was provided when, with Australia seemingly cruising towards their 175-run victory target at 103 for two, Mark Ramprakash launched himself from his fielding position at square leg and intercepted Justin Langer’s pull off Alan Mullally with his right hand.
‘Ramps got the catch, then two or three wickets fell quickly. Australia thought this match was all over but suddenly people were coming out to bat who were under-prepared, Darren Gough and I had got the ball reversing and the mindsets of both teams changed,’ Headley, who finished with second-innings figures of six for 60, says.
England are already two down in the current series, and staring down the barrel of humilation
‘People have asked whether I knew I was going to bowl well in that spell. Honestly? You have your tactics and you just run up and bowl. The game just sort of flipped. Australia thought they’d won easily, but it showed how difficult it can be when the boot is on the other foot.’
The victory sealed on that heady fourth and final evening at the MCG by Headley and Co is the most recent one on Australian soil by an England team that has found itself behind with a series still alive. Four years later, Nasser Hussain’s team claimed a dead rubber success in Sydney but the 1998-99 vintage retained hope of sharing the spoils at 2-2 with their heist.
They had done so by staying in the contest, something that Joe Root’s team have struggled to do in the current Ashes because of the chasm between them and Australia on first innings. While England have made scores of 147 and 236, in contrast their bowlers have toiled away for four and five sessions respectively in Brisbane and Adelaide.
‘At the end of the day, we haven’t scored enough runs, yet there is a tendency to always look at the bowling unit for fault,’ Headley reflects.
Headley (right) admits that England needed a ‘spark’ to transform their fortunes 23 years ago
‘With hindsight it’s easy to say England got their lengths wrong last week but there are some highly skilled bowlers in there, and if the skipper is saying they’re too short, that’s something that must be rectified within the game, not after it.
‘But my main point is to move focus away from batting and bowling – you simply cannot drop catches. Because if you get opponents out for scores considerably lower than what they end up with, the whole complexion changes.’
England put down 13 across the first two matches; Australia floored just two.
‘If you take away three quarters of those drops, you’d be amazed how many fewer runs would have been scored, and the ones that should be caught are not the “worldies” that Jos Buttler took in Adelaide – he has taken some fantastic catches – but the normal chances.
The tourists have it all to do heading into the third Test, and Headley says catches are crucial
‘I look through all my matches against Australia and catches were the biggest difference. Paul Reiffel was dropped in my first one at Old Trafford in 1997 – that allowed Steve Waugh to get a hundred. It allowed them to open a lead of 73 on first innings, they were bowling last and had Shane Warne.
‘Then Graham Thorpe dropped Matthew Elliott at Headingley when Australia were 50 for four. Elliott had 29 at the time and made 199. At the other end, Ricky Ponting got a hundred as well. I am not saying Ponting wouldn’t have got a hundred had the catch been held but from 50 for five it is a different story.’
The 1998-99 story had its customary ending, of course, but the final chapters featured twists to the plot.
‘From Melbourne we went to Sydney at 2-1 and the feel of the series was different. Australia had been all over us, but they were now under pressure as they were the favourites and should have wrapped things up. Now, though, we were coming back,’ Headley recalls.
Headley wants the Boxing Day showdown to be a ‘battle’, regardless of the result at the end
‘That is why the Boxing Day Test is so important for this England team: whether they win, draw, or lose it, it must be a battle.
‘Sydney was a brilliant Test match. Like a proper boxing match. They were in front, we toiled away, Goughie got a hat-trick. The only thing that spoiled it was a very poor decision on Michael Slater’s run out.’
Headley, whose credentials as a bowling coach are sure to interest Gough’s Yorkshire, plus Essex and Warwickshire as they look to fill vacant positions in the new year, alludes to his own direct hit throw at the non-striker’s end when Slater was on 35 in a second innings score of 60 for two.
Third umpire Simon Taufel appeared to go against compelling television evidence in reprieving Slater who went on to contribute 123 out of Australia’s 184, the highest percentage of a team’s total in Test cricket since the very first match between England and Australia in 1877.
For England fans, perfection is not on the mind – with the imperfections needing addressing
‘I am not saying we would have won but we lost by 98 runs, and they put on 124 after that incident,’ Headley continues.
‘It was the only match in the series that we went toe to toe with them from the start. That’s what you want – competitive cricket. Of course, there are a few people who would just like to see us thrash the Aussies but think about the best Test series ever. In 2005, every single match was tight and that’s why it was just about perfect.’
For England fans, perfection is not on the mind right now. Addressing the imperfections would be a start.