August 11, 2014

The deciders

With England's long series against India about to conclude at The Oval, we look at some other classic five-Test encounters that hinged on the final match
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England's players and fans celebrate the series win over South Africa in 1998 © Getty Images

Australia v England 1894-95
This was only the second five-match rubber (after 1884-85), and "the first great Test series", according to the title of David Frith's book. England won the first Test after following on, and the second by 94 runs - but Australia fought back with huge wins in Adelaide and Sydney, setting up a decider in Melbourne. Needing 297 to clinch the rubber, England were 28 for 2 before Yorkshireman Jack Brown hurtled to 50 in 28 minutes - and 100 in 95 - to steer his side to a 3-2 victory.

Australia v West Indies 1960-61
This series had it all: a tie, a win for both sides, and a thriller in which Australia's last pair survived for 100 minutes to stave off defeat. The rubber that revived Test cricket after a drab decade hinged on the final match, in Melbourne: Richie Benaud's Australians scraped home by two wickets to pilfer the series 2-1.

England v South Africa 1998
After a soggy draw and a conclusive win at Lord's, South Africa were denied another victory at Old Trafford by England's tail, with the last pair hanging on for 7.1 overs. England, spearheaded by Darren Gough and Angus Fraser, bounced back with victories at Trent Bridge and Headingley (by just 23 runs) to steal the rubber.

India v England 1984-85
When India won the first Test, some feared a repeat of the yawn-making 1981-82 series, when a first-up victory for India had been followed by five boring draws on shirtfront pitches. But England bounced back, winning the second Test, then taking the lead in the fourth in Madras, after double-centuries from Graeme Fowler and Mike Gatting, and 11 wickets from the persistent Neil Foster. Both sides batted long in the drawn final Test, leaving England 2-1 winners after coming from behind, something they repeated in 2012-13... and possibly will in 2014?

Australia v England 1936-37
Don Bradman's tenure as captain started with two defeats, as Australia were caught on two rain-affected pitches. He made a duck in both games, too. England must have been worried about the backlash... and it came in the form of 270 in Melbourne (Australia won by 365 runs), 212 in Adelaide (won by 148 runs) and 169 back in Melbourne (won by an innings and 200). This remains the only five-match series won by a team that had been 2-0 down.

England v West Indies 1963
After three Tests, Frank Worrell's star-studded West Indian side had won one (by ten wickets), drawn one (the thriller at Lord's, which went down to the last ball) and lost one (Fred Trueman taking 12 wickets). But they pulled away with convincing wins in the final two Tests, the menacing Charlie Griffith taking nine wickets in each of them.

India v West Indies 1974-75
After Clive Lloyd's new-look side took a 2-0 lead - Gordon Greenidge hit 93 and 107 on debut in Bangalore, and Viv Richards 192 not out in Delhi - few gave the home side much chance. But, shrewdly marshalled by MAK Pataudi, they hit back with two fine victories, before a double-century from Lloyd set up the Bombay triumph that gave his side the series 3-2.

Australia v South Africa 1952-53
The authorities were so worried about a mismatch that serious consideration was given to calling the tour off. Favourites Australia duly won the first Test, but South Africa hit back in the second, their offspinner Hugh Tayfield taking 13 wickets. Australia won the third by an innings, but after a draw in Adelaide the South Africans - hailed as the finest fielding side yet seen - held their nerve to win in Melbourne and draw the series.

India v Pakistan 1986-87
These two neighbours/rivals had previously contested two series in which all five matches were drawn, and a repeat looked on the cards after four high-scoring but inconclusive encounters. But the pitch for the final Test in Bangalore offered unpredictable turn and bounce: Pakistan were shot out for 116, then India managed only 145. A better batting effort from Imran Khan's side left India 221 to win. It looked impossible - but Sunil Gavaskar, in what turned out to be his final Test innings, made a superb 96 (the next-best were Extras, with 27, and Mohammad Azharuddin with 26). But after 320 minutes Gavaskar finally was out to Iqbal Qasim, and India fell just short: it was Pakistan's first series win in India.

Don Bradman bats in the nets ahead of the 1936-37 Ashes series © Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Australia v India 1977-78
In an entertaining series played concurrently with the first season of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket breakaway, a second- or third-string Australian side - led by 39-year-old Bob Simpson, returning ten years after his initial retirement - won the first two Tests, the second by two wickets after a century from their nightwatchman, Tony "Rocket" Mann. But India hit back, their spinners taking 18 wickets in victories in Melbourne and Sydney (Bhagwath Chandrasekhar alone grabbed a dozen at the MCG), to set up a grand finale in Adelaide. Needing a towering 493, India got tantalisingly close thanks to a fine team effort - the highest score was Mohinder Amarnath's 86 - but ended up 45 short as Australia stole the series 3-2.

England v Australia 2005
And finally, the series Wisden dubbed the greatest of all: the epic 2005 Ashes. Australia, after their then-customary win at Lord's, were within a whisker of going two up before England clinched that heart-stopping two-run victory at Edgbaston. Australia's last pair hung on for a draw at Old Trafford, then England squeaked ahead with another close-run thing - three wickets this time - at Trent Bridge. Australia had the upper hand at The Oval, but England held on, thanks to Kevin Pietersen's 158 and the weather (unusually, the rain inspired cheers from the home crowd), to take the series 2-1 and reclaim the Ashes after 16 long years.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2014. Ask Steven is now on Facebook

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • harshthakor on August 11, 2014, 4:19 GMT

    In the selections I particularly remember the classic series between India and Australia in 1977-78. India gained 2 spectacular wins by huge margins after being 2-0 down in tests which they came so close to winning.The final test was an epic where India almost acheived the highest winning 4th innings total.Above all the series was played in great spirit and was a victory for test cricket.The result could well have been 3-2 or 4-1 in India's favour with a bit of luck but that is cricket.

    I would also add the 1992-93 Frank Worrel trophy in Australia which the Calypsos clinched 2-1 at Perth after drawing level with a spectacular 1 run win in the 4th test at Adelaide.

    The 1960-61 series between West Indies and Australia was the greatest to me.Not only was the competitiveness classical but it was a victory for sportsmanship.Arguably 2-2 was the fairest result.

    Sadly today we hardly have 5 test series between top teams with South Africa and Australia contests being the best example.

  • Beertjie on August 13, 2014, 6:10 GMT

    England v South Africa 1955 featured a fifth test decider which England won by 90 runs thereby taking the rubber 3-2. At the time Tyson had blown Australia away so that was a good effort by SA.

  • on August 12, 2014, 13:38 GMT

    Probably I would have included the 1987 5-test match series between Pakistan and England. The first two tests were drawn because of rain, Pakistan won the Leeds test by an innings and the fourth test was very exciting as England needed around 118 of the final 18 overs. England managed only 107 for 7 and the match was drawn. They tried hard but Imran and Wasim Akram bowled 9 overs each to save the match. The final match was played at Oval where Pakistan batted first and made a mammoth 708 runs and batted for almost 3 days. England were followed on. Gatting and Botham batted on the last day to salvage a draw. Saleem Malik dropped Botham's catch in the slip other wise it would have been2/0 series win. It was hard fought series for both teams.

  • on August 12, 2014, 2:19 GMT

    Australia-India from 77 should not count - it was against a B string or even Shoe string Australia side. Those two victories are no more significant than winning practice matches against regional teams. Meanwhile the 3 losses are each worth two losses or more.

  • Jonathan_E on August 12, 2014, 0:59 GMT

    Gary Shea - You say "if it wasn't for the rain, Australia would have won at the Oval in 2005"

    I say, Australia would have had to make nearly 350 batting last. Far from conclusive, few sides have chased a score that big, at best the odds would have been 50-50 of them making it.

    But if you insist that rain prevented an Australian win at the Oval... several hours were lost to rain at Old Trafford too, in which Australia finished by hanging on for the last four overs with one wicket left and their side a mile behind. Had those missing hours been available, England would surely have taken the final Australian wicket. So if the rain had an effect on the series, it was at best neutral, preventing a certain England win at Old Trafford and a 50-50 possible Australian win at the Oval.

    Admittedly, Shane Warne catching instead of dropping Pietersen at The Oval would have probably given Australia the game, and drawn the series, but that wasn't due to the rain...

  • Pelham_Barton on August 11, 2014, 15:46 GMT

    @Baddabing on (August 11, 2014, 14:18 GMT): As well as West Indies v New Zealand in 1971-72, there were also 5 draws out of 5 in the following series: Pakistan v India in 1954-55, India v Pakistan in 1960-61, India v England in 1963-64.

  • Baddabing on August 11, 2014, 14:18 GMT

    I can see why the NZ vs WI series in 1971-72 is not mentioned - the only 5 match series in history where all 5 matches finished in draws, played over 10 weeks and overall a big yawn, but the final match in Trinidad was also the decider, as was the custom back then an extra day was added to the final match and at the beginning of the final day either team winning the series or a draw were still possible. NZ held out for a marathon 155 overs in their chase but it was only a couple of tailenders who batted out the final session, the result of the series literally going down to the final over. Another I would like to mention was the 1970-71 Ashes, actually a 6 match series with Australia beginning the final day needing 100 runs to save the Ashes with 5 wickets in hand

  • on August 11, 2014, 13:43 GMT

    How can u say England against Australia in the 2005 Ashes series rated as the greatest ever ! U gotta be joking ! They (England ) were the most luckiest team ever in that series , not kidding here , Australia was very unlucky in that series , so thanks to the rain to got them home , if it wasn't for the rain , Australia would had won the game easy ! Warnie drop KP a sitter at slips twice , went on to make a 100 ,another lucky thing they got . They're rated as the greatest luckiest team ever !

  • heathrf1974 on August 11, 2014, 12:42 GMT

    There was also 1992/93 Australia V West Indies series won by the WI 2-1 which saw the introduction of the world to the talents of Brian Lara and the loss of the opportunity for Allan Border to finally defeat the West Indies in a test series.

  • 4test90 on August 11, 2014, 12:26 GMT

    Surprised that the 1992/3 Aust/WI series is not here. WI won the 4th Test by 1 run and in the 5th Curtly Ambrose took 7/1 as WI retained their #1 ranking. They have has plenty of time to enjoy it though - they haven't beaten Australia since - either home or away !!i

  • harshthakor on August 11, 2014, 4:19 GMT

    In the selections I particularly remember the classic series between India and Australia in 1977-78. India gained 2 spectacular wins by huge margins after being 2-0 down in tests which they came so close to winning.The final test was an epic where India almost acheived the highest winning 4th innings total.Above all the series was played in great spirit and was a victory for test cricket.The result could well have been 3-2 or 4-1 in India's favour with a bit of luck but that is cricket.

    I would also add the 1992-93 Frank Worrel trophy in Australia which the Calypsos clinched 2-1 at Perth after drawing level with a spectacular 1 run win in the 4th test at Adelaide.

    The 1960-61 series between West Indies and Australia was the greatest to me.Not only was the competitiveness classical but it was a victory for sportsmanship.Arguably 2-2 was the fairest result.

    Sadly today we hardly have 5 test series between top teams with South Africa and Australia contests being the best example.

  • Beertjie on August 13, 2014, 6:10 GMT

    England v South Africa 1955 featured a fifth test decider which England won by 90 runs thereby taking the rubber 3-2. At the time Tyson had blown Australia away so that was a good effort by SA.

  • on August 12, 2014, 13:38 GMT

    Probably I would have included the 1987 5-test match series between Pakistan and England. The first two tests were drawn because of rain, Pakistan won the Leeds test by an innings and the fourth test was very exciting as England needed around 118 of the final 18 overs. England managed only 107 for 7 and the match was drawn. They tried hard but Imran and Wasim Akram bowled 9 overs each to save the match. The final match was played at Oval where Pakistan batted first and made a mammoth 708 runs and batted for almost 3 days. England were followed on. Gatting and Botham batted on the last day to salvage a draw. Saleem Malik dropped Botham's catch in the slip other wise it would have been2/0 series win. It was hard fought series for both teams.

