In the first instalment of the 2009 Ashes saga, the walls were closing in on England as Australia brought overwhelming force to bear. They racked up a massive 674 for 6 declared, their highest total in Ashes cricket since the Second World War, and England were running out of heroes as their resistance was picked off, man by man, on the final day in Cardiff. Paul Collingwood dug in as best he could with a five-and-three-quarter-hour 74, but England still trailed by six runs when his departure brought the diffident figure of Monty Panesar loping to the crease, his prospects about as realistic as a protocol droid in a blaster duel. And yet, with James Anderson as his wingman in an engrossing 69-ball alliance, England lived to fight another day. It was the beginning of an epic fightback. By the end of the summer, the tables had been turned and the Ashes had been regained.
In 1994-95, the National Stadium in Karachi lived up to its reputation as Pakistan's citadel when Australia's mighty challenge was repelled at the very last gasp to extend the hosts' run of 31 matches without defeat at the venue. They had to do it the hard way as well, resisting the mind tricks of the mighty Shane Warne, who bowled almost without change on the final day of the match to haul Australia to the very brink of victory. At 258 for 9, still 56 runs adrift of an unlikely victory target of 314, the battle appeared to be lost for Pakistan as the diminutive Mushtaq Ahmed arrived to support their only hope, Inzamam-ul-Haq. And yet, with pluck and ingenuity, it was Mushtaq who took the lead, breezing his way to 20 not out from 30 balls to make light of a dire situation and set up the heart-stopping moment of glory - a missed stumping off Inzamam that skitted away past Ian Healy for the winning runs.
Throughout the first decade of the millennium, India's top order was populated by a veritable Jedi Council - indisputable masters of the art of batting in Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag … and VVS Laxman, whose record against the strongest foes in cricket's universe was second to none. Six of Laxman's 17 Test centuries came against Australia in their pomp, including his incredible 281 at Kolkata in 2000-01. But it was one of his final acts of resistance, at Mohali in 2010-11, that delivered India's slenderest victory of all time. Laxman's physical powers were on the wane when he arrived at the crease with India in strife at 76 for 5 chasing 216 for victory. He batted with a runner after suffering a back injury, but nothing could impact the ferocity of his wristwork as he flicked and charmed his way to a matchwinning 73 not out. However, he couldn't have won it without support from his lesser team-mates, not least the No. 11, Pragyan Ojha, who survived a raucous lbw shout with six runs still required, before deflecting the winning runs to fine leg off Mitchell Johnson.
Few causes have seemed more lost than the one that New Zealand encountered at Auckland in the opening Test of England's tour in 1996-97. Outclassed from the opening exchanges, the hosts had been beaten to the very brink of defeat, and led by just 11 runs in their second innings when Danny Morrison came out as New Zealand's last man. The owner of a then-record 24 Test ducks was not expected to hang around for long - he was wearing sunglasses for the occasion and looked, by his own admission, like a blind man carrying a cane - but then, without warning, England's attacking instincts short-circuited. Morrison blocked and blocked and blocked, amassing 14 runs from 133 deliveries in more than three hours of crease occupation, and England's captain, Mike Atherton, had no option but to shake hands later that afternoon and write the match off as a draw. Morrison's euphoria, however, was short-lived. Like decommissioned X-wing fighter, he was thrown on the scrapheap, and never played for his country again.
For all that India have grown in recent years to become the dominant power in world cricket, their record outside of Asia took some time to catch up with their excellence in home conditions. When they arrived for their Test tour in 2007, two decades had elapsed since their last victory in England in 1986, and come the final day of the first Test at Lord's, that record looked sure to be extended. But Mahendra Singh Dhoni is not a man who knows when he is beaten. On a dank final day, with the threat of rain adding an extra layer of suspense to England's quest for wickets, India's future captain dug in with the tail to haul his side to safety. He finished unbeaten on 76, with only the No.11 Sreesanth still standing by the time the heavens opened to complete the rescue job. It was the stroke of luck they needed to crush their hoodoo. An epic victory in the second Test at Trent Bridge and a high-scoring draw at The Oval secured India a coveted series win that had eluded an entire generation.
The original "Ashes" encounter took place a long, long time ago, but it remains to this day one of the most gripping encounters in any sporting galaxy. Australia's colonial upstarts were given little chance of success when they arrived at The Oval, in the heart of imperial London, to play a one-off Test match against a full-strength England line-up. But with Fred "The Demon" Spofforth leading the line with 14 wickets in the match, they out-fought their supposed superiors in a classic finale that caused one spectator to chew through his umbrella handle and another to drop dead with heart failure. Chasing 85 to win, the match arguably turned on a moment of English skulduggery - when WG Grace ran out Sammy Jones as he left his crease to repair a divot. Australia refused to be beaten after that affront. Sure enough, the Sporting Times responded to their seven-wicket win by publishing mock obituary of English cricket, adding that "the body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia."