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Andrew Miller looks back on ten of the greatest performances in Anglo-Australian history
July 14, 2005
In its 128-year history, the Ashes have thrown up innumerable heroes, from Spofforth and Trumper, to Botham and Warne. But once in a while, moments arise that sum up the genius, however fleeting or enduring, of some of these protagonists. Andrew Miller takes a look at some of the more memorable occasions.
Ball of the century - Shane Warne in 1993
The cognoscenti had been whispering it all summer. A tubby young legspinner with a blond bog-brush haircut was set to wreak havoc on England's batsmen, but truly nobody realised how seismic his introduction would prove. His very first delivery in an Ashes contest was a speculative, loopy, leg-stump drifter ... that bit, spat and exploded past an astonished Mike Gatting to clip his off stump. In an instant a decade-long stranglehold had been established.
Atherton's final curtain - The Oval 2001
One single contest epitomises the dominance that Australia have enjoyed against England in recent times - Glenn McGrath's effortless submission of Mike Atherton. On a world-record 19 occasions in 17 Tests, Atherton was McGrath's bunny, but the final snaring was more poignant than the end of Watership Down. With the Ashes lost on his watch for the seventh successive occasion, Atherton's imminent retirement was an open secret, but there would be one final humiliation at The Oval. With nine runs to his name and one last lost cause to salvage, Atherton dropped the bat late on another rearing offcutter, and Warne at second slip completed yet another ignominious departure.
Gough's no-ball and follow-up catch - Edgbaston 1997
The 1990s might have been one-way traffic, but one England player had the heart and skill to carry the fight to Australia through thick and mostly thin, from his bombastic batting on his maiden tour in 1994-95, to his brilliant hat-trick at Sydney four years later. In between whiles, however, came the moment that summed up Darren Gough's character - and, happily enough, it came in victory. On an incredible first morning of the Edgbaston Test in 1997, Australia collapsed to 54 for 8, the highlight coming when Gough bowled Greg Blewett with a no-ball. Unperturbed, he simply grinned at the batsman, strutted back to his mark, charged in for a second attempt, and had Blewett caught at third slip instead.
Ian Botham's last hurrah - Down Under in 1986-87
Gough's indefatigability (and briefly, his all-round prowess) drew inevitable comparisons with Ian Botham, but for all his never-say-die enthusiasm, Gough was rarely able to boss contests by sheer weight of personality. Botham, on the other hand, made this his stock-in-trade, never more so than on the last of his three Ashes tours. His first foray was his 14th and final Test century, a barnstorming affair that included 22 from a single Merv Hughes over. His last hurrah was a series-clinching five-wicket haul, achieved in spite of a torn chest muscle. By now he was bowling at little better than medium-pace, but no matter. After drubbings at his hands in 1981 and 1985, Australia were simply in awe of him.
Jessop's match - The Oval 1902
Gilbert Jessop was the Botham of his era. He was good enough to be selected for England purely on the grounds of his fast bowling, but Jessop, like Botham, would ultimately be remembered for his batting. His defining innings came at The Oval in 1902, in circumstances not dissimilar to Botham's Headingley tour de force 79 years later. Needing 263 for victory, England were reeling at 48 for 5, but Jessop turned the match on its head. He brought up his hundred in just 77 minutes with 17 fours and an all-run five, although seeing as sixes were only awarded for hits clean out of the ground, that figure might have been even more brisk by modern standards. Victory was achieved by one wicket, with George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes famously "getting `em in singles".
Slater's first-over fireworks - Edgbaston 2001
Many players have scored more runs, and some have even scored faster, but in terms of seizing the initiative in Ashes contests, Michael Slater was a class apart. Beloved of the fans for his gleeful, dancing-footed approach to batsmanship, he belted a thrilling 152 in only his second match, at Lord's, and spontaneously offended the purists by kissing the badge on his helmet - an act of patriotism that has since become de rigeur for all Test centurymakers. His speciality, however, was deflating English optimism: at Brisbane in 1994-95, when he spanked the first ball of the series - a Phil DeFreitas long-hop - through the covers for four, and most devastatingly of all, in 2001, when Darren Gough's opening salvo disappeared for 18 ego-sapping runs. Before the series was out, Slater's international career was over, but he had made his mark for posterity.
Boycott's 100th hundred - Headingley 1977
From the ultimate twinkletoes to the dourest stick-in-the-mud of them all. Momentum-seizing cameos were not part of Geoffrey Boycott's gameplan. Instead cold, calculating certainty was his watchword, in an 108-Test career that spanned three decades. A proudly defiant Yorkshireman, runs were the only standard by which he allowed himself to be judged, and so, when fate presented him an extraordinary opportunity to score his 100th first-class hundred in front of his adoring home fans at Headingley, there could be only one outcome. Boycott batted ten hours in all for a masterful 191, an innings that enabled England to regain the Ashes.
Randall's cap-doffing - Centenary Test 1976-77
The 1977 series was a tale of two cricketer's homecomings. Boycott was returning to the England team after three years of self-imposed exile; Derek Randall was returning to a hero's welcome after his exploits in Australia the previous winter. Boycott duly ran Randall out in front of his adoring public at Trent Bridge, but one Test later, Randall took the catch that won the Ashes and cartwheeled across the covers in celebration. The match that had won the nation's hearts, however, had occurred at Melbourne back in March, when Randall scored a wonderful, eccentric and hugely skillful 174. Muttering to himself constantly to maintain his concentration, he drove the Australians to distraction, not least Dennis Lillee, who clocked him on the forehead with a bouncer, only for Randall to spring back to his feet and doff his cap in appreciation. As he later admitted: "If he'd hit me anywhere else, it might have hurt!"
Trueman's 300th - The Oval 1964
"Fiery Fred" was the greatest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath - well, that's what he'd have you believe, at any rate. Still, it is hard to quibble with a career tally of 2304 first-class wickets - no genuinely quick bowler will ever surpass that - nor with a sleek, flowing, fear-of-God action that once reduced a terrified Indian Test team to 0 for 4. A suspicious England hierarchy meant he missed as many Tests as he played in his prime, so it was with much glee that, at the tail-end of the 1964 Ashes summer, Trueman galloped in to have Neil Hawke pouched at slip for his 300th Test wicket. He was the first player to reach the mark, and when asked if anyone would ever surpass him, his response was typical: "Aye, but whoever does will be bloody tired!"
Waugh's career-saving century - Sydney 2002-03
Excluding Don Bradman, one man has arguably become more synonymous with Ashes contests than any other. Steve Waugh, Australia's 21st century legend, scored 393 runs without being dismissed to lay down a definitive marker for the 1989 campaign; scored twin centuries at Old Trafford to shift the momentum of the 1997 series; and by the end of his career, he was the only Australian who could remember the pain of Ashes defeat. In 2002-03 he wore that experience like a purple heart to inspire himself through a terrible form slump. The fifth Test at Sydney was last-chance saloon - another failure, and his career would almost certainly be over. He didn't fail. As the nation held its breath and the local broadcaster held its evening news bulletin, Waugh drilled the final ball of the day through the covers, punched the air, and secured his immortality.
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