John Arlott ushers in another Australian year with a look back 25 years to the 1964 Ashes battle

Peter Burge made 160 at Headingley © Getty Images

It was one of those evenings - people where throwing questions, statements, and vague ideas about the room. Then suddenly someone asked: "What was the finest batting performance since the war?" There were some thoughtful and some thoughtless answers, when all at once, quite out of the blue, and unconnected with anything that had gone before, someone said: "Peter Burge, at Headingley, in 1964."

There was a hush as the idea and all its implications sank in. Peter Burge looked an Australian countryman and batsman; with a reddish, weatherbeaten face and a firm jaw, he was tall, deep-chested, and strong-armed. He had, indeed, had a good season in England in 1961, but he had never held a completely regular Test place for Australia. He played his way out of trouble in the fifth Test against West Indies in 1960-61 but, in 1963-64, during the series with South Africa, he was not truly fit; he needed hospital treatment, and at the start of the 1964 tour in England, he had difficulty in running.

He was very conscious of his position as the son of a Queensland selector who, in fact, resigned from that committee when Burge came under consideration. More than once he had contemplated withdrawing even from State cricket. On the first occasion, he was making his way as a wicketkeeper when it became obvious to him that, although Don Tallon the current Queensland keeper was going to retire, his place was likely to go to Wally Grout. So Burge was reduced to batting for his State place. Nevertheless, there he was on that 1964 tour - one, incidentally, of many interests. It was, too, a summer of generally splendid sunshine, which readers of the future may find it hard to believe when they see that the first two Tests were halved by rain which also meant that there was no play at all on the last day at The Oval. For our purpose, though, the significant fact is that in the only Test finished, Peter Burge, taking over in a most unpromising situation, played the innings that won the match and retained the Ashes for Australia.

Although they had lost the Ashes in 1958-59, three series before, England had a genuine hope of winning this one. Importantly, Australia had lost Richie Benaud, who had captained them so capably, and a matchwinning batsman and bowler in Neil Harvey and Alan Davidson. Almost half the side were strangers to England and to English conditions, while, in Ted Dexter, England had found an inspirational captain.

At Trent Bridge in the first Test, England introduced, for the first time, a precocious young Yorkshireman by the name of Geoffrey Boycott, who there set out on an historic career, though he fractured a finger while fielding and could not bat in the second innings. In the first, though, he opened and made the highest score for England - 48. After rain, England declared at 216 for 8, put out Australia for 168, and themselves declared at 193 for 9, setting Australia to score 242 in 195 minutes. The tourists were 40 for 2, and Norman O'Neill had retired injured, when rain washed out the rest of the match.

At Lord's, where attendance when play was possible were strikingly large, rain cut off more than half the possible playing time. England, largely through Fred Trueman, bowled Australia out for 176 and then, although they were without the injured Boycott, a most valuable 120 by John Edrich gave them a lead of 70. Almost directly after lunch, though, when Dexter had switched effectively from the pace of Trueman and Coldwell to the spin of Gifford and Titmus, the rain came again to finish the game.

Headingley - with the new pavilion and office building in use for the first time in a Test - was the historic occasion. The sides began without two of their most attractive batsmen in Colin Cowdrey and O'Neill, both of whom were injured, but there was plenty of scoring potential in the two sides. The pace bowling of Neil Hawke - especially when he went round the wicket - and Graham McKenzie cut down the England innings to 268; Dexter with 66, Jim Parks with 68 and the returning Boycott (38) all looked in and set without making a major score. Still, although Bill Lawry made 78 before Boycott ran him out, the spin of Norman Gifford and Fred Titmus had reduced Australia to 178 for 7 when Hawke came in to join Burge.

Burge could look belligerent and soon he batted in that character. He took more than a quarter of an hour to get off the mark against the accuracy and subtlety of the two spinners, while Hawke simply put his head down and plodded away. They were 187 for 7 when the second new ball became due. The two spinners were containing them completely; Burge, though, had contrived 38. Perhaps that fact persuaded Dexter to take the new ball and give it to Trueman and Flavell. Whatever the reason, the move proved fatal to England's chances. Burge was not a man to be cowed by short-pitched pace; and, in fact, Trueman did not bowl really fast - whether that was due to the state of the pitch or his own condition will never be known. It must be said, though, that if Flavell bowled slightly fewer bouncers, he bowled them no better. Hawke was caught by Parfitt off Trueman, but, by then, the eighth-wicket pair had put on 105 and by the end of the day Burge had reached his century.

Next morning Trueman persisted with his bouncers but Grout, who had taken Hawke's place, also hooked capably, and Trueman's first two overs of the day cost him - and England - 14 runs. By the time a returning Titmus had Grout lbw, 89 had come for the ninth wicket. Like Hawke, Grout made 37.

It was quite ironic that Trueman eventually had Burge caught pulling at another short ball - taken by the substitute, Alan Rees, at midwicket. By then he had made 160 - by far the highest score of the match. It was to prove decisive. A lead of 121 was worrying enough for England in all conscience but they never pulled completely out of trouble.

Boycott was once more caught at slip by Bobby Simpson; John Edrich, characteristically, and Ted Dexter - completely out of character - batted grittily, but the major English resistance came from Barrington. A mixed hand of bowlers - McKenzie, the boyish Corling, Hawke and Veivers - combined to put them out for 229: after Barrington none of the last seven batsmen made more than 23, Australia, watched by their cricket-enthusiast Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, were set 109 to win. Trueman - again ironically - dismissed Lawry for 1 but, with time to spare, Simpson and Redpath made the better part of the final 111 for 3 they scored to win by seven wickets.

Simpson was a realist as a captain and he knew that he could afford to lose one more Test and still retain the Ashes. So, when he won the toss at Old Trafford, he and Bill Lawry set out to build a match-saving defence. They succeeded, surely beyond his hopes. They made 201 together for the first wicket - then a record for Australia against England. Simpson himself made his First Test century - with emphasis - 311, in 12¾ hours, the longest innings ever played against England, and Australia's final 656 for 8 dec was their highest at Old Trafford.

England could do little except avoid defeat. Barrington made 256 and Dexter 174, and England's 611 left them 45 behind. Tom Veivers bowled 95.1 ovvers to take 3 for 155. There was time left for Australia to score just 4 for 0. This time British politicians - Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Prime Minister, and Harold Wilson, Leader of the Opposition - found time to watch.

The Australians' next match, too, was something of an international, when they were beaten for the first time by Glamorgan. That historic Welsh triumph was achieved largely by the bowling of Don Shepherd (nine wickets) and Jim Pressdee (10 wickets): though Alan Jones, Peter Walker and Alan Rees (twice) all batted usefully. The crowd of over 10,000 was utterly joyous.

At the Oval, Boycott made his first deep mark on Test cricket with 113, and England were 184 in front with six wickets standing when rain washed out the last day. Incidentally, not a drop of rain had fallen during the Old Trafford Test. Throughout the tour there was some good entertainment for English spectators in the batting of Brian Booth, Simpson and, on his good days, the most attractive O'Neill. McKenzie was by far Australia's most successful Test bowler - 29 wickets at 22.55. It was, though, Burge's series, and Headingley was his historic killing ground.