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My life through the Ashes: from Deadly Derek to Warnie to Stokes' boys

A half-century of England-Australia contests only whets the appetite for more

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Derek Underwood appeals for Keith Stackpole's wicket, England v Australia, 4th Test, Headingley, 3rd day, July 29, 1972

Headingley 1972: Derek Underwood appeals for Keith Stackpole's wicket in an innings where he finished with 6 for 45  •  PA Photos

It was a fine time to be alive - the Beatles and The Stones; George Best, Garry Sobers and Rod Laver. Nothing much else mattered frankly, except the Engand cricket team. Who could forget, however young they may have been, The Oval in 1968 when members of the crowd helped the ground staff mop the sodden outfield and open the door through which Derek Underwood marched to claim 4 for 6 in 27 balls and secure a drawn series with just six minutes of the five days remaining, it was Ray Illingworth's team that toured Australia in 1970-71 who most fired our love of the Ashes. For those among us keen enough to smuggle transistor radios under their pillows at night and listen to the crackling sound of airwaves that told us stories of a vast and cinematic land where the sky was sapphire blue, the sun baking hot and the flies on the side of the locals, imaginations ran riot.
We revelled in the commentators' description of the Chappell brothers - Ian with his collar up, chewing gum as if that alone were a fight, and Greg, all upright elegance and gorgeous timing. We marvelled at the distant thought of a young Dennis Lillee - long hair flowing in the wind and bouncers flying - along with Rod Marsh, who, we were told, flew with gloves on to try and catch them. There was John Gleeson, the mystery spinner, whose bent-finger grip of the ball was learned from Jack Iverson; Bill Lawry, immortally named "the corpse with pads on" and Graeme "Garth" McKenzie, who had made a name with Leicestershire in county cricket and seemed too nice to bowl fast. A formidable bunch.
But in Geoffrey Boycott we believed. Sure, he blocked the life out of many a day's play, but there was something admirable about the bloody-mindedness in this bespectacled and apparently tortured Yorkshireman, who seemingly knew little of the world around him and everything about batting. The distance between him and the enigmatic and often moody writer of poetry, John Snow - who doubled up as England's rather brilliant fast bowler - was vast but they were players in the same team, and even as winter closed in on West London, were the main subjects of imitation in the street outside the Nicholas home.
The commentators painted pictures so vivid, it felt as if we were actually watching it all, and in magnificent Technicolor too. When we drifted into sleep, the dreams of a future in this exciting world became the dreams of our lives.
Illingworth's lads won the extended seven-match series 2-0, with Boycott and Snow the key protagonists. Ted Dexter, working on the tour as a journalist, thought Boycott's unbeaten hundred at the Sydney Cricket Ground the greatest innings he had seen by an Englishman and Snow's 7 for 40 to clean up the match pretty much the best fast bowling. Later, he added Andrew Flintoff with the ball at Lord's in 2009, and Ben Stokes with the bat at Headingley in the summer of 2019. We shall come to that thing of beauty in a while.
The Ashes summers of 1972 and '75 in England were stymied by controversy of the worst kind, and both dramas took place at Headingley. First up, the fusarium. Sounds ridiculous but Derek Underwood took ten wickets in the match on a pitch infected by a fungus that killed the grass. He wasn't called "Deadly" for nothing, and on an iffy pitch of any sort, he could pick off pretty much anyone who walked to the wicket. "It was uncanny that it affected only a strip 22 yards by eight feet and the rest of the ground was perfectly healthy," said Greg Chappell. EW Swanton left it at "The pitch was an embarrassment."
Three years later, things at Headingley got worse. To pull off a record chase of 445 and win the third Test, Australia required a further 225 on the final day with seven wickets in hand, but when the groundsman removed the covers soon after dawn, he found the pitch vandalised. Chunks of turf had been gouged from the surface and filled with oil. The first clues as to why came when the early spectators were greeted by the sight of perimeter walls painted with the slogan "George Davis is innocent." Davis was a London cabbie sentenced to 20 years for armed robbery. Protestors had been campaigning for his release for a year and eventually got it. Two years later he was convicted of another robbery and sent down for 15 years. His brother was behind the movement and was to say "We can get the Ashes back anytime. But not my brother." As it happened, it was raining by tea and the match wouldn't have run the distance anyway. Once, it was oil for the angry and now orange powder and paint is used by Extinction Rebellion to protest against oil barons. How the great world spins.
Meantime, down under in the winter of 1974-75, Jeffrey Robert Thomson had struck terror into the minds of the English batters and the hearts of those who watched from behind their sofas 10,000 miles away. In harness with Lillee, he was unstoppable, unleashing some of the most devastating pace and bounce ever seen, while snarling with a splendid sense of theatre. Richie Benaud said that Frank Tyson was the fastest bowler through the air he ever saw, and added that Thommo must be the fastest off the pitch. Did we feel for the England batters or did our ears prick up with excitement at the mention of these two extraordinary bowlers? The latter, I'd say, because their message of both aggression and rebellion perfectly suited the age in which popular culture and music had overtaken traditional boundaries and innate conservatism.
By 1977 and the arrival of Ian Botham, World Series Cricket was on the table and cricket's place in the order of things was to change forever. As Tony Greig said goodbye to his adopted land, Botham lurched through the gates to claim the throne as mighty allrounder and then England's captain. Not that it lasted long. In 1981 after the second Test at Lord's, he resigned the captaincy and returned to the ranks under Mike Brearley. The rest, as they say, is history. Botham played two great innings - one of them miraculous - and bowled with a previously unseen ferocity in that series. England came from behind and won. It was a glorious summer, made so by the wedding of Charles and Diana and this other, rather less decorated (at that time), hero of the people.
