Ashes fever reached boiling point last Sunday, as England levelled the series in a nail-biting encounter at Edgbaston. Will Luke looks back in Ashes history at ten of the closest finishes between cricket's oldest rivals
Sixth Test, 1997, The Oval
"Too late to rescue the Ashes, but not too late to rescue their self-respect," said Wisden of the sixth and final Test in the 1997 series. Despite winning the first Test, convincingly, England were overwhelmed by the Antipodeans in the remainder of the series; the Ashes were lost and so, it appeared, were England. The recall of Phil Tufnell proved inspired. He decimated a batting lineup which had been so fiercely dominant throughout the series, taking 11 wickets in the match. Set just 124 runs to win, Tufnell and Caddick tore into Australia, to at last defy Australia by 19 runs, and momentarily restore English cricket's wobbling status.
Third Test, 1981, Headingley
Headingley, 1981; the biggest pinch in Ashes history. On the fourth day, following on, England creaked to 135 for 7 and Ladbrokes, famously, offered odds of 500-1 against them. They hadn't, however, wagered on Ian Botham and Bob Willis producing runs and wickets as though their lives depended on it. Willis's 8 for 43 was the most staggering performance of his life, as he matched Botham's nation-binding efforts a few hours previously. Australia only needed 130 to win, yet fell short by just 18 runs to square the series. The similarities between this and Edgbaston last Sunday are obvious yet spine-tingling in their resonance.
First Test, 1886-87, Sydney
In 1887, only five years after it all began, one of the first classic Ashes matches took place in Sydney. Put into bat by Percy "Greatheart" McDonnell, England were devastated by Charles Turner's fast-medium off-breaks. Indeed, Turner's nickname, "The Terror," was perfectly apt for this match as he bowled England out for just 45, which remains England's lowest Test score. They faired slightly better in the second innings but, even despite the last three wickets extending England's lead to 111, Australia were firm favourites going into day three. Billy Barnes had other ideas, though, taking 6 for 28 from 46 overs, of which, astonishingly, 29 were maidens. Ably supported by Surrey's George Lohmann, playing in only his fourth Test, England scraped home by 13 runs.
Fourth Test, 1928-29, Adelaide
England had already won the Ashes come the fourth Test in the 1928-29 series. Yet, as Wisden commented, "they did not exhibit any lack of keenness." Wally Hammond was instrumental, striking a hundred in each innings and taking his run aggregate to 851 runs in four matches. Australia were indebted to Archie Jackson, who struck the ball sweetly to score a hundred on debut. His innings was, as described by Wisden, "in point of style and beauty of execution and strokeplay, the best innings played against the Englishmen during the whole tour." Brilliant though Jackson was, Australia stumbled in their second innings. At the start of seventh day of the match, 89 runs were required and the Don was still at the crease. But his wicket, a cruel run-out, signalled the end for Australia and England crept home by 12 runs.
Fourth Test, 1998-99, Melbourne
Widely pilloried before the fourth Test of the 1998-99 series, England responded with heart and never let Australia get too far away. England's talisman of the 1990s, Darren Gough, restricted Australia's run-machines to a relatively modest 340 in their first innings. Yet, despite Alec Stewart's second bolshy half-century in the match, Australia's target of 175 was seemingly none too tricky. Dean Headley - wicketless in the first innings - bowled with a demonic possession to take 6 for 60, to banish all suggestions of a 5-0 Ashes whitewash. The catalyst of Headley's inspirational spell was Mark Ramprakash's catch to dismiss Langer, who was well set on 30 - a spectacular diving effort from a vicious pull shot. Headley scented an unlikely upset and, cheered on by a particularly barmy Barmy Army, bowled with pace and hostility to produce a mini-spell of four for four in 13 balls. The last three Australian batsmen only lasted three balls, two falling to Gough whose tribal-dance celebrations demonstrated the importance of a rare victory on Australian soil, by just 12 runs.
