Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo @miller_cricket
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In nine completed Ashes tours since 1986-87, England have won one series and lost eight by thumping margins, including a 4-0 beating on their most recent visit this year. But which tours have had saving graces, and which have been unmitigated shockers? ESPNcricinfo runs the rule over four decades of desperation
Arguably the least-worst defeat of an enduringly sorry era, Alec Stewart's Ashes tourists not only pulled off a truly stunning Test win in a finish for the ages at Melbourne, they might even have achieved the unthinkable and squared the series at 2-2 in the fifth Test at Sydney, had it not been for one of the most contentious umpiring decisions of the decade - when Michael Slater, whose 123 was more than two-thirds of his team's runs in their second innings of 184, was reprieved on 36 by the third umpire, Simon Taufel - early proof, as if it was needed, that the introduction of technology would not signal an end to controversy.
English griping about that let-off cannot deflect from the fact that, once again, Australia were by a distance the better side. But for a final-day thunderstorm they would have won, as usual, the series opener at the Gabba, and England were 2-0 down by Christmas after heavy defeats at Adelaide and Perth.
Their batting, as so often, was flaky at crucial moments - with the honourable exceptions of Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash, whose middle-order alliances would invariably be followed by dispiriting tail-end slumps. Mike Atherton, struggling with a back injury, was a shadow of his usual obdurate self, which encouraged Stewart, the captain, to dump the gloves and promote himself to open midway through the tour - a gamble that paid off with a maiden Ashes hundred at the MCG.
The bowling was at times heroic, not least the tireless Darren Gough, who charged in all tour long, and Dean Headley, whose six-wicket spell at Melbourne would be the greatest moment of an all-too-brief career. But the non-selection of Andrew Caddick, and to a lesser extent, Phil Tufnell, robbed England of two vital attacking options in conditions that should have been tailor-made for them. They were deemed too high-maintenance by the dogmatic Stewart, who at least could be said to have run an unusually tight ship, even as Australia's waves of excellence overwhelmed his selections.
Nasser Hussain is rightfully considered to have been one of England's finest Test captains - hard-bitten, personally driven and tactically shrewd. But it was his misfortune - or perhaps his destiny, given the depths from which he helped haul his England side - to run into an Australian team that has perhaps never been bettered in Test history.
All such considerations flowed into one on the first morning of the 2002-03 Ashes, when Hussain made a call for which he has, perhaps unfairly, become synonymous. After winning the toss at the infamous Gabbatoir, Hussain shocked the stadium by choosing to bowl first - and then watched helplessly as Simon Jones, his thrusting young quick, suffered a horrible knee injury after sliding awkwardly on the sand-based turf.
And in Jones' absence, England's remaining bowlers were exposed to ridicule by the merciless Matthew Hayden, whose front-foot tub-thumping racked up 300 runs in the match, including 197 in the first innings as he and Ricky Ponting carried Australia to 364 for 2 by the close of an omen-laden first day.
The subtext of Hussain's toss call had been that he had no faith in his batsmen to withstand an Australian attack comprised of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Andy Bichel - with Brett Lee waiting in the wings to mug them later in the series. And sure enough, Hussain's lack of faith would be amply justified by the end of that first Test - 79 all out in the second innings to seal a 384-run defeat.
However, one man refused to be cowed. Michael Vaughan, England's elegant young opener, added grit to his natural flamboyance to compile three sublime hundreds at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney - each of them lit up by the quality of his pulling and cover-driving, so as to leave Australia's bowlers with no safe length to attack.
Unwittingly, Vaughan's aggression and style laid the foundations of the strategy that would win back the Ashes, under his leadership, two years later. And, with McGrath and Warne absent for the fifth and final Test, England did head home with a consolation victory at Sydney. But that was as good as it got against, arguably, the best there's ever been.
In many people's eyes, Mike Atherton's Ashes tourists epitomise the nadir of the "Tetley Bitter" era of English cricket - that gloriously inappropriate sponsorship deal that invited a perpetually bedraggled squad to endure predictable jokes about piss-ups and breweries with every new low. And so it was that the 1994-95 tourists came home with their tails between their legs - thrashed 3-1 in a series that exposed the gulf in expectations that had grown since Australia's own dog days in the 1980s.
In fact, some of the most humiliating moments of the tour fell outside of the Tests themselves. A pair of warm-up defeats against the kids of Australia's Academy were particularly galling, as was the one-day squad's failure to qualify for the final of the B&H World Series - Australia and their own second-string team competed for the spoils instead.
But buried somewhere beneath a glut of damning headlines lay a competitive spirit that bubbled to the fore at unexpected moments. After a Shane Warne hat-trick had put Australia 2-0 up at Melbourne, no-one anticipated that England would boss a thrilling drawn third Test at Sydney, let alone win the fourth at Adelaide, with an unrecognisably patched-up team after a glut of injuries had done for several of their first-choice XI - not least the ebullient Gough, who announced himself as a star in the first three Tests before limping out of the series with a broken foot.
Natural order was restored in the fifth Test at Perth, where a certain Glenn McGrath made his first telling Ashes blow by reducing England to 27 for 6 in their final innings. That scoreline was notable for the sad farewells of both Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting - their hefty reputations no match for the reality that this had been a tour too far for both.
An underwhelming walloping, if such a thing can exist. England were outclassed in every relevant department - embarrassed by a lack of pace compared to Australia's rampant spearheads, incapable of matching the skill and accuracy of Nathan Lyon's ever-probing spin, and shown up in the batting stakes by Steven Smith's remarkable Bradman impersonation. His haul of 687 runs in seven innings included three extraordinary hundreds, the best of the bunch coming in rare adversity at Brisbane, when the series was fresh and England's flaws had not been fully exposed.
But Australia's eventual ten-wicket victory at the Gabba unleashed a different narrative - one in which England claimed 58 series wickets to 89, and scored three centuries to nine. The visitors had their moments - bowling Australia out for 138 at Adelaide, and setting the early pace through Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow at Perth - but they were unable to exert anything resembling sustained dominance. Key personnel failed to produce anything approaching their best - most notably Moeen Ali, Stuart Broad and Alastair Cook, whose immense 244 not out on a dead deck in Melbourne could not atone for his technical evisceration at the sharp end of the series.
What might the absent Ben Stokes have brought to England's tour? He'd have stood his ground against Australia's quicks, that's for sure, and maybe even provided the hapless Joe Root with the foil he seemed to lack in reaching fifty on five occasions without once going on to a hundred. But it's hard to argue that Stokes alone was the difference, even if, as the spectre at the feast, he created collateral issues for the squad when the ECB's paranoia about player behaviour turned two innocuous nightclub incidents in Perth into headline news.
In the grander scheme of things, however, England suffered from few friction burns as the size of their defeat became apparent. Arguably that was a tribute to some affable leadership from Root, who retained an impressive team unity in adversity. More worryingly, it was a suggestion that England had given their all, and had no-one to blame for their shortcomings.
The 2005 Ashes may have been a once-in-a-lifetime party for England's players and fans, but for a once-in-a-lifetime team, it was an affront beyond compare. Australia's determination to set the record straight after two decades of near-unrivalled dominance turned a hugely hyped Ashes rematch into a savagely one-sided revenge mission.
It all started at Brisbane, where Steve Harmison's jittery first-ball wide telegraphed the anxieties of an England team that was already missing three fundamental components of their 2005 champions. Michael Vaughan, the captain, and Simon Jones had both succumbed to knee injuries, while Marcus Trescothick's breakdown during England's warm-up match in Sydney cast another bleak shadow over the tour.
