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Mark Nicholas

The Ashes I remember

Lillee and Thommo, Illy, Boycs and Snow: the '70s was a fine time for a youngster captivated by England-Australia Test matches

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Derek Underwood traps John Inverarity lbw to secure a dramatic win, England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, August 27, 1968

The Oval, 1968: would the scene have been as memorable in colour?  •  Getty Images

To the children of the 1960s, the rest of the world was black and white. Indeed, having watched a little of the coverage of the VE Day anniversary programmes last month, my then eight-year-old daughter was moved to ask exactly when everything suddenly turned into colour. The 1966 football World Cup final, and the image of Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet trophy as if it were his baby, is indelibly etched in the memory of all of us of a certain age. The Germans played in white and the English in grey. It took years to process Moore and his merry men in red shirts.
Looking back, monochrome images appeared to simplify sport and even to slow it down. Either that or sport was slower, an idea that makes reasonable sense. Not that many former cricketers agree. Fred Trueman used to grumble about the old footage. "Funny how the bowling looks so much slower in back and white," said Fred when the BBC showed film of Basil Butcher whipping his straight deliveries through midwicket for four. Whatever, the children of the day were slaves to this apparent miracle of communication and the pleasure derived from games of football, rugby, tennis, golf and cricket that were otherwise inaccessible.
The first Ashes series that caught our eye was in 1968. The photograph of Derek Underwood trying to win the fifth Test at The Oval with every England fielder around the bat is a classic and somehow all the more resonant in black and white. We watched every ball that summer, timing our own garden Test matches to the lunch and tea intervals of the real thing. Ted Dexter made millions of runs in our tiny walled garden and John Snow knocked over Ian Chappell and Bill Lawry with splendid regularity. Basil D'Oliveira was an instant hit and Doug Walters an easy fall guy. John Edrich was dogged, Colin Cowdrey and Tom Graveney fluent. Alan Knott was just, well, Alan Knott. Graham McKenzie and Johnny Gleeson captured a few wickets (both had bowling actions that encouraged imitation) but England won in the garden while drawing the rubber 1-1 on the television screen.
It was almost three years later that the deal for a lifetime was finally concluded, thanks to a tiny transistor radio and a kindly teacher. While Ray Illingworth's touring team fought an intense and often controversial series in Australia in 1970-71, this young boy hid the transistor under his pillow and listened to the sounds of the Great Southern Land. These were different sounds. I don't why, they just were. Sharper somehow and more urgent. Alan McGilvray's voice crackled across the oceans and the continents, and while the roars of the crowd celebrated Australian success, it was their silence that thrilled those of us so captivated some 12,000 miles away. When the transistor was discovered and confiscated, one teacher saw my pain and fought for its return.
Geoffrey Boycott scored a mountain of runs. The three lions seemed to be stitched into his heart. His runs felt like our runs; the fall of his wicket like a dagger to our heart. Snow moved with the grace of a lion and bowled with the speed of the wind. He was Illingworth's rebel with a cause - the moment when he hit Terry Jenner in the head felt anarchic - and, moreover, our link between the worlds of sport and rock 'n roll, which ruled our lives. With Snow and Boycott, through the dark and cold nights of that winter, we did not sense the minutes ticking by nor the hours as they flew.
This was the Ashes series that caught our imagination once and for all. Radio told us a story but ravenous hearts and minds painted the pictures. White light, hard sun, vast sapphire skies, painted faces, four 'n twenty pies, amber nectar, reeling bodies, burnt faces, squinting eyes, wide-brimmed sun hats, the deep green of the stripes on the Australian jumper, the bright red and yellow of the MCC, huge ovals and huge scoreboards, the first talk of Dennis Lillee, the Chappells in defiance, Boycott with his backside thrust out and that exaggerated left elbow controlling shots that punched holes in Lawry's captaincy, Snow's languid approach disguising an evil menace.
All of this created a multi-coloured canvas of movement and drama. And there was more. As the commentators talked of Australia and its wide open spaces - its deserts and its rains, its seas and its bush - so a cinematic vision emerged of a place where sport and adventure were as one. This outdoor life was irresistible, yet within it triumph and disaster met on a daily basis. To their great credit, Australians seemed to treat both these impostors with equal measure. It was a hard land but a good land and it was invading our soul.
By the time Ian Chappell came to England with his 1972 tourists we were hooked. And this time, he came in colour. (Thus, my daughter thinks the world turned red, yellow, blue and green in 1972.) Lillee proved to be the demon we had suspected but human with it. You could watch the television and reach out to touch him and the fellow marauders who threatened our hold on the urn. "Illy" almost kept them at bay, but at The Oval, with England one up, the Chappell brothers both made hundreds, Lillee took 10 in the match and, with Boycott missing injured and Snow for once quiet as a mouse, the series was levelled at 2-2.
Little did we know that the warning lights were flashing. By the time of the ill-fated - if oddly exhilarating for the viewer - tour to Australia in 1974-75, Boycott had taken leave of his senses and retreated in self-imposed exile to Yorkshire outposts and outpourings. He hated Mike Denness for being captain of England. Forget the minutiae, that was the nub of it. A Scotsman who could not bat like he could (nowhere near) or think like he could (not close either) had the job Boycott had courted for most of his life. Snow, meantime, was not picked. Daft, but you know how it can be with selectors.
Ashes to Ashes / Dust to dust / If Lillee don't get you, Thommo must. So plain was the name that Jeffrey Robert Thomson might have been your accountant. As it happened, Jeffrey Robert Thomson was probably the fastest bowler in history.
We heard about him on the radio and waited sadistically for television news clips. County cricketers were reported to have hidden behind their sofas. Not because the sun hurt or the skies were too bright but because the bloody ball was bowled so fast and the batsmen were sitting ducks. One ball to Keith Fletcher hit the badge on his cap and ricocheted to square cover, where Ross Edwards held the catch that wasn't. Another to Derek Underwood might have decapitated him. David Lloyd had his manhood shelled. The sandshoe crusher to Tony Greig is among the most memorable balls in history. From a good length, Thommo made the ball spit with incomparable venom. At the other end, Lillee had become the best and most aggressive fast bowler in the world. Bones and hearts were broken; bodies were battered and bruised; reputations were left in tatters on the fields of Brisbane, Perth, Sydney and Adelaide. It was not just England who were made look helpless. A year later West Indies suffered similarly, and because of it Clive Lloyd changed the game.
Jeff Thomson is as much a part of Ashes history as Harold Larwood. He remains a wonderful, happy-go-lucky figure today. As the English summer unfolds, he will travel the land with his stories of blood and guts, selling the game with an inherent passion for its ability to surprise and entertain. There is something of Crocodile Dundee in him, and rather like with Linda Kozlowski in the film, it is easy to fall for his native charms.
We have never forgotten the hunters of 1974-75 or, for that matter, the brutality of their attack. We still talk of them now. There is glamour in fast bowling, and awe in its execution.
That is it really - how the Ashes were sold to the children brought up with the Beatles. There have been heroes since - Greig, Brearley, Gower and Botham; Vaughan, Pietersen, Flintoff and Swann. For a time, the Aussies were all the rage - Taylor, two Waughs, Warne, McGrath, Ponting, Gilchrist and Hayden, but they too are now consigned to history.
In time, the players who stand for the anthems of their land next Wednesday in Cardiff will be afforded the same recognition. For the moment they are busy making their name. The cliché is that Ashes cricket defines you. This may be so. More certainly, it defines the age and the children who grow with it. The wide-eyed kids of today are the middle-aged men of tomorrow. May their love of this intoxicating contest be so long and their memories so sweet.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK