Home » Party like it’s ’99: A rocky start on road to World Cup glory | cricket.com.au

Party like it’s ’99: A rocky start on road to World Cup glory | cricket.com.au

Twenty-five years ago today, Australia’s 1999 World Cup campaign began. Across the next month, cricket.com.au will look back at the defining moments of that memorable campaign

It’s 25 years next month since Australia lifted the ICC World Cup at Lord’s, a campaign best remembered for Steve Waugh’s team’s barnstorming finish to the five-week tournament crowned by the epic tied semi-final against South Africa.

Damien Fleming’s cool amid the chaos at Edgbaston endures as a defining image of what barely a month earlier had seemed a lost cause as Australia’s on-field effort started poorly.

Off the field, however, a number of less-publicised moments wielded similar significance.

Among them were a couple of pivotal pub chats made possible by Waugh’s decision to walk back his controversial booze ban, a crucial meeting of minds at a pizza restaurant and a “sly kick” aimed by a Pakistan pace bowler that instead kickstarted Australia’s revival.

Ponting’s World Cup Memories: The ’99 turnaround

Despite entering the 14-team tournament as second favourite (behind South Africa), the beaten finalists from the World Cup’s previous iteration in 1996 were decidedly lacklustre across the opening fortnight played in the UK’s biting late-spring chill.

Warm-up games against county outfits were hampered by rain and some critics – most notably former New Zealand skipper Martin Crowe – claimed the decision to install Waugh as captain succeeding Mark Taylor only diminished Australia’s threat.

Certainly, Waugh was keen to stamp his mark on the job he now held in both ODI and Test formats.

Steve Waugh hit 49 not out against Scotland // Allsport/Getty

And having been “somewhat spooked” by lax discipline that crept into Australia’s 1998 Commonwealth Games campaign and a one-day series in the West Indies that preceded the World Cup, he and coach Geoff Marsh implemented a curfew.

While not a total ban on players’ drinking, and post-game victory celebrations were still embraced, Waugh decreed that alcohol intake be limited to a glass or two with dinner and nothing at all on match eve.

As Ricky Ponting remembered it, the move was “sold” to the playing group using a comparison to the 1987 campaign in India – Australia’s sole World Cup triumph to that point, of which Waugh and Marsh were key members – where the entire squad took an abstinence vow for the duration.

Ponting’s World Cup memories: The ’99 turning point

But as Ponting would later argue, Waugh miscalculated in thinking the same sort of strict discipline he’d seen exhibited by swimmers and sprinters at the fortnight-long Commonwealth Games could be applied to cricketers who can tour for months on end.

Player discontent was duly relayed back to the skipper by his “trusted shop steward” and another 1987 Cup winner Tom Moody, and the curfew was curbed before the first warm-up game against Glamorgan.

World Cup Rewind: An Aussie uprising

“They (the guidelines) were softened to place onus on individuals to be responsible and look out for their teammates,” Waugh wrote in his autobiography ‘Out of My Comfort Zone’.

But no sooner had one pain point been removed than another flared.

On the morning of Australia’s Cup opener against Scotland at Worcester, ‘The Times’ published a Shane Warne column in which he took pointed aim at Sri Lanka’s then-captain Arjuna Ranatunga, who had led his country to defeat Australia in the 1996 World Cup final.

Shane Warne shrugged off off-field controversy to take three wickets against Scotland // Allsport/Getty

Warne had written: “Frankly, Sri Lanka – and the game overall – would be better off without him. I don’t like him, and I’m not in a club of one. Sri Lanka are not as powerful as the side that won in 1996 and as far as I am concerned the problems stem from their captain. Ranatunga might be a shrewd, experienced leader but his batting is not what it was and he is terrible in the field.”

Urgent phone calls were made from the then Australian Cricket Board headquarters to the team’s hotel in Worcester as the squad prepared to head to the ground, and the ICC took a dim view on the piece, with the leg-spinner copping a two-match suspended ban.

That furore coupled with an unimpressive bowling effort in their six-wicket win over the Scots led Waugh to deliver a blunt message in his post-match media conference.

“Our fielding was very poor, we dropped three easy catches, our ground fielding was terrible and our throwing was ordinary,” Waugh surmised of a performance he rated at four out of ten.

Our fielding was very poor, we dropped three easy catches, our ground fielding was terrible and our throwing was ordinary

— Australia captain Steve Waugh

The skipper’s frustration was palpable, and it took an evening meal with another source of wise counsel – middle-order ‘finisher’ Michael Bevan – to diffuse the escalating tension.

“We’re putting too much pressure on ourselves. Let’s seek enjoyment and relax a bit,” Bevan told his long-time Australia and New South Wales teammate.

Australia had a win on the board, but things were running far from smoothly on and off the field as the team headed to Cardiff for their next match, against trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand in four days’ time.