First Test, 1894-95, Sydney
One of the strangest Ashes turnabouts of all time occurred in 1894 at the SCG. Choosing to bat, Australia compiled a mammoth score of 586, with Syd Gregory making a career-best 201. The captain, Jack Blackham at No. 10, who was playing in his final Test, also hit a career-best 74 and together with Gregory hit a record ninth-wicket partnership of 154 in just an hour-and-a-quarter. England's first-innings reply was feeble, but they followed on to place unanticipated pressure on Australia in the fourth innings, as overnight rain turned the pitch into a quagmire. On the fifth evening, Australia only required a further 64 runs to win. Indeed, several of England's players had thought the match lost and relaxed accordingly, including Bobby Peel. Stoddard was having none of this defeatist talk, and ordered Peel under a cold shower. It had the desired effect: he ran through Australia's batting on the sixth day, taking 6 for 67, to carry England through to a brilliant victory by just 10 runs.
Third Test, 1884-85, Sydney
With England leading the 1884-85 series 2-0, Australia needed a convincing performance in the third to claw back their chances of a series victory. They managed it, albeit in nail-biting fashion. Choosing to bat first, Australia came unstuck at the hands of Wilfred Flowers who took five wickets in their first innings, dismissing them for just 181. England fared even worse in reply, however, with Flowers top-scoring with 24. Set 214 to win, England were unlucky with the weather - a hailstorm had enlivened the pitch, and Fred "The Demon" Spofforth ran riot, taking 6 for 60, including the key wicket of Arthur Shrewsbury. With just seven runs needed for England to win, brilliance was needed - and Edwin Evans provided it with a remarkable catch at point, to dismiss England's allrounder Flowers and win the game for Australia by six runs
Only Test, 1882, The Oval
The one that fuelled the Ashes. In the only Test of 1882, England's infamous loss to Australia gave birth to the Ashes itself. Fred "The Demon" Spofforth's 14 wickets cut a swathe through England's batting in both innings. They only required 85 to win, in a low-scoring classic, but fell short by seven runs. Such was the game's drama and intensity that one spectator died of heart failure, and another bit through his umbrella handle. We know the feeling.
Fourth Test, 1902, Manchester
A blistering 104 from Victor Trumper, and deadly bowling from Hugh Trumble were the catalysts for one of Australia's most famous victories over England, in 1902 at Old Trafford. Trumper's remarkable hundred came before lunch, in 115 minutes, as Australia compiled 299. They were restricted by brilliant bowling from Bill Lockwood, who was delayed from bowling due to slippery footholes, who ended with 6 for 48. England fell 37 runs short in their first innings, but another inspired spell by Lockwood, who took 5 for 28, caused Australia to collapse to 86 all out, setting England a target of 124. Steady wickets fell to both Trumble and Saunders and, with eight runs needed and the last pair at the wicket, a sudden downpour brought play to a dramatic pause. After the delay, Fred Tate poked Saunders for four. Four more for victory. Saunders bowled a faster ball, to outfox Tate's defence, and Australia were victors by just four runs.
Second Test, 2005, Edgbaston
In a match which will surely be known as "Flintoff's Test," once the dust settles on this year's Ashes, England had everything to gain, and everything to lose. Their grease-lightning innings on the first day - 407 all out - was nearly matched by Australia, who fell 99 runs short. The success was short-lived, however, as Shane Warne reminded everyone of his enduring brilliance, skittling England's top-order with six wickets. Everyone, that is, but Flintoff. His thrilling 73 was, by 50 runs, England's highest score - and the manner in which it was attained, with muscular sixes and scythed fours, brought a partisan crowd alive. And by taking eight of Australia's second-innings wickets, on only day three, England waltzed into their dressing-room confident and expectant of victory. Day four produced an impossibly exciting finale, as Australia's tail-enders seized the initiative and edged ever closer to their target. With three runs still needed, Steve Harmison bounced Mike Kasprowicz, found the glove, and the much-maligned keeper, Geraint Jones, took the most important catch of his life.
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo