On a dreary November 22, 1999, Australia’s Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist joined hands for an epic final day’s battle against Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and Saqlain Mushtaq to chase down 369 in the fourth innings at the Bellerive Oval, Hobart. This, after ending the previous day reeling at 188 for five.
Australia had won the first Test of the three-match series at Brisbane by 10 wickets. A repeat was on the cards in the second Test at Hobart when Pakistan were bowled out for 222 in the first innings, after being put in to bat by Steve Waugh.
The Australian top order took them to 191 for one with Michael Slater, dropped three times, scoring 97. He had gotten a magnificent 169 in the first Test and looked on course for another big one when he top-edged Saqlain Mushtaq to mid-wicket going for a sweep. The wicket opened the floodgates as Australia lost the next nine wickets for 55 runs and had to settle for a paltry 24-run lead. Saqlain and his doosra-speared arsenal spun mayhem, taking six for 46 including three wickets in an over.
In the second innings, a buoyed Pakistan walloped their way to 392 all-out, riding on the big man Inzamam-ul-Haq’s 118. Shane Warne took five for 110, taking his match tally to eight wickets.
Australia now had to chase 369 in just over five sessions. Slater (27) and Greg Blewett (29) provided the hosts a brisk start before the former edged Shoaib Akhtar to fourth slip. Azhar Mahmood then took two in two to make it 81 for three, before Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting fell in quick succession for Australia to display 126 for five on the scoreboard with just under an hour to play on Day Four.
This brought Adam Gilchrist — he had made his debut earlier in the series at Brisbane — to the crease. At the non-striker’s end was Justin Langer, who was celebrating his 29th birthday and had an aggregate of just 1365 runs in 26 Tests at 33.29, including three hundreds and nine fifties. He was clearly not the best No 3 Australia had fielded and had been welcomed to the crease by a full-toss stinger from Akhtar hurled at his knuckles at 154.3kmph.
Langer and Gilchrist somehow made it through to stumps on Day Four with Australia still needing another 181 runs to win with half the side back in the pavilion. They were at the mercy of a so-so batsman and an aggressive, yet inexperienced, keeper who had scored 45 of the pair’s 62 runs.
Come Day Five, one would have expected Pakistan to go for the kill and level the series in the first session itself. But the Australian duo clearly had other plans.
The Great Escape begins
Langer, who would later come to be known as one of the most charismatic drivers of the cricket ball and an equally efficient cutter, used the two shots to perfection against the Pakistani quicks. Length balls were caressed to the cover boundary, while shorter deliveries were dispatched to the fence via elegant square cuts and late cuts. Some of the cover drives were timed to such perfection against Akhtar, who was constantly clocking upwards of 140, that it made him seem like a pedestrian gully-cricket medium-pacer. Langer was equally impressive against Saqlain as he exploited the area square of the wicket with his sweeps.
Gilchrist, meanwhile, knew that he had to stick it out with Langer until the end if Australia wanted to garner any hopes of winning the match. But Gilly, who had scored an 88-ball 81 on debut, wasn’t going to deviate from his natural game now. He brought up his fifty with a prance down the wicket against Waqar, driving him for three. The half-century came off just 72 balls (3×4, 1×6) and it was his second in three innings. After that, he began to sweep Saqlain like a veteran, before practicing his later-trademark back-footed heave over the deep mid-wicket fence. Soon, his natural aggressive game paid dividends as he forced Akram to have the field spread out, and Gilchrist still managed to find the gaps.
At one point, Gilchrist smacked Akram’s short and widish delivery to the deep point fence. The look on Akram’s face as he watched it crash into the hoarding was one of utter exasperation at himself and, to some extent, desperation. Gilchrist then brought about his first Test century with a beautiful straight drive off Waqar down to the long-off boundary. It had taken him just 110 balls and less than three hours, including eight fours and a six.
The duo scored at a good pace and went into lunch at 277 for five. The Pakistanis, who had almost taken the win for granted at the end of Day Four, were clearly showing nerves and getting frustrated now.
After lunch, Langer reached his fourth Test hundred with a shot that the Pakistanis had gotten used to in that innings – a deft sweep of Saqlain’s ball pitching outside off and angling away from the left-hander. The so-so batsman had proved that there was something in him; and just as if he still hadn’t proved a point, every hit to the fence as the Aussies inched closer to their target was followed by fist pumps towards the dressing rooms.
Then, with five runs needed to win, almost as if it were scripted, Langer was gone for 127 trying to execute the very shot that had earned him a chunk of his runs. He tried to sweep Saqlain to the square leg fence, but found the top edge and then Inzamam at square. Langer’s batting chart was filled with red lines, denoting boundaries, zipping through the deep point and third-man area. The wicket, for the Pakistanis, was of course purely academic.
But the man who truly snatched the game away from the visitors was a 28-year-old swashbuckling debutant, who would go on to rewrite the definition of a wicket-keeper batsman. Adam Gilchrist took the game away from Pakistan by going after their best bowler. Saqlain had tormented the Aussies in the first innings, taking six wickets including Gilly’s. But the southpaw displayed to the world for the first time his counter-attacking abilities and heaved Pakistan out of the game. The way he took apart Saqlain with his booming cover drives, clockwork sweeps and massive pulls over mid-wicket gave the world one of the first glimpses of what Adam Gilchrist was capable of. He got the scores level with an exquisite square cut that pierced the field and raced to the boundary, and he finished it off with a swipe over mid-on to the long-on fence. He had scored an unbeaten 149 off just 163 balls in his second Test, sprinkled with 13 fours and a massive heave over deep mid-wicket.
The Australians had pulled off what Richie Benaud, sitting in the commentary box, felt was “one of the finest victories I’ve ever seen in Test cricket.” They had registered, at the time, the third-highest fourth-innings total to win a Test match. Only three times before in the history of Tests had a total of above 350 been successfully chased. After this effort, it was to be done three more times in the next nine years, including a record chase of 418 by the West Indies against Australia at Antigua in 2003.
Langer and Gilchrist had thus given other teams the belief that such a mammoth total can be overcome and it was this belief that sparked Australia’s rise to the summit of world cricket in the following decade. It also gave to the cricketing world the one and only Adam Gilchrist. The rest, as they say, is history.
Featured image courtesy: Christopher Neugebauer (Creative Commons)