Tim de Lisle
The best skyline in English cricket is the one you see from the top of The Oval pavilion, encompassing the gasometer, Big Ben, the incongruous gaudiness of the M15 headquarters, and, on a clear day, half of London. In 1997, there was an extra attraction: "The World's First Tethered Balloon Ride", in the Harleyford Road. Every so often, a hot-air balloon would rise behind the sightscreen at the Vauxhall End, dangle for a few minutes, and return to earth.
It could have been put there to represent England's summer. They started so commandingly, in the one-day internationals and the First Test, that the nation became more excited about the team's performance than it had been at any time since Kingston 1989-90, arguably since Headingley 1981. But the Australians, undisputed world champions for the first time in many years, dug deep into their reserves of skill and will power. After having the better of a rainy stalemate at Lord's, they needed only three Test matches to draw level, pull ahead, and then secure both the Ashes and the series. At The Oval, England finished as they had begun, with a pulsating victory. It was too late. The balloon had been tethered all along.
Of all the possible scorelines, 3-2 was the one most likely to satisfy both sides. For Australia, it was a third major victory in nine months, following the series against West Indies and South Africa, and a fifth consecutive series win over England - a sequence they had never achieved in 115 years of the Ashes. And they had overcome, if not the odds, then a powerful conspiracy of circumstances.
Their captain, Mark Taylor, was so out of form that he dropped himself from the one-day team for the second time in two months. Their administrators allowed them only nine days' play against the counties before the First Test, about half as much as in 1993 (17 days). Their acclimatisation was made harder still by the climate: if it was not actually raining, it was grey and dank. They were tired: leading players such as Ian Healy and the Waugh brothers had flown 70,000 miles since October 1996. And for once, steps were taken - unofficially, but unmistakably - to fix the pitches in England's favour. Only one Test out of six was played on a flat track. Taylor was disappointed to miss out on the 4-1 victory that looked certain the night before the series ended; but given all of this, he would have settled for a victory of any kind.
For England, 2-3 was less than they had dreamed of after going 1-0 up, but more than they had had any right to expect in advance. In the 28 months since the teams had last met, Australia had beaten West Indies away and home, as well as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Africa. They had discovered one great fast bowler (Glenn McGrath), and possibly a second (Jason Gillespie). England had drawn with West Indies and Zimbabwe and lost to Pakistan and South Africa; their only victories had come over India, at home, and New Zealand, away. They had discovered a very good medium-fast bowler, Dominic Cork, but had already lost him to injury (a scenario that was to replay itself in this series, first with the reborn Darren Gough, then with Dean Headley). If there were two divisions in Test cricket, England would be in the lower one, as the Wisden World Championship shows.
The Ashes remain freighted with history and resonance, but in the 1990s their most fervent admirer could not describe them as a clash of the giants. Australia had won the previous four series with cruel ease: 4-0, 3-0, 4-1 and 3-1. In the context of 17-4, 3-2 wasn't bad. And although the victory was convincing, it was never insulting. Steve Waugh, the only member of the touring side who had experienced an Ashes defeat, noticed the difference at Trent Bridge, when the clock threatened to turn all the way back to 1989: flat pitch, Australia win toss, 302 for three at the close. Next morning, instead of supinely ushering them to 600, England bowled them out for 427. "That was the best England played in the whole series," Waugh said. "I don't think they would have done that on the two previous tours."
There were two critical differences between the sides. The first, as widely predicted, was the Australian bowlers - though, as not predicted at all, it was the bowlers' batting that really stood out. In McGrath and Shane Warne, Australia had far and away the best bowlers, yet the two top orders performed identically - each team's first five wickets raised, on average, 186 runs. The second half of the order was another story: England's remaining wickets added an average of 60, Australia's 117.
