The first ever Test match, in March 1877, between Australia and England at the MCG, ended in a 45-run victory for Australia. Only one of the 2166 subsequent Tests has been won by the same margin: the Centenary Test between Australia and England in March 1977, also at the MCG, to celebrate the inaugural Test match. It's enough to make the Anti-Corruption Unit want to have a word with Dame Fortune.
A few bowlers, most of them English, have wearily taken hold of the third new ball in an Ashes Test while the opposition batsmen rack up an obscene score. (You're picturing Angus Fraser, aren't you?) In one match, however, the bowlers took hold of the eighth new ball. In the Melbourne Test of 1924-25, the wrong balls were sent to the ground and were of sufficiently poor quality that they had to be changed constantly. Both sides agreed to play the first innings of the match with the lower-quality balls before switching for the second. In those first innings, the ball was changed at least 15 times.
England was some country for old men in 1926, when Wilfred Rhodes and Bert Strudwick put on 14 for the tenth wicket against Australia at The Oval. At the combined age of 94 (Rhodes 48, Strudwick 46), they are the oldest ever to bat in a Test match. Even in an age of ice baths and Gatorade chasers, it's probably fair to assume this particular record will not be broken.
A feature of modern Ashes series has been the tone-setting first ball or first over, from Michael Slater's withering cut shot in 1994-95 to Steve Harmison's wide in 2006-07. Yet there has been nothing to match the drama of 1936-37, when the England opener Stan Worthington was out to the first ball of the series, caught behind off Ernie McCormick. It didn't exactly set the tone, however - England went 2-0 up, before losing the series 3-2.
On the first day of the Perth Test in 1978-79, Geoff Boycott batted all day for 63 not out and did not hit a single four. The following day, he disgraced himself by finding the boundary once before being dismissed for 77 from 337 balls. The Australian politician Jack Birney sent him a congratulatory note: "You have done for Australian cricket what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen."
You would pay for the privilege of captaining England, right? Mike Brearley did just that, in 1981. He found out that he was the selectors' choice to replace Ian Botham via a reverse-charge phone call, because the chairman of selectors, Alec Bedser, had run out of coins on his way home. Thankfully for English cricket, Brearley was not among the considerable percentage of the population in the 1980s who slammed the phone down in an affronted funk when asked to pay to receive a phone call. Instead he said yes to the operator and then yes to Bedser, before leading England - and particularly Botham - to one of the great Ashes triumphs. It was the best ten pence Brearley ever spent.
The summer of 1985 was the greatest of David Gower's career: he scored 732 runs in six Ashes Tests, and captained England to a memorable 3-1 victory. He did it all with a borrowed bat: at the start of the summer, Gower was passing time at Grace Road with Mike Turner junior, a club player and son of the Leicestershire chief executive, when he picked up one of Turner's bats and started idly bouncing a ball on it. Gower felt a sweet spot like he had never felt before, thought "this bat's too good for you, sunshine!", and negotiated a swap deal. He covered the bat with the stickers of his sponsor Gray-Nicolls and got on with the business of winning the Ashes.
When you are 3-0 down with two play and many of your best players have just signed up for a rebel tour to South Africa, it would be fair to assume you are all out of nadirs. England, God bless them, discovered even deeper ground on the first day of the fifth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge in 1989. Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor, the Australian openers, batted through the entirety of the day, which ended with Australia on 301-0. England finally took a wicket on the second morning, and their captain, David Gower, brought out the champagne at lunchtime: "To toast the first Australian wicket for a day and a half." Cricket is a poor game if you can't celebrate your successes, after all.
The Ashes produced some of the greatest moments of Robin Smith's career: his stirring defiance in the face of certain defeat in 1989, and his long-running battle with Merv Hughes. But it gave him some pretty dark days too. Nobody has played as many Ashes Tests without a victory as Smith, who played 15 between 1989 and 1993. After the last of those, he was dropped, and received the news while he was at home. But it was not over the phone: the England captain, Mike Atherton, who was playing for Lancashire at Hampshire, was staying at Smith's house and broke the news over breakfast. Atherton, who remembered the shoddy way he was dropped earlier in his England career, wanted to do things face to face. To compound Smith's frustration, England promptly won their first Ashes Test for seven years.
There was a time in the summer of the 1997 when the Hollioake brothers, Adam and Ben, seemed to be the answer to all English cricket's problems. It sadly did not work out quite like that, but they did keep trivia types happy with their contribution in the fifth Ashes Test, at Trent Bridge. They were the first brothers to play for England since 1957, and the first in an Ashes Test since 1883. They were also the first to make their debut for England in the same Test, and at one stage they bowled in tandem… to the Waugh twins.
Rob Smyth's new book, Gentlemen and Sledgers: A History of the Ashes in 100 Quotations, was published in May 2015