April 29, 2013

Who'd have thunk it?

Some Test series that didn't end up quite as they were expected to

England v Australia, 1882
Perhaps it's pushing it a bit to call this one-off Test a series, but then again it did spawn the greatest ongoing sporting soap opera of them all - the Ashes. England were considered - in England at least - to be far too strong for the upstart Australians: it was generally thought to be inconceivable that the full might of the mother country could be beaten at home. And when England went in at The Oval needing only 85 to win, the normal order of things seemed likely to continue. But with the "Demon" Spofforth on top form - he ended up with 7 for 44, making for match figures of 14 for 90 - England, after being 66 for 4, were skittled for 77. During the tense climax one spectator died of heart failure, and another apparently chewed through the handle of his umbrella. And afterwards someone wrote a mock obituary of English cricket and joked that the ashes would be taken to Australia.

Australia v England, 1936-37
It wasn't quite how Don Bradman had envisaged his first stab at captaincy: two Tests, two ducks, two defeats. Australia had suffered with the weather, in those days of uncovered pitches, and the Don set about rectifying the situation: he scored 270 in the third Test, 212 in the fourth, and 169 in the fifth. Australia won all three matches, becoming the first (and still only) team to win a Test series after being 2-0 down.

England v Pakistan, 1954
An innings victory in the second Test persuaded the home selectors they could afford to extemporise for the fourth and final match of Pakistan's first tour of England. An experimental team was chosen, with more than half an eye on the upcoming Ashes tour. The Oval served up a pitch ideal for Alec Bedser... only, Bedser was one of those being given a rest. Fazal Mahmood, Pakistan's Bedserish seamer, took full advantage with 12 wickets for 99, and England slid to an embarrassing defeat, which gave the newcomers a share of the series.

Australia v England, 1958-59
Apart from the odd blip (like the Pakistan series mentioned above) England ruled the roost during the 1950s, winning Ashes series in 1953, 1954-55 and 1956. By the time of the next Ashes encounter, England had walloped West Indies and New Zealand at home (and whitewashed India 5-0 in 1959). A team packed with legendary names - May, Cowdrey, Bailey, Graveney, Evans, Laker, Lock, Trueman, Statham - journeyed Down Under... and Australia, under a new captain in Richie Benaud, won 4-0.

West Indies v England, 1973-74
Had this been a boxing match, it would probably have been stopped by the referee after the third round - West Indies won the first Test by seven wickets, and were so on top that they had reeled off successive first-innings leads of 261, 230 and 201. The fourth Test was a rain-affected draw - and then England somehow squared the series with a narrow victory in the final Test, in which Geoff Boycott made 99 and 112, and Tony Greig took 13 wickets with brisk offcutters.

New Zealand v West Indies, 1979-80
Hardened by their experience in Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, West Indies had just walloped Australia - but the trip across the Tasman seemed to scramble the wiring. Set 104 to win the first Test, New Zealand crept over the line when the No. 11 padded away a leg-bye, and an already fractious series got worse from there. The West Indians threatened to go home more than once, Colin Croft barged into an umpire, and even the usually aloof Michael Holding kicked a stump out of the ground after an appeal was denied. Two draws gave New Zealand their first-ever series victory at home, 50 years after their first one.

Sri Lanka v India, 1985-86
Four and a half years after their baptism Sri Lanka still hadn't won a Test, and India - with the bulk of their 1983 World Cup-winning side still on board - were expected to prolong that record. But the Sri Lankans pulled off a decisive victory in the second Test, and held on calmly in the third to add a maiden series victory too.

England v South Africa, 1998
After a big victory at Lord's, South Africa seemed to be sailing home in the third Test, at Old Trafford when England followed on 369 behind. A valiant 164 from Alec Stewart staved off embarrassment, then the tail somehow hung on to force a draw (the scores ended up level, although England lost 19 wickets to South Africa's five). The tide had turned: England did well to win at Trent Bridge, then Darren Gough and Angus Fraser shared 17 wickets in a series-clinching victory at Headingley.

Pakistan v Zimbabwe, 1998-99
A stunning Pakistan collapse in the first Test in Peshawar - Henry Olonga took four wickets and Pommie Mbangwa three - handed Zimbabwe their maiden Test victory, at their 15th attempt, in six years of trying. Home hopes of a comeback were stymied by heavy fog, which affected each day of the second Test and caused the third one to be abandoned entirely.

India v Australia, 2000-01
It looked like business as usual as the Australian "mean machine" swatted India aside by ten wickets in Mumbai, for a record 16th successive Test victory. A 17th looked a formality when India followed on 274 behind in the second Test, in Kolkata. But VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid had other ideas, batting for more than 100 overs and adding 376 runs. As every Indian schoolboy knows, Laxman made 281 and Dravid 180 - and India finished up 383 in front. In the end it wasn't even close: Harbhajan Singh took six wickets (making 13 in the match) as Australia were all out for 212. And Harbhajan was at it again in the third Test, in Chennai, taking 15 wickets and hitting the series-winning runs as India (155 for 8) made heavy weather of their chase.

India v England, 2012-13
India winning the first Test of a home series is usually curtains for their opponents: prior to 2012, only David Gower's England team, in 1984-85, had come from behind to win a series there. In 1981-82, India's first-Test win was the signal for five bland pitches - and five bland draws, as a boring six-Test series was secured 1-0. So it was ominous for Alastair Cook when India won in Ahmedabad. But in a stunning turnaround, Cook led from the front with centuries as England won comfortably in Mumbai and Kolkata, then held on in the fourth Test, in Nagpur, for the draw that clinched the series. For once England's spinners outbowled India's on helpful surfaces: Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar took 37 wickets between them, at a combined average of 25.70, compared to 34 at 39.82 by Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013