August 6, 2009

Settling the Ashes

Eleven factors that have been crucial in cricket's premier contest down the years

A world-class allrounder has often tipped the balance, enabling a team of 11 to seem like 12 - and they tend to be larger than life. The controversial Warwick Armstrong scored runs, then took wickets with miserly legspin, gave England their first 5-0 thrashing in 1920-21, and fielded on the boundary reading a paper when it all got too easy. Keith Miller was adored for his quick bowling, dashing batting, flowing mane and nightlife. Ian Botham's record against Australia matches the turbulence of his tabloid tales. And 2005 was all about Andrew Flintoff's cricket and a bus ride.

Pace, pace and more pace
From the moment of the Ashes' birth, when WG Grace so angered Fred "The Demon" Spofforth that he smashed through England's batting to win the 1882 Oval Test by seven runs - provoking the Sporting Times' mock obituary of English cricket - to Bodyline, Frank "Typhoon" Tyson, John Snow, Lillee and Thomson via Gregory and McDonald in 1921 good, dangerous quick bowling has provided bruises, controversy, complaints and victories - and huge box-office receipts.

Refusal to play for them
England have retained the Ashes by not playing for them. This was not strictly the case in 1882-83, when they were first up for grabs in a three-match series. England's captain Ivo Bligh, having won them 2-1, agreed to an extra match, a sort of beer Test, which they lost. In 1978-79, England, under Mike Brearley, thrashed a Packer-weakened Australian side 5-1, and the following winter toured Australia again but refused to compete for the Ashes due to the "exceptional and experimental nature" of a three-Test series. A vengeful and full-strength Australia won 3-0.

After both world wars England took the best part of a decade to recover full strength. In the Great War a generation of young men was wiped out and those left were shattered mentally and physically. But the Cricketer's editor Plum Warner blamed the lack of practice, not the loss of talented players. The Australians even felt sorry for England in the 1924-25 series. After the second war England not only faced a brilliant Australian side, but again had to cope with the loss of key players and national exhaustion from the war effort. England did not win the Ashes again until 1953.

Pure class
Sometimes one team is just so much better than the other. Usually it has been Australia outplaying England - see 1948 (The Invincibles), 1974-75 (Lillee and Thomson), 1989 (Border's revenge), 2001 (Waugh's finest side). Once in a while England are better all round. This was the case for much of the 1950s - 1956 in particular, regardless of Jim Laker's heroics - and 1985. But Australia do not like to be underdogs for too long and have a habit of producing a new generation of high-class cricketers.

Dropped catches
Some dropped catches just stick out. Back in 1902, Fred Tate dropped Australia's captain, Joe Darling, at Old Trafford, a crucial partnership ensued and England fell four runs short in their run-chase - Tate last man out. Keith Fletcher missed a plethora of chances, costing the Ashes on his debut at Headingley in 1968, Graham Thorpe shelled Matthew Elliott early at Headingley in 1997. Then there was Shane Warne dropping Pietersen at The Oval in 2005 and Ashley Giles sparing Ricky Ponting in Adelaide in 2006-07. These were setbacks from which the butterfingered side never recovered.

The Don gave Australia many wins, and also attracted the tactics that cost the series in 1932-33. His run-scoring in 1930 (974 runs at 139.14) led Douglas Jardine to develop his leg-theory tactics - picking a line of attack at the body and heart. The tactics spilled over to the other players, and after controversy, near-riots in Adelaide and a potential diplomatic breakdown, Jardine took the Ashes home 4-1. The tactics were morally outlawed and Bradman continued to feast on English bowling, winning all the remaining series in which he played.

England were the best team in the world when they travelled to Australia in 1958-59, led by Peter May - so good they did not need nets, preferring to play golf. In the few practice sessions they did have, Bill Bowes records in the Cricketer that "it was not unusual to see [Fred] Trueman bowling left-hand, [Peter] Loader trying legbreaks and Tyson offspinners". England lost 0-4. In 1989, England had won the previous two series and Australia had a team of unknowns. Written off, Allan Border got nasty and Terry Alderman got Graham Gooch lbw. England picked 29 players and lost 0-4 again.

From the very first Test in 1877, when Dave Gregory got the nod ahead of a colonial Victorian called Bransby Beauchamp Cooper, Australia's captains have tended to have an uncompromising toughness. This earthy leadership has driven many series - from Armstrong's ruthlessness to Border's unforgiving brutality and Waugh's shrewd motivation. But it is England captains' tactics that have a knack of deciding series. Jardine conceived Bodyline, Ray Illingworth out-thought Australia in 1970-71, Mike Brearley inspired 11 wins in 18 Tests against Australia, and in 2005 Michael Vaughan was ahead of Ricky Ponting at every turn.

The home side may sneak an advantage with a bespoke pitch: Australia used to frighten tourists by playing them first in Perth, the quickest pitch in the world. Now they do it in Brisbane. Australians still moan about the state of the pitch at Old Trafford in 1956. Melbourne was surprisingly slow in 1932-33, with Jardine's Bodyline attack lining up: the only Test England lost. In 1972, England retained the Ashes at Headingley thanks to 10 wickets from Derek Underwood. The "fusarium" fungus had conveniently attacked the pitch, killing the grass and producing a perfect "Deadly" turner.

Generally one team or the other has had the upper hand in the spin department. Through the 1920s and thirties Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly bamboozled England; in the fifties Jim Laker set unbreakable records. Richie Benaud bowled England out in an afternoon in 1961 to retain the Ashes, and Underwood, given the correct conditions, was unplayable as England's last great spinner. Then came Shane Warne.

Edward Craig is deputy editor of the Wisden Cricketer, where this article first appeared. Subscribe here