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The epoch makers

Andrew Miller looks back on ten of the greatest momentum-seizing matches in Anglo-Australian history

Andrew Miller

July 7, 2005

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The 2005 Ashes is England's best opportunity in a generation to reclaim the prize that has eluded them for the best part of two decades. As the preparation for the series hots up, Andrew Miller looks back on ten of the greatest momentum-seizing matches in Anglo-Australian history



Fred "The Demon" Spofforth: 14 wickets ripped England apart at The Oval © Cricinfo
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Only Test, 1882, The Oval
The match that spawned the legend itself. Until Fred "The Demon" Spofforth intervened with 14 wickets in a low-scoring classic, England had generally scoffed at the notion of a defeat against the "Colonials". But, in a bad-tempered thriller that caused one spectator to chew through his umbrella handle and another to drop dead with heart failure, England were set 85 to win ... and failed. Not for the last time, Australia were galvanised by England's haughty attitude - especially when WG Grace ran out Sammy Jones as he stepped down the pitch to repair a divot. The Sporting Times spoke for a shocked nation when it published its mock obituary of English cricket, and concluded that "the body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia."

Fifth Test, 1926, The Oval
England fans think they have had it bad for the past 16 years, but few victories can have been so gratefully received - or felt so long overdue - as England's series-clincher at The Oval in 1926. As was the case throughout the 1990s, England must have feared they would never again get a whiff of the Ashes. Since the Great War, Australia had won 12 Tests to England's one, and after four draws in succession, the call went out to an unlikely hero - the 49-year-old Wilfred Rhodes, who had not played a Test for five years. His veteran status was offset by the youth of Harold Larwood, making his debut at the age of 21, but it was the old firm of Hobbs and Sutcliffe who broke the deadlock. Their twin centuries in England's second innings established a commanding advantage, and Rhodes swept up with four wickets to spark the celebrations.



Bill Woodfull helps Bert Oldfield off the pitch after he was struck by Harold Larwood at Adelaide © Cricinfo
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Third Test, 1932-33, Adelaide
England took a significant step towards reclaiming the Ashes, but came perilously close to losing an Empire, in one of the most controversial matches in history. Douglas Jardine's ruthless leadership had but one aim - to stop Bradman in his tracks - and so he packed his leg-side field and instructed Larwood and Bill Voce, his fast bowlers, to bowl short and into the ribs. The sides were locked at 1-1 going into the third Test, but when Bill Woodfull was struck a sickening blow over the heart and Bert Oldfield sustained a cracked skull, the series erupted. "Only one side is playing cricket," a furious Woodfull told MCC's manager, Pelham Warner, as cables flew backwards and forwards between Lord's and Adelaide, and mounted police had to be sent in to quell a seething crowd. Anglo-Australian relations would never be quite the same again.

First Test, 1946-47, Brisbane
England's post-war fortunes might have been transformed in an instant had one of the most keenly disputed catches in history been upheld. At the age of 38 and in poor health, speculation had been rife about Bradman's future in the game, and during a nervy start to the first Ashes Test since the war, he did his utmost to bat himself into an early retirement. On 28, Jack Ikin at slip claimed what appeared to be a legitimate catch, but the umpires were unconvinced and with that reprieve, Bradman relaxed. He added a further 159 in an Australian total of 645 to lay the foundations of an innings victory, and sow the seeds of the Invincibles, who would tour England 18 months later.



Trevor Bailey was at his obdurate best at Lord's in 1953 © Getty Images
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Second Test, 1953, Lord's
"The Bailey block" was one of the most celebrated (non-) strokes among schoolchildren in the 1950s, and never was it better exemplified than at Lord's in a magnificent series-turning stand. England had slipped to 73 for 4 with most of the final day remaining when Trevor Bailey came together with Willie Watson, who was playing in his first Ashes match. Victory was out of the question but defeat, with Australia having held the Ashes for 19 years, was unthinkable. A grimly defiant stand of 163 in four-and-a-half hours staved off defeat and turned the tide of a series that England would eventually clinch, amid jubilant scenes at The Oval, three Tests later.

Second Test, 1954-55, Sydney
England's grip on the Ashes was looking distinctly dodgy as they were swept to an innings defeat in the opening match of the series, and they hardly looked fit to mount a fightback when Australia skittled them for 154 in the first innings of the second Test - especially when their strike bowler, Frank Tyson, was knocked cold by a Ray Lindwall bouncer. It was, however, the costliest delivery that Lindwall would ever send down. Revived and inspired, Tyson bowled like the wind for the remainder of the match, and again in the next Test at Melbourne, as England won a thrilling series by three Tests to one.

First Test, 1974-75, Brisbane
Forty-one years on from the Battle of Adelaide, Australia exacted their revenge for the Bodyline series with one of the most brutal muggings ever carried out on a cricket field. Ironically, Australia were perceived to lack firepower coming into the series. Dennis Lillee had been sidelined for much of the year with a grievous back injury, while Jeff Thomson was, apparently, a no-mark surfer-dude with one wicketless Test to his name. But, from the moment that Tony Greig decided that a bouncer barrage was the way forward, the die was cast and England never knew what hit them.



Another one goes all the way ...Ian Botham during his savage counterattack at Headingley © Cricinfo
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Third Test, 1981, Headingley
The greatest heist in the history of the game, and the moment that catapulted Ian Botham into the Ashes pantheon. One down in the series and following on, England had slumped to a miserable 135 for 7 and were still 92 runs from avoiding an innings defeat when Botham, England's recently deposed captain, was joined by Graham Dilley. Ladbrokes was offering an infamous 500-1 on an England victory as the pair decided to make merry with some "pure village green slogging", as Mike Brearley memorably put it. Slowly but surely, the impossible became a tantalising reality, as Botham's unbeaten 149 secured a slender target of 130. It turned out to be just enough, as Bob Willis, seemingly in a trance, charged down the slope for the spell of his life.

First Test, 1989, Headingley
It seems hard to recall now, but England actually began their annus horriblis in 1989 as favourites. By the end of the first innings of the series, that perception had been changed forever. Australia were asked to bat first and amassed a vast 601 for 7 declared, with centuries for Mark Taylor, in his first Ashes Test, and Steve Waugh, who had begun to despair of ever reaching three figures, after failing to do so in his previous 41 innings. Waugh would go on to make 393 runs before being dismissed, England would go on to use 29 players in the series, and had rain not intervened at Edgbaston and The Oval, Australia could have been looking at a 6-0 whitewash. It really was that bad.

Third Test, 1997, Old Trafford
That man Waugh would be a recurring theme in England's Ashes nightmares of the 1990s, but this was surely his finest hour. Contrary to all expectations, Australia had been caught cold in the early part of the summer, losing all three one-dayers plus an astonishing match at Edgbaston. Lord's would surely have been a series-leveller had rain not intervened, but Australia were still searching for inspiration as the series reached its midway mark. A bold decision to bat first from their out-of-form captain, Taylor, gave Waugh a blank canvas on which to craft a masterly 108 out of 235, and he followed up with another hundred, 116, as the conditions eased second-time around. England were overwhelmed, and a sniff of an opportunity was lost.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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Andrew Miller Andrew Miller was saved from a life of drudgery in the City when his car caught fire on the way to an interview. He took this as a sign and fled to Pakistan where he witnessed England's historic victory in the twilight at Karachi (or thought he did, at any rate - it was too dark to tell). He then joined Wisden Online in 2001, and soon graduated from put-upon photocopier to a writer with a penchant for comment and cricket on the subcontinent. In addition to Pakistan, he has covered England tours in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007
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