  • on August 12, 2014, 2:19 GMT

    Australia-India from 77 should not count - it was against a B string or even Shoe string Australia side. Those two victories are no more significant than winning practice matches against regional teams. Meanwhile the 3 losses are each worth two losses or more.

  • Jonathan_E on August 12, 2014, 0:59 GMT

    Gary Shea - You say "if it wasn't for the rain, Australia would have won at the Oval in 2005"

    I say, Australia would have had to make nearly 350 batting last. Far from conclusive, few sides have chased a score that big, at best the odds would have been 50-50 of them making it.

    But if you insist that rain prevented an Australian win at the Oval... several hours were lost to rain at Old Trafford too, in which Australia finished by hanging on for the last four overs with one wicket left and their side a mile behind. Had those missing hours been available, England would surely have taken the final Australian wicket. So if the rain had an effect on the series, it was at best neutral, preventing a certain England win at Old Trafford and a 50-50 possible Australian win at the Oval.

    Admittedly, Shane Warne catching instead of dropping Pietersen at The Oval would have probably given Australia the game, and drawn the series, but that wasn't due to the rain...

  • Pelham_Barton on August 11, 2014, 15:46 GMT

    @Baddabing on (August 11, 2014, 14:18 GMT): As well as West Indies v New Zealand in 1971-72, there were also 5 draws out of 5 in the following series: Pakistan v India in 1954-55, India v Pakistan in 1960-61, India v England in 1963-64.

  • Baddabing on August 11, 2014, 14:18 GMT

    I can see why the NZ vs WI series in 1971-72 is not mentioned - the only 5 match series in history where all 5 matches finished in draws, played over 10 weeks and overall a big yawn, but the final match in Trinidad was also the decider, as was the custom back then an extra day was added to the final match and at the beginning of the final day either team winning the series or a draw were still possible. NZ held out for a marathon 155 overs in their chase but it was only a couple of tailenders who batted out the final session, the result of the series literally going down to the final over. Another I would like to mention was the 1970-71 Ashes, actually a 6 match series with Australia beginning the final day needing 100 runs to save the Ashes with 5 wickets in hand

  • on August 11, 2014, 13:43 GMT

    How can u say England against Australia in the 2005 Ashes series rated as the greatest ever ! U gotta be joking ! They (England ) were the most luckiest team ever in that series , not kidding here , Australia was very unlucky in that series , so thanks to the rain to got them home , if it wasn't for the rain , Australia would had won the game easy ! Warnie drop KP a sitter at slips twice , went on to make a 100 ,another lucky thing they got . They're rated as the greatest luckiest team ever !

  • heathrf1974 on August 11, 2014, 12:42 GMT

    There was also 1992/93 Australia V West Indies series won by the WI 2-1 which saw the introduction of the world to the talents of Brian Lara and the loss of the opportunity for Allan Border to finally defeat the West Indies in a test series.

  • 4test90 on August 11, 2014, 12:26 GMT

    Surprised that the 1992/3 Aust/WI series is not here. WI won the 4th Test by 1 run and in the 5th Curtly Ambrose took 7/1 as WI retained their #1 ranking. They have has plenty of time to enjoy it though - they haven't beaten Australia since - either home or away !!i

  • on August 11, 2014, 12:06 GMT

    What's interesting here is that New Zealand does not feature at all. The last time they played in a five test match series was when they toured the West Indies in 1972 - an amazing 42 years ago, when you consider their greatest decade in the 1980's only saw them at best gain a four test match series (in England, 1983, in the West Indies in 1985). Will they ever be given another chance at a five Test match series again?

  • Deuce03 on August 11, 2014, 11:59 GMT

    Though the 2009 Ashes were lower-quality than the 2005 ones, and didn't have the 18-year baggage, they were hardly less excitling. England clinging on by their fingernails at Cardiff, blowing Australia away at Lord's, Australia getting revenge at Headingley, then KP's injury before the decider at the Oval and England pulling it off anyway, with Bell returning and Trott on debut. Admittedly, the Edgbaston match was a bit dull.

    (And in the aftermath, unlike the 2005 victory which was the peak from which that team collapsed, England went on the rampage after 2009, not losing another series until 2012 and rising to world #1, not that that was apparent at the time of course.)

  • on August 11, 2014, 11:39 GMT

    Australia v India 1977-78 The Umpires in that series set such a low standard that once when an Australian batsma was bowled by B S Chandrasekar he asked the umpire 'He is bowled but is he out". India were the winners but not in records which only talk now. The series was instrumental in starting a discussion for neutral Umpires.

  • kentjones on August 11, 2014, 11:30 GMT

    @harshthakor. In full agreement with your view here on this 1977 series. The cricket was of the highest level and the players on both sides of exceptional calibre. In the decade of the late 70s and 80s, this Pakistani side has often been rated as one of the best ever by knowledgeable aficionados of the game, only being edged out by the great WI side by the merest whisker. It is the view of many that in the absence of the WI, Pakistan would have ruled the game in this period and could have been favourably compared to the great Aussie and WI teams.

  • siddhartha87 on August 11, 2014, 9:48 GMT

    ashes 2005 greatest of all time. England dropped Thorpe for KP and rest is history. And yes the "Strauss ball" by Warne

  • on August 11, 2014, 9:25 GMT

    1991 - Eng beat WI to make it 2-2. Tufnell 6 wickets. 1992 - Pak beat Eng to make it 2-1.

  • Escremier on August 11, 2014, 7:58 GMT

    Perhaps the relatively short list of series where the outcome depends on the result of the final test is one reason that there are so few 5 test series these days.

    electric_loco_WAP4: if you read the heading you will find that the article is about series where the result is in the balance until the final test! Surely you can work out that at 4-0 the series has been decided so the last test is irrelevant to the outcome?

  • on August 11, 2014, 7:32 GMT

    England - Australia OVAL 1968 ??? Momentous Test for South Africa

  • on August 11, 2014, 7:31 GMT

    @electric_loco_WAP4: The title says deciders, not dead rubbers as the last match of the series

  • mudd on August 11, 2014, 7:24 GMT

    if it is not only 5tests... every test cricket fan should remember Lara's heroics against Full strength Australian team, where Walsh survived to support Lara to record famous comeback series wins, this takes him apart from the lot.

  • electric_loco_WAP4 on August 11, 2014, 6:47 GMT

    Where's the Ashes of 2013-14 ?Aus5-0 Eng.The Johnson's Ashes as it is now known.

  • enlightenedone on August 11, 2014, 6:21 GMT

    @rajarshi sengupta- did you read this article? because it clearly states that it is for five test series. the india vs australia series was 3 tests was it not?

  • landl47 on August 11, 2014, 6:14 GMT

    @Rajarshi: Since India v. Australia 2001 was a 3-match series, it doesn't qualify as one of the best 5-match series, though it was a good series.

  • landl47 on August 11, 2014, 6:06 GMT

    Let's not forget the Ashes series of 2009. Anderson and Panesar hung on for a draw in Cardiff, before England beat Australia at Lord's for the first time in 75 years. A high-scoring draw was followed by a convincing Australian win with the series being levelled at 1-1 going into the last test. England won that game to take the series 2-1.

    KP suffered an achilles injury in the second test and played little part in the series, but Jonathan Trott made his debut in the 5th test and scored a century.

  • on August 11, 2014, 5:40 GMT

    I would have had the 2001 India Australia series up there. Australia went 1-0 ahead and looked set for 2-0 in Kolkata when a combination of Laxman, Dravid and Harbhajan pulled the test back and then India went on to take the match and series in Chennai. I would also include the 1977 WI vs Pakistan test series which was probably a quasi World Championship series.

  • harshthakor on August 11, 2014, 4:09 GMT

    One test series forgotten is the 1977 series between West Indies and Pakistan .It was one of the hardest fought contests ever in a 5 test series reminding you of an enthralling boxing bout of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.The sides were evenly matched and in the 1st test Pakistan all but pulled of famous win with the last wicket West Indian pair hanging on.14 runs ahead in the 1st innings Pakistan were precariously placed at 158-9 before a 133 run 10th wicket partnership between Wasim Raja and Wasim Bari.Chasing a target of 306 runs the Calypsos crashed to 217-8 and then 254-9..The West Indies won the 2nd test at Trinidad ,the 3rd test at Georgetown was drawn after Pakistan were 250 runs in arrears in the 1st innings and Mushtaq Muhammad's heroics enabled Pakistan to draw level at Trinidad in the 4th test.The series was decided at Kingston which the Calypsos won by 140 runs to clinch the series 2-1.

    It exhibited batting and bowling at it's very best and competitiveness at its zenith.

  • on August 11, 2014, 3:59 GMT

    very interesting article. the 2005 england ashes victory was the best for me because i followed it [from america] every single ball. the one i read about that interested me was the bradman come from behind in th 30's.

  • on August 11, 2014, 3:59 GMT

    very interesting article. the 2005 england ashes victory was the best for me because i followed it [from america] every single ball. the one i read about that interested me was the bradman come from behind in th 30's.

  • harshthakor on August 11, 2014, 4:09 GMT

    One test series forgotten is the 1977 series between West Indies and Pakistan .It was one of the hardest fought contests ever in a 5 test series reminding you of an enthralling boxing bout of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.The sides were evenly matched and in the 1st test Pakistan all but pulled of famous win with the last wicket West Indian pair hanging on.14 runs ahead in the 1st innings Pakistan were precariously placed at 158-9 before a 133 run 10th wicket partnership between Wasim Raja and Wasim Bari.Chasing a target of 306 runs the Calypsos crashed to 217-8 and then 254-9..The West Indies won the 2nd test at Trinidad ,the 3rd test at Georgetown was drawn after Pakistan were 250 runs in arrears in the 1st innings and Mushtaq Muhammad's heroics enabled Pakistan to draw level at Trinidad in the 4th test.The series was decided at Kingston which the Calypsos won by 140 runs to clinch the series 2-1.

    It exhibited batting and bowling at it's very best and competitiveness at its zenith.

  • on August 11, 2014, 5:40 GMT

    I would have had the 2001 India Australia series up there. Australia went 1-0 ahead and looked set for 2-0 in Kolkata when a combination of Laxman, Dravid and Harbhajan pulled the test back and then India went on to take the match and series in Chennai. I would also include the 1977 WI vs Pakistan test series which was probably a quasi World Championship series.

  • landl47 on August 11, 2014, 6:06 GMT

    Let's not forget the Ashes series of 2009. Anderson and Panesar hung on for a draw in Cardiff, before England beat Australia at Lord's for the first time in 75 years. A high-scoring draw was followed by a convincing Australian win with the series being levelled at 1-1 going into the last test. England won that game to take the series 2-1.

    KP suffered an achilles injury in the second test and played little part in the series, but Jonathan Trott made his debut in the 5th test and scored a century.

  • landl47 on August 11, 2014, 6:14 GMT

    @Rajarshi: Since India v. Australia 2001 was a 3-match series, it doesn't qualify as one of the best 5-match series, though it was a good series.

  • enlightenedone on August 11, 2014, 6:21 GMT

    @rajarshi sengupta- did you read this article? because it clearly states that it is for five test series. the india vs australia series was 3 tests was it not?

  • electric_loco_WAP4 on August 11, 2014, 6:47 GMT

    Where's the Ashes of 2013-14 ?Aus5-0 Eng.The Johnson's Ashes as it is now known.

  • mudd on August 11, 2014, 7:24 GMT

    if it is not only 5tests... every test cricket fan should remember Lara's heroics against Full strength Australian team, where Walsh survived to support Lara to record famous comeback series wins, this takes him apart from the lot.

  • on August 11, 2014, 7:31 GMT

    @electric_loco_WAP4: The title says deciders, not dead rubbers as the last match of the series

  • on August 11, 2014, 7:32 GMT

    England - Australia OVAL 1968 ??? Momentous Test for South Africa