Enriching history

Andrew Flintoff was England’s main man during its 2005 Ashes triumph.-AP

That the Ashes has managed to retain its primacy for so long, in the plethora of high-quality sporting rivalries, could be largely attributed to the vicarious indulgence of the most ardent of the cricket aficionados. Prasanna Venkatesan makes an earnest attempt at capturing the ethos of what could be the top five Ashes series ever played.

More than 100 years have elapsed since that famed wooden bail, that gave birth to the ‘Ashes’, was burnt. But the essence of the spirited rivalry that wafted into existence still lingers on. That the Ashes has managed to retain its primacy for so long, in the plethora of high-quality sporting rivalries, could be largely attributed to the vicarious indulgence of the most ardent of the cricket aficionados. Ever since its onset, the dynamism of the characters involved, the twists and turns in the plot or the highly amusing benign, supercilious banters — the elements of a quintessential sporting drama of the highest order — have never been in short supply. Here is an earnest attempt at capturing the ethos of what could be the top five Ashes series ever played.

2005 Ashes: The aura of invincibility surrounding the Australian team and England’s ascent to the second position in the Test rankings, on the back of six consecutive series wins, added to the pre-series hype. It set in motion one of the most captivating and exhilarating contests, which had all the ingredients of a potential thriller — the ebbs and flows feeding unlimited suspense that culminated in nail-biting finishes. Freddie Flintoff did a Botham, scoring 403 runs and picking up 23 wickets, which enabled England to finally lay hands on the hallowed urn after an agonizingly long wait of 16 years and eight Ashes series. Kevin Pietersen’s match-saving 158, his maiden Test ton, in the final match at the Oval, added to his enigmatic appeal, accentuated by the streak of peroxide coated hair and a dash of flamboyance that complemented it.

Amid all these scenes of high drama, the one that stands out is the dramatic climax on the fourth day of the second Test at Edgbaston that saw England register the narrowest ever win in Ashes history. Australia needed only three runs to go 2-0 up, with a solitary wicket in hand. But a determined Steve Harmison charged in and banged one short, catching Michael Kasprowicz off-guard. The batsman could only fend it to the leg side, where Geraint Jones dived to complete an emotional English victory. Brett Lee, who had soldiered on bravely, looked distraught, but Flintoff was there to console him — providing a glimpse of what lies at the heart of the storied rivalry, the age old concept of chivalry.

1981 (Botham's Ashes): Discounting an Australian win in the opening match of the series, the 1981 series was all about Ian Botham. Such was the beefy all-rounder’s exploits that it was later dubbed as ‘Botham’s Ashes’. After the second Test ended in a tame draw, the third Test at Headingley paid witness to one of the most fascinating and outrageous sporting coups, orchestrated by Botham, that served as the cornerstone of England’s eventual series victory.

Asked to follow-on, England was reduced to 105 for five, still 122 runs behind Australia’s first innings score of 401. Enter Sir Beefy! He staged an escape act — even as two more wickets fell in quick succession at the other end — taking the Aussie bowlers to the cleaners, amassing 149 runs in a 219-minute raid. England went on to win the match and level the series 1-1.

Having pulverised Australia with the bat, Botham returned to achieve the same with the ball in the Edgbaston Test. Australia chasing 151, was 47 runs short with five wickets in hand, when Botham came in for his second spell on the fourth day.

Ian Botham's heroics with the bat during the second innings of the third Ashes Test at Headingley in 1981 sparked an English revival.-GETTY IMAGES

According to a Guardian report, Botham was reluctant to bowl, considering the conditions on offer, but Mike Brearley, the English captain then, seems to have told him to “just keep it tight” and provide support to John Emburey, who was bowling from the other end. The all-rounder did better than that, rounding up the Aussie innings in the space of 28 balls. His figures read 5-4-1-5. ‘Botham’s Ashes’ indeed!

1993 Ashes (Ball of the century): Among the myriad memorable moments that any sporting rivalry churns out, there are some that border on the outlandish that they become its tour de force.

The series came to be defined by one such moment, a delivery to be precise.

The spectacle, widely regarded as the ‘Ball of the Century,’ unfolded on the second day of the first Test at Old Trafford. Playing in his first Ashes Test, Shane Warne conjured up a moment of sheer wizardry to mark the occasion. The delivery, his first ever in Ashes history, pitched outside leg and ripped across to steer clear of Mike Gatting’s defence and hit the off-stump. Gatting, yet to come to terms with what had just happened, looked utterly perplexed, giving the distinct impression of an audience tricked into appreciative bemusement by the magician pulling a rabbit out of the hat.

It spurred an Australian dominance that continued throughout the series. Graham Gooch’s batting was the only bright spot for England in the six-match series, which Australia went on to win 4-1, on the back of Warne’s haul of 38 wickets.

2006 Ashes: Nothing tastes as good as revenge, served cold. And who would know it better than the victorious Australian team of 2006. Armed with purpose, the team operated with the clinical efficiency of a well-oiled machine to dish out, not one or two, but five victories in a row, no mean feat considering the psychological burden, generated by harsh criticism, that the team was saddled with, after England had wrested the urn from its clutches the previous year.

The import of the whitewash carried an air of poignancy with it, as the series marked the departure of Australian batting mainstays Damien Martyn and Justin Langer and bowling greats Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath from Test cricket. Warne and McGrath couldn’t have asked for a better sweepstake for their swansong as it was their sustained individual brilliance throughout the series that handed Australia the clean sweep.

The leg theory is put into practice by Larwood against Fingleton during the now infamous `Bodyline' series of 1932/33.-GETTY IMAGES

But it was Ricky Ponting, who emerged as the man of the series, quite literally. Of all the criticism directed towards the Australian team after the 2005 loss, it was, as is the norm, the Aussie captain who bore the brunt. Basketball icon Kobe Bryant once said that he takes pressure as an opportunity for him to rise. Ponting showed, as he has done innumerable times in his illustrious career, that he belongs to that distinguished breed of warrior sportsmen who refuse to be put down even in the most taxing of times. He showed the way with the bat, accumulating 576 runs, with two outstanding tons in 196 and 142, and inspired his team on the field to a rare whitewash.

1932 (Bodyline series): With the pre-eminence of Sir Don Bradman as a batting colossus, statistical data was elevated in status with more relevance attached to it. How else would one explain the anomaly of a last innings duck being considered fashionable? Also it’s only in his case that a single piece of statistic — his staggering batting average of 99.94 — that came into being as a result of his fabled duck, has come to not only represent but also exemplify a player’s genius.

Such was the cult of the diminutive Don that it comes as no surprise that the opposition had to spend vast amount of time to devise tactics, solely devoted to negate his game. But the English Ashes team of 1932 seems to have run out of ideas to counter his ingenious ways and decided to resort to intimidation. Termed ‘Bodyline’, the English bowlers, particularly Harold Larwood, employed the strategy in the third Test of the series, which involved bowling relentlessly towards a batsman’s body on the leg stump line to a packed field on the leg side. It posed a serious threat to the batsmen’s wellbeing, especially at a time when protective gears like helmets, were not in use. In the second innings, Australian wicket-keeper-batsman Bert Oldfield retired hurt with a fractured skull as Bill Woodfull decided to stay on, despite having received a blow to his chest, to battle his way to an unbeaten 73.

The story goes that the stratagem took shape after English captain Douglas Jardine saw footage of Bradman’s 232, that he made in the Oval Test of 1930, and noticed his discomfort in facing short deliveries directed towards his body.

England went on to win the series 4-1, but the unfair and infamous ‘Bodyline’ made the series a part of, not only the Ashes, but also cricketing notoriety.