But it was the second Test at Adelaide where Australia confirmed that England's campaign was a lost cause. Resuming on 59 for 1 on the final morning, with a draw preordained and a foothold in the series established, England contrived to lose an unloseable contest, as Shane Warne inveigled his way into their collective psyche to instigate a shocking meltdown of resolve. Nine wickets tumbled for 70 as the office-workers of Adelaide downed tools to troop across the river and join in the gloating, before Mike Hussey led Australia's final-session rampage to victory.
And thereafter it was a procession, as Australia's greats took it in turns to set the seal on their final Ashes as a team. Adam Gilchrist belted a 57-ball hundred to secure the series at Perth, before Warne said farewell to his Melbourne home crowd with a first-day five-for to make it 4-0. A week later, Warne and Glenn McGrath departed the SCG arm-in-arm, with Justin Langer also bowing out in that match, with glory secured and England crushed.
Expectations had been heightened as Graham Gooch's men headed Down Under after a remarkable nine months in which they'd achieved the unthinkable in beating the mighty West Indies in Jamaica, before wrapping up home series wins against New Zealand and India - the latter crowned by Gooch's personal zenith, 333 and 123 at Lord's.
But in the final analysis of an unthinkably desperate tour, Gooch would memorably describe his team's efforts as "a fart competing with thunder", after being crushed 3-0 by an Allan Border-led team that was still light-years shy of the standards that Australia would attain in the coming decade, but whose professional standards and will to win were unimpeachable.
Gooch, to be fair, wished for his England team to attain similar discipline, but his rather hair-shirted attitude to team culture was both ahead of its time, and anathema in particular to England's star batsman of the tour, and generational Golden Child, David Gower.
Their personal fall-out was epitomised by the Tiger Moth episode, a childish prank during an upstate Queensland tour game, but one that surely didn't warrant a total sense-of-humour failure. Thereafter, Gower was a shadow of the flowing strokemaker who had charmed his way to two hundreds in the first three Tests. His crass dismissal on the stroke of lunch at Adelaide, caught in a transparent leg-trap off Craig McDermott with a thunderous Gooch looking on from the other end, became one of the defining moments of the series.
Accidents and injuries undermined England's challenge, not least Gooch's absence from the first Test at Brisbane, when he was hospitalised with a septic hand. But ineptitude was England's most devastating failing. Three devastating batting collapses contributed to each of their three defeats, none more abject than the cascade of wickets at the hands of Bruce Reid at Melbourne, when 103 for 1, and a lead of 149, became 150 all out and an eight-wicket defeat.
After a protracted will-they-won't-they in the lead-up to the tour, the first five-Test series to be completed under the shadow of Covid was a desperate and troubling anti-climax. England spent longer on the Gold Coast, in their rain-wrecked quarantine period, than they did in live Ashes action, as the urn was surrendered inside 12 days - not their fastest turnover in recent history, but quite possibly their floppiest challenge yet.
The tone - as so often - was set by the very first ball of the series. Rory Burns walked across his stumps to be bowled round his legs by Mitchell Starc, and thereafter, England's batting was poleaxed. The team failed to pass 300 in ten attempts, and was skittled for less than 200 on six pitiful occasions - including 68 all out in the series decider at Melbourne, where Scott Boland marked his debut with the preposterous figures of 6 for 7, and a final-day collapse of 10 for 56 at Hobart.
Silver linings were as scarce as England's fleeting hours of dominance. Jonny Bairstow made England's solitary century - a brilliant mind-over-matter 113 at Sydney - while the indefatigable Mark Wood earned overdue rewards with a career-best 6 for 37 in the final innings of the series. Root, however, is still waiting for that elusive maiden hundred in Australia as he faded after a stellar 2021, while Stokes - a shadow of his 2019 self after hurrying back from a mental-health break - was thoroughly outmatched in the allrounder stakes by Australia's rising star, Cameron Green.
Four years on from an identical scoreline in 2017-18, England had clearly taken on board none of the lessons of that insipid campaign. Their selection was baffling - right from the omission of both Broad and Anderson on a Gabba greentop - while off-field reports of excessive boozing and substandard fitness levels harked back to the chaos of the 1990s.
Australia were good - some of their spells of fast-bowling, particularly from the new skipper, Pat Cummins, were genuinely great - but England were powerless to make them sweat at any stage. Warner and Smith endured rare fallow series, but Marnus Labuschagne claimed Root's No.1 batting ranking after surviving three dropped catches in his Adelaide century, while Travis Head and Usman Khawaja - with twin hundreds in a remarkable comeback at Sydney - were the unlikely stars in Australia's middle order. More than a decade on from England's last win Down Under, it was all becoming a bit easy.
The shocker to end all shockers. Barely three months after easing to a 3-0 home Ashes win, England were obliterated in body, spirit and scoreline by a vengeful and under-rated Australia team who were fed up of being branded losers. Mitchell Johnson epitomised this revolution of the disparaged, putting aside his miserable past Ashes record to put the fear of God into his stunned and ill-prepared opponents. England had started the tour with realistic expectations of completing their fourth Ashes victory in a row. By the end of two brutal routs at Brisbane and Adelaide, their second whitewash in three tours of Australia was all but assured.
It wasn't simply that England were outplayed - with the ball, Ryan Harris was barely any less immense than Johnson, while David Warner's succession of second-innings ram-raids trampled their remaining resistance underfoot. It was the collateral damage that they endured which truly marked out this defeat as England's most crushing for a generation.
It started at Brisbane, where Johnson's searing pace tipped Jonathan Trott, hitherto England's bedrock at No.3, over the brink. It continued through to Perth, where Graeme Swann, their outstanding spinner, retired mid-tour citing an injured elbow. And it culminated at Melbourne, where Matt Prior, their heart-and-soul wicketkeeper, was dropped due to his collapsing form, before an infamous team meeting vaporised what little squad unity still remained.
A prostrate three-day surrender at Sydney completed a sorry tour. But England's annus horribilis was only just beginning. When Kevin Pietersen, their series top-scorer, was sacked by the ECB for reasons that they chose never to make entirely clear, a toxic post-mortem was set in motion that would destabilise the England dressing-room right the way through to an equally desperate World Cup in 2015.
And the one that got away...
England's struggles to compete in Australia over the years only go to show what a masterful achievement it was for Andrew Strauss's men to win in Australia for the first time since 1986-87. Alastair Cook took the plaudits with a gargantuan haul of 766 runs at 127.66, as Australia were given an insight into what it must have been to be an Englishman throughout the preceding two decades.
But even on that tour, punctuated as it was by three thumping innings wins, England had to battle for the ascendancy throughout the first three Tests. At Brisbane, they were gripped by stage fright on the opening day of the series, and conceded a first-innings deficit of 221 (before Cook turned the tables to stunning effect); at Adelaide, they won the Test handsomely despite the loss of Stuart Broad, who went lame mid-match with a side strain. And at Perth, they were routed by an inspired Mitchell Johnson (in a hint of traumas to come), to leave the series in the balance at 1-1 with two to play.
But it was England's refusal to panic, and their planning for every eventuality, that ultimately seized the day. They had insisted on three fully competitive warm-ups in the build-up to the Tests, which allowed them to parachute in battle-hardened replacements at critical moments of the tour - in particular Chris Tremlett at Perth and Tim Bresnan at Melbourne, who meshed seamlessly with James Anderson, the attack leader, whose 24 wickets included match-shaping spells in the first innings of all three wins.
It was as complete an England performance as has ever been compiled on a tour of Australia. But it could so easily have unravelled from the outset. Proof that anything less than the best Down Under will invariably lead to disaster.
This article was updated on January 10, 2018 and again on January 18, 2021-22 to reflect England's two most recent Ashes defeats