Behind the figures lay a deeper truth. These tail-end runs, always worth double in the currency of the mind, were largely scored by Ian Healy, Warne and Paul Reiffel - three senior players with battle-hardened temperaments. There was a gulf between the sides not just in talent and success, but in experience and self-belief. Australia had five players with more than 50 Tests behind them - Taylor, Healy, the Waughs and Warne. England had two - Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart. Atherton was targeted, with chilling efficiency, by McGrath, who dismissed him seven times out of 11. Stewart was a victim of friendly fire: asked to keep wicket as well as go in at No. 3, he batted, as he always had done in this situation against good teams, like a mere wicket-keeper. By the end of the series, he had played 19 Ashes Tests without once making a century. Of the five 50-cap Australians, only Mark Waugh failed to make a telling contribution. (This may have been nemesis: Waugh was the man who had written England off in a magazine article as lacking the toughness or the hunger required to win Test series.) It was less a black mark against Atherton and Stewart than a sign of a team at a different stage of its development. England were at the point where Australia, under Allan Border, had been nine years earlier: inching towards respectability.
As entertainment, the series was all the better for not being played on what are conventionally termed good pitches. Both England's victories were famous ones; all three of Australia's displayed the attacking flair that had propelled them to the top of the world. Even the one drawn Test, shrunk by the rain to a fraction over two days' play, was riveting: not until the final session did a result become impossible. If lost time was a recurring motif, the way the teams played made up for it. Spanning only 1,750 overs, or 20 full days, the series was short, but near-perfectly formed.
And packed with sub-plots. Uneasy lay the heads that wore the crown: the series began with Taylor under intense pressure to resign, and ended with Atherton under intense pressure to resign. (Neither did.) And there was a whole dynasty of prodigal sons. Devon Malcolm was welcomed back, and played in both England's victories: but he kept bowling fast and well without reward and was dropped for the middle two Tests. Phil Tufnell had the surely unprecedented experience of being 12th or 13th man for five Tests and the match-winner in the Sixth (no wonder that end-of-season drugs test slipped his mind - it must still have been boggling). Mark Ramprakash earned his umpteenth recall at The Oval, did his familiar impression of a frightened horse, came in again with England in effect 12 for four, and coolly helped Graham Thorpe compile the partnership of the match (79). Andy Caddick, who had made his debut in 1993 and finished that series with five wickets from four Tests, took five on the first day this time, and 24 in all: why he didn't play in the pivotal Fourth Test, only the selectors knew. As McGrath was to Atherton, so Caddick was to Steve Waugh, dismissing him five times in nine innings.
Michael Slater, the swashbuckling opener who had been a huge influence in 1993, was yet another player summoned from the wilderness. He appeared in a couple of one-day internationals, in the middle order, and was not seen again. He went home without a single first-class fifty to his name. Almost as wretched was Michael Bevan, Australia's Man of the Series in the Texaco Trophy, who was picked as a Test all-rounder, but managed only 43 runs and two wickets, one of which was a freak - a leg-side full toss to Mark Butcher, which the irrepressible Healy somehow finessed into a stumping.
The summer began, as it ended, with a bang. England, the underdogs, won the one-day series 3-0. On a green pitch at Headingley, chasing 171, they slithered to 40 for four. Thorpe, who was used to this sort of thing, was joined by Adam Hollioake, who was not: in both his previous one-day internationals, Hollioake had come in at No. 7 in a non-crisis. He was at sea against Warne, and made only seven from his first 25 balls. But he battled through and eventually took command, adding another 59 at a run a ball and stealing the match award from Thorpe. England's confidence grew and in the second match at The Oval Hollioake did it again, in less testing conditions, making an undefeated 53 as Atherton completed only his second one-day international hundred. At Lord's the next day, England were cocky enough to give Ben Hollioake, straight out of the Under-19s, a senior debut, and put him in at No. 3; Australia were worried enough to leave out Taylor, who had twice failed. Ben Hollioake made a breezily brilliant 63 in 48 balls, and England won in style. Atherton, often discounted as a one-day player, competed a magnificent set: Texaco Trophy victories over all the other six nations who had been permitted to take part.
The one-day game is far from Test cricket, as both teams were soon to acknowledge by openly mooting separate captains for the two. But sometimes one game can colour the other. England were now on a roll, and so were their supporters, who gathered in front of the Lord's pavilion to borrow the football team's theme tune and sing "Ashes Coming Home". To watch video footage of the First Test at Edgbaston is to hear a strange sound: a steady roar, like a motorway. "No Test crowd had had a better effect on England since Edgbaston 1981," wrote Scyld Berry. The first ball set the tone: Gough, acutely aware of past failures in this department, ordered himself to put it on the spot, Taylor played and missed, and the crowd oohed. Australia, so often dominant on the first day of an Ashes series, staggered to 54 for eight. When Warne rallied them with a fearless 47, it was a hint of things to come. When England in turn were 50 for three, it looked like the old, old story. But Thorpe, again, and Nasser Hussain hauled their team to supremacy. By the close of an unforgettable day, they were already 82 runs ahead.
Hussain went all the way to 207, the innings of his life, and his team's: no member of his England generation had reached 200 in a Test before. Australia fought back, with hundreds from Taylor, on the very brink of oblivion, and Greg Blewett. But England had only to hold their nerve, and the bowlers did so. Needing 118 - roughly the score that would prove beyond Australia at The Oval - England knocked them off in 21.3 overs on a sunlit Sunday evening. Atherton played more shots than he had in his one-day hundred. Euphoria became cause as well as effect: by his own admission, he and Stewart were carried along on the crowd's adrenalin.
Next day, while England basked in their first Ashes lead since 1986-87, one central figure went back on to the deserted stage. McGrath had taken two for 149 in the match, bowling persistently short and wide. Out on the Edgbaston square, Taylor and Geoff Marsh, the coach, drilled into him the difference between an Australian length and an English one. Next time he smelt the blood of an Englishman, he finished with eight for 38. A quick bowler is one thing, a quick learner quite another.
McGrath was helped by the arrival of Reiffel, the parsimonious veteran of the 1993 series. The Australian selectors left him out of this party, on the grounds that he was not fully fit. Thanks to an injury to Andy Bichel, they were able to have the best of both worlds: Reiffel rested and with a point to prove. His batting was more obviously successful than his bowling but, as in 1993, he played a crucial role, keeping it endlessly tight, showing the way, taking wickets for the man at the other end. The two Tests he missed were the two Australia lost.
Lord's restored Australia's equilibrium, but again England failed to fold when they might have been expected to - sent back in on the final morning, 136 behind, largely thanks to a horror-film sequence of dropped or missed catches. Three times the guilty man had been Butcher, playing only his second Test. When Taylor returned the favour, dropping him after he had made only two, Butcher had the gumption to build on his mixed fortune, and he helped Atherton add 162 to save the game.
At Old Trafford, you didn't have to be the ECB Inspector of Pitches to see a result coming. For Australia, it was do or die: a comeback from 0-2 would be close to impossible. The elders of the side rose to the occasion. Taylor, fearlessly, elected to bat, thinking that the bare patches might assist Warne in the fourth innings. Steve Waugh, whose highest score in six international outings had been a lugubrious 33 at Edgbaston, came in at 42 for three. "The way he prepared himself," said the reserve icket-keeper Adam Gilchrist, "you just knew something special was going to happen." Waugh took a calculated decision to seize the initiative, and was the only man on either side to score at more than a run every two balls in the first innings. He made 108; Australia had a first-innings lead of 73, even though it was England, with the better of the conditions, who lasted longer. At 74 for one, England had been ahead on points, but then another of the elders, Warne, took six wickets. When Australia were 39 for three, England had another glimpse of Nirvana. Waugh snuffed it out, becoming the first man in 50 years to make two centuries in an Ashes Test, content this time to drop anchor while Healy, Warne and Reiffel enjoyed themselves. The tide had turned.
At Headingley, England again had their openings. After being put in on an up-and-down pitch, they reached 103 for two, thanks to what looked like being one of Atherton's defensive epics. When he allowed McGrath to tempt him into a mis-hook, the rest surrendered to a single hostile spell from Gillespie. Steve Waugh thought Australia now had the best attack in the world; certainly they had variety, penetration, hunger, and that indefinable quality which ensures that at least one bowler is on fire at any time.
England's seamers sometimes kept pace and they opened another chink of hope at Headingley by reducing Australia to 50 for four. If Thorpe had caught Matthew Elliott - a routine slip chance off the hapless debutant Mike Smith - they might have been 50 for five. Instead Elliott, never entirely secure but formidably good at punishing the bad ball, combined with the nonchalant Ricky Ponting to do what Thorpe and Hussain had done at Edgbaston.