And so the story ran and ran. Television and radio advanced, news expanded, data went deeper, social media allowed a global conversation, and politics continued to invade sport through its popular appeal - in short, anyone and everyone could have their say.
The Ashes featured household names on tap - Border and two Waughs; Gower and Gatting; more Botham, Merv Hughes, Mark Taylor, Mike Atherton, Darren Gough, and the incomparable Shane Warne, who lit up the stage he has now left so suddenly and too soon. Of all cricketers, Warne most held our attention. He was everywhere, front page and back; a glittering star in a game often reluctant to fully appreciate them. From 1989 to 2002-03 the Australians were exceptional and England not so. Warne rescued the narrative of the little urn almost single-handedly by giving something new, engaging and irresistible to the audience.
"The art of leg-spin," he says in his autobiography, "is the creation of something that isn't really there." He goes on: "It's a magic trick, surrounded by mystery, aura and fear." That's it - fear. From the slow release of a cricket ball, Warne created fear. Or put a different way, Snow, Lillee and Thomson intimidated batters by hitting them on the head; Warne intimidated batters by eyeing them up and explaining the inevitability of him taking them down. He talked baloney much of the time, invented new descriptions of the same spinning ball and made it abundantly clear that he owned the ground on which they played. He has bowled the most Ashes balls and taken the most Ashes wickets. Don Bradman is his batting counterpart and both are well ahead of the rest.
Warne was the outstanding player of the famed 2005 Ashes, when England regained the urn after 17 years. Had he not trod on his stumps one Edgbaston Sunday morning, he might well have cooked up a win from nowhere and galvanised his team to go on and take the series. As it is, England triumphed amid wild scenes of celebration that extended to an open-top bus parade through London, which ended, with the players much worse for wear, in front of tens of thousands of people at Trafalgar Square. It wasn't that Admiral Nelson played any part but it was almost surreal that he was there, watching over such nationalism.
The Australian team hated the excess in all that and turned their attention to revenge, which was exacted without mercy at home not much more than year later. England were crushed by the last hurrah of a truly great cricket team that had been led by Allan Border, then Taylor, Steve Waugh, and the best No. 3 batter to wear the green and gold since Bradman, Ricky Ponting. Warne and his compadre in the field of combat, Glenn McGrath, bowed out at the Sydney Cricket Ground, but not before Warne had claimed his 700th wicket with another dazzling ball to Andrew Strauss.
Strauss led his own team to victory at home in 2009, with Flintoff every bit as much the talisman he had been in 2005, when he had done a bit of a Botham on the country. At Lord's, Freddie bowled so relentlessly fast and straight that Ian Chappell was moved to say he had not seen better; and remember, Chappelli hung out at first slip to Lillee and stood firm at the top of the order against Andy Roberts and Michael Holding.
Strauss' even more memorable victory came in Australia 18 months later, with extraordinary if very different batting from an eclectic group that included Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen setting up Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann to knock over Ponting's suddenly vulnerable team. Since then, it has been comfortable wins at home for Australia and success at home for England.
Until 2019, when it went to the wire.
For Botham and Flintoff, read Stokes and the legend of Leeds. England were behind in the series, Headingley was do or die. Humbled for 67 in the first innings, Joe Root's unlikely lads needed 359 to win in the fourth. The last day fell this way and that, a roller coaster in the true sense of sporting uncertainty. Stokes, having bowled two astonishing and long spells with a dicky knee and at great pace, dug in to douse the Australians' flame before launching into an all-out assault that, in thrilling fashion, put out their fire. History will record the nearly factors - sixes inching over fielders' heads; the Marcus Harris drop at third man (a difficult chance reminiscent of Simon Jones at Edgbston in 2005); the wasted, and last, Australian review, when moments later Leach was trapped in front of all three; the Leach run out that wasn't; the Stokes lbw escape - but it will rejoice in the most magnificent innings, the best many of us reckoned we had ever seen.
These are the matches and players I have known. I am no less excited now than I was then: well, perhaps a little, but only because the boyish enthusiasm has long gone. Of the players I didn't see live, the contest between those great mates Keith Miller and Denis Compton would have been one to behold. So too between Benaud and Bradman; Hutton, Hammond and Hobbs; Trumper, Macartney and Grace. Perhaps Harold Larwood, most of all, during Bodyline, against the fine Australian batting of the day, or Bill O'Reilly: the legspinner who was the best bowler Bradman ever saw.
O'Reilly raged against the machine, attacking officialdom with a rarely seen confidence and wit. His Catholicism saw him in scrapes, not least with Bradman, a Protestant, but his energy and concern for the Ashes never wavered. He called out for an even contest between bat and ball and a complete commitment from those lucky enough to represent their respective countries. He spared no one if criticism was due.
One weekend in the early 1920s, O'Reilly received a call to go to Bowral - which he probably did by train and then bike, kit bag slung over his shoulder. He was later to call it a "dreadful mistake". Early in the game and standing at square leg, he saw a diminutive figure approaching:
"What struck me most about him was the difficulty he seemed to be having taking normal steps as he approached the wicket. His pads seemed to reach up to his navel. His bat was small and had reached the sere and yellow stage, where the yellow was turning to dark tobacco."
It was the boy Bradman, who made 234 not out.
Later, Bradman made 5028 runs in 63 Ashes innings at an average of all but 90. Within these figures are 19 hundreds, 12 fifties and a highest score of 334.
Who is next, one wonders. Maybe not another Bradman or Warne but for sure, players will emerge with the capacity for wonderful performances and to answer the call of the crowd. The greats of the game say that the Ashes defines you and it's true - ask any of the 22 named at the toss on Friday morning. They will say the same. Bring it on.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator