Well hardly anyone predicted that England would regain the Ashes did they? I didn’t (see previous post “Ashes to Ashes?” for evidence). And no one predicted they wold regain them with a Test to spare as they would have to be two matches up with one to play to do this (Australia as holders would have retained them with a draw so if England had been 2-1 up not 3-1 the Ashes could still have been salvaged at the Oval) but it wasn’t to be. Congratulations to Alistair Cook and his team for a magnificent achievement that no one predicted as recently as July 19th when England were humiliated at Lords.
But where does 2015 fit into Ashes history? England have regained the Ashes seven times in post war history (1953, 1970-71, 1977, 1985, 2005, 2009 and 2015) so I decided to rank the seven in order of what I think is the best achievement with the top one coming first. I should say at this juncture that regaining the Ashes is always a magnificent feat but some Ashes retentions are harder than others. So here we go with where in my opinion England’s seven post war Ashes regains rank in history.
1.1970-71(won 2-0) This one in my opinion easily tops the list. First of all it was the only one of the seven where England regained the Ashes away from home. The Ashes have changed hands thirteen times since the war but only on this occasion and Australia’s win in 1989 was the feat done by the away team. That alone earns 1970-71 big points. Also England had not held the Ashes since 1959. Add to that the fact that captain Ray Illingworth had to deal with tour manager David Clark who wanted vice captain Colin Cowdrey to get the job (Illingworth had got the job by accident back in 1969 when Cowdrey got injured and a lot of people thought Cowdrey should have got the job back once he was fit) so the manager and captain did not get on well to put it mildly. Also England did not get a single lbw decision from the Australian* umpires in the whole six Test series. But England thanks to Illingworth’s captaincy and a fine team effort lead by Geoffrey Boycott with the bat and John Snow with the ball overcame the odds – but still won the final seventh** Test when Boycott wasn’t fit to play and Snow got injured halfway through. Illingworth called it the highlight of his career. It is also the highlight of England’s post war Ashes history. (Guy Fraser-Sampson’s book “Cricket at the Crossroads, Class, Colour and Controversy from 1967 to 1977” – pages 127-168 – has excellent writing on this series).
The next two are far harder to separate and no 2 beats no 3 by a short head.
2. 2005 (won 2-1) Often called the greatest Test series ever and with some justification. The middle three Tests – Edgbaston (which England won by 2 runs) Old Trafford (draw with Australia having only one wicket left) and Trent Bridge (England won by three wickets after threatening to choke a la Australia in 1981) must be the greatest trio of Tests ever. Three things rank this series highly. First England had not held the Ashes since 1989. Secondly the excitement of the cricket and the outstanding individual performances of Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Simon Jones, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath among others. And thirdly this was a great Australian side – yet England inflicted only their fourth series defeat in 21 years (and they would not lose another one for three more). Only the fact that it was in England stops this being number 1.
3.1953 (won 1-0) So many similarities between this series and 2005. Again England had not held the Ashes for a long time – they lost them in 1934 – and (like 2005) this series captured the nation’s imagination as it was the first series a large number of the country could watch on TV (TV only really became popular in the UK in June 1953 when a large number of people bought their first sets to watch the coronation of the current Queen). There were great performances from Trevor Bailey, Willie Watson and in the last decisive match spinners Jim Laker and Tony Lock. The reason this is no 3 is that there was a lot of rain and defensive cricket. As Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2003 (page 59) put it “the slow batting, and all the rain, means that 1953 cannot be ranked as the greatest Ashes series of them all”.
4. 2015 (lead 3-1 with one to play) Always hard to judge a current series but mid table is fair. It has ben a great feat for Cook to overcome the trauma of the 5-0 disaster in Australia back in 2013-14 and the stick he got for the axing of Pietersen last year and for his own poor form of most of 2014. For long spells he was more hated than UK Prime Minister David Cameron! It also took courage to change his team’s dour defensive approach for a more attacking one which I thought (see “Ashes to Ashes?”) was beyond him. The performances of Joe Root and Stuart Broad in particular will go down in Ashes folklore. 2015 can only be ranked fourth as Australia’s batting has been awful and after all England held the Ashes as recently as 2013 (unlike the three occasions above where they regained them after long periods of Australian dominance). Still a very pleasant surprise in a year full of surprises.
5.2009 (won 2-1) The luckiest of the seven. England’s series batting average was 34.15. Australia’s was 40.64***. Australia scored eight centuries to England’s two. Yet somehow England won. This was due to the heroics of Paul Collingwood, James Anderson and Monty Panesar in turning certain first Test defeat into a draw the batting and captaincy of Andrew Strauss and inspirational bowling spells from Flintoff, Broad and Grahame Swann. But the fact that this came so soon after the Lord Mayor’s Show of 2005 plus the luck that was involved sends this down the list.
6. 1977 (won 3-0) Similar to 1953 in that the Ashes was regained during a summer of Royal celebration – the Queen’s Silver Jubilee this time – it loses points because the Australians were divided among themselves between those who h had signed for Kerry Packer’s World Series cricket (thirteen of the seventeen man squad) and the minority who had not. Dennis Lillee then the best bowler in the world and former captain Ian Chappell had according to Wisden 1978 “left their flannels at the cleaners until the Packer fortunes became available” thus weakening the team. Plus the fact England only lost the Ashes in 1975 made this feat less remarkable. It is still memorable for the batting of Bob Woolmer, the fast bowling of Bob Willis and two significant events. Boycott scored his 100th career hundred on his home ground of Headingley in the match where the Ashes were regained and a young all rounder called Ian Botham made his debut during this series took five wickets in an innings in both his first two Tests and went on to have a reasonably good career!
7.1985 (won 3-1) Similar to 1977 in that Australia were weakened by the loss of sixteen of their best players to a rebel tour of South Africa and that England had only lost the Ashes in 1983. Captain David Gower was outstanding scoring 732 runs and Botham took 31 wickets in his last great series as a bowler. But the fact that Australia’s bowling apart from Geoff Lawson and Craig McDermott was as awful as their batting has been this year means that it is the least impressive feat of the seven times that England have regained the Ashes in the post war era.
However it is still a great feat. Anything that has only happened seven times in sixty years is always impressive. But some are more impressive than others. I should say the list above is subjective my opinion and I suspect not everyone will agree with it.
*Ridiculous as it must seem to fans of other sports all cricket umpires (there are two on field umpires in cricket) were from the host country until 1994, and it wasn’t until 2002 that two neutral umpires became the norm. Some dinosaurs still want home umpires to return but we don’t want umpires who are perceived to be biased even if they are not. I’m not saying the Australian umpires in 1970-71 were biased (I wasn’t even born) but that lbw statistic is suspicious to put it mildly.
**The 1970-71 series was scheduled to have six Tests. When the third Test was rained off the two cricket boards agreed to add an extra seventh Test to the schedule (over the heads of England’s players who disapproved of the idea). That explains why there were six Tests played but seven in the series. It is the one seven Test series in Ashes history and means England will have a 100% record in seventh Ashes tests for ever as a seven Test series has never been – or ever will be – scheduled.
***As in baseball the higher the batting average the better the performance is.