Now that they were behind, the new England selectors reverted to old ways, to chop and change, and the curious business of picking a radically different team when a match has to be won. In, by popular demand, came the Hollioake brothers: Adam on merit, Ben on the wildest hunch since the Aussies picked Peter Taylor at Sydney ten years earlier. It was an interesting time for an experiment. The brothers totalled 77 in four innings. They also took four wickets, held three catches, and did nothing to disgrace themselves; but Ben was a boy among men and, although he was retained in the squad for The Oval, he never looked like making the final eleven.
At Trent Bridge, yet again, England had their moment of equality. Stewart, pushed up to open, lasted two hours for the only time in the series, and batted with the spirit of a 19-year-old. England reached 106 for nought and, thanks to Thorpe and Adam Hollioake, 243 for four. Having conceded a lead of 114, they clawed their way back as Caddick and Headley removed the top five in the second innings for 171. Healy saw the urgency of the situation, launched a gleeful counter-attack, put England out of the game, and deservedly won the Man of the Match award. Requiring 451, England spontaneously combusted.
It was a good-natured series, by modern standards. The match referees were not heard from once, and the stump microphones seldom picked up anything more colourful than Healy's mantra of "Bowlin', Warney!" (occasionally subject, like Warne's bowling itself, to a guileful variation, such as "Bowled, Shane!"). McGrath huffed and puffed, as if unable to see that his performances were doing enough talking. Healy won applause from umpire Shepherd at Lord's for coming clean about a catch that may have been a half-volley. The Australians sledged Hussain long and loud after he had claimed a similar catch at Old Trafford to dismiss Blewett; he reacted with England's only hundred of the last five Test.
Away from the spotlight, the Australians generally beat the counties when the rain gave them enough time. They suffered two defeats: two obscure medium-pacers, Gavin Haynes and David Leatherdale, had the time of their lives in a one-day warm-up at Worcester, and then Dean Jones, in one of his last appearances for Derbyshire, orchestrated a run-chase that was exciting even on Ceefax.
The Australians found time for exhibition matches, slotting in a visit to Ireland and a private fixture against J. Paul Getty's XI at Wormsley as well as the traditional opener at Arundel. They were warmly received everywhere except, mysteriously, Taunton. Steve Waugh, leading the tourists against his old county, complained to the umpires about the taunting of Warne. Justin Langer, one of several forgotten men on the tour, wrote home about it: "I would shudder if my daughter, my wife, my mum or my grandmother had to listen to the disgusting and thoughtless rubbish coming from the stands at Taunton." If the sentiments were old-fashioned, the medium was not: Langer was corresponding by e-mail. Things change and, unfortunately for England, they stay the same.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Duke of Norfolk's XI v Australians at Arundel, May 15, 1997
Tour Match: Northamptonshire v Australians at Northampton, May 17, 1997
Tour Match: Worcestershire v Australians at Worcester, May 18, 1997
Tour Match: Durham v Australians at Chester-le-Street, May 20, 1997
Tour Match: Gloucestershire v Australians at Bristol, May 27-29, 1997
Tour Match: Derbyshire v Australians at Derby, May 31-Jun 2, 1997
Tour Match: Nottinghamshire v Australians at Nottingham, Jun 11-13, 1997
Tour Match: Leicestershire v Australians at Leicester, Jun 14-16, 1997
Tour Match: British Universities v Australians at Oxford, Jun 25-27, 1997
Tour Match: Hampshire v Australians at Southampton, Jun 28-30, 1997
Tour Match: Minor Counties v Australians at Jesmond, Jul 8, 1997
Tour Match: Scotland v Australians at Edinburgh, Jul 12, 1997
Tour Match: John Paul Getty Invitation XI v Australians at Wormsley, Jul 14, 1997
Tour Match: Glamorgan v Australians at Cardiff, Jul 16-18, 1997
Tour Match: Middlesex v Australians at Lord's, Jul 19-21, 1997
Tour Match: Somerset v Australians at Taunton, Aug 1-4, 1997
Tour Match: Kent v Australians at Canterbury, Aug 16-18, 1997