A week from today is the 10th anniversary of what is thrust upon the (small) cricketing world as the greatest series of all time. The English media repeatedly makes Goebbelsian propaganda look like an infomercial which no one watches. We have already seen it with Mike Brearley. Every year the legend keeps growing. It was exciting no doubt but was it really the greatest series of all time?
The astute Tony Cozier has put down the 2005 Ashes in favour of the Australia-West Indies series of 1960-61. A series that led to the trophy contested between the countries being named in honour of Frank Worrell. Though it took place long before I was born, I concur. There is enough literature out there to see why it is so great not only in terms of cricket but also from a social standing. The series included what is the first ever (near) perfect tie. I say near perfect simply because there was 1 ball left in the last over. All 40 wickets were lost with total scores level. The only way it could have been “perfecter” was if Joe Solomon had run out Ian Meckiff just one ball later. Joe Solomon also ran out top scorer Alan Davidson in the previous over. An Indian guy with 2 direct hit run outs. Go Figure!!!!
There is a word that regularly appears in any argument: context. Apparently the “context” here being that England hadn’t held the Ashes for 18 years and had beaten the best team ever. What the “context” fails to mention is the Australia were not full strength for the whole series. With the benefit of hindsight, we can safely state that Jason “Dizzy” Gillespie was cooked. That Australia’s player of the last 25 years, Glenn McGrath, injured himself and missed 2 tests has been completely airbrushed.
England came into the Ashes in great form. They went undefeated in 2004 beating West Indies home and away, New Zealand at home and a titanic 2-1 win in the South African summer aka winter for us normal northern hemisphere folk. Now that Eng-SA series in itself was a great 5 test series between two very even sides. To say England were confident is understating it. Australia, fresh from conquering their final frontier, were also in good form. In the tri-series preceding the test series, Australia shockingly lost their first 2 matches. The opening loss was their first ever defeat to Bangladesh in Cardiff.
Normal service soon resumed as the Aussies won their remaining matches with one match rained off. In the final Australia were shot out for 196 and an England win seemed academic. Lee & McGrath showed their class and sent half the side inside 10 overs with nearly 160 runs left to defend. The underrated Collingwood and Papua New Guinean Geraint Jones slowly milked the spinners and Gillespie to take the Poms to within 47 runs of the target. 3 quick wickets later it seemed over as Gough joined Giles. Some wild batting by the duo and a sub par final over from McGrath resulted in a tie. For a team used to being bullied and bashed by the Australians for nearly 20 years, this was nearly a victory.
The English confidence was sky high as the Lord’s test began. Harmison nearly broke Langer’s elbow with the 2nd ball of the Ashes. A few overs later his bouncer cut Ponting’s cheek as England literally drew first blood. Channeling his inner West Indies fast bowler of the 80s, Harmison hurried and harried Australia to 190 all out inside 41 overs with a line that read 11.2-0-43-5. Then came the Australian response and boy what a response it was. The most successful visiting bowler at Lord’s, bowling half as quick but twice as accurately as Harmison, reduced England to 21/5. KP, on his debut, resisted as he reduced Australia’s lead to only 35 runs. Australia batted with purpose and set the Poms 420 to win. The Pigeon was as devastating as in the first innings as Australia extended their undefeated run in Lord’s tests since 1934 to win by 239 runs.
The biggest turning point of the series came right before the 2nd test as McGrath stepped over a ball and injured his ankle. Without their metronome, Australia completely lost their collective radar as England piled 407 runs at slightly over 5 rpo on day one. Shane Warne kept Australia in the hunt with a 6fer in the 2nd innings as England set Australia 282 to win. I’ll admit that day 4 of this test was the 2nd most exciting day of test cricket that I have seen after 153*. What seemed like a formality turned into a nightmare for England, as the trio of Warne, Kasprowicz and Brett Lee took Australia to within 3 runs of winning it after starting the day more than 100 runs in arrears. I clearly remember my roommates and I being disappointed when Brett Lee played that cover drive thinking the game was over but Vaughan had a sweeper. Then came that contentious caught behind as England won a thriller by just 2 runs.
An unfit McGrath hurriedly returned for the third test to help his side but he was clearly hobbled as he went wicketless in the first innings and was thrashed around by the Papua New Guinean in the 2nd innings but took his most expensive 5fer. A captain’s innings by Ricky Ponting and some terrific rearguard by Lee & McGrath with the bat helped Australia survive by the skin of their teeth. A fantastic test bookended by two captains’ innings. As far as match saving innings are concerned, I put this Ponting special as one of the greatest of all time.
McGrath missed the following test due to injury and England made heavy weather of a small target and limped over the line to win by 3 wickets. The test was memorable solely for the reason that Australia were made to follow on for the first time since 1988-89. Chasing 129, England were comfortably placed at 103/4 but contrived to lost 3 wickets before being dragged across the line by Giles and the lovable Hoggard. This was not the classic evenly contested test match. England dominated the test for three and half days and somehow wanted to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The fifth test was merely a good test match. McGrath returned but the match was rain affected and both teams posted middling scores over the first 4 days. It was a tight contest as England made a comeback after Hayden and Langer posted 185 runs for the first wicket. England ended day 4 at 34/1, 40 runs ahead. All they had to do was bat for about 50 overs and the coveted Ashes was theirs after 18 years. The final day belonged to one Kevin Pietersen. At a semi-delicate position, he was dropped by the safest of hands: Shane Warne. As great players do, KP took his chance and scored his first ever test hundred and the Ashes was England’s after the longest 18 years.
If you had noticed England won two matches that McGrath missed and could not beat Australia when the Pidge was available although they came mightily close at Old Trafford. This win must be what the Americans call a win with an asterisk. McGrath’s absence cannot be undervalued. He is invaluable in maintaining pressure on the batsmen. The two premier batsmen of his era: Tendulkar & Lara, average 66 against Australia without McGrath and 36 & 46 respectively against Australia with McGrath. It is just a small example of what the Pigeon did. The lesson of this story is that a very good team (England) beat another very good team (Australia). It was not a great team vs a great team. A fantastic series, one of the all time great series but not the greatest.
Other than the 1960-61 Aus-WI series, this is a short list of 5-test series that I consider to be as good if not better than the 2005 Ashes. A list that is by no means comprehensive. Just a few series that were not as hyped as the Poms winning in 2005.
An undermanned India (Gavaskar missed 3 of the 5 matches) going against a much stronger but inexperienced West Indies. The Caribbeans came running off the blocks to go 2-0 up before the wily spin trio and Gundappa Ranganath Viswanath leveled things and suddenly West Indies were trying to avoid going the 1936/37 England way. Supercat then took responsibility and scored his highest score (242*) as the islanders won the series 3-2. As tough a 5 test series as they come.
A terrific series between two teams with great batting experience and slightly inexperienced bowling. Colin Croft and Joel “Big Bird” Garner made their test debuts in this series. Imran Khan had announced himself earlier in the year with a 12 wicket haul against Australia after 5-6 listless years of international cricket. The last 3 West Indies batsmen had to survive nearly 20 overs of fiery Imran Khan to draw the first test and the series was level 1-1 going into the 5th test. With the series on the line, the Windies raised their level to win the final test by 140 runs to take the series by the slimmest of margins.
The series that contained the closest test win of all time. The 1 run win in Adelaide on Australia day no less. West Indies hung on to a rain affected draw in the first test with just 2 wickets in hand and were comprehensively outplayed in the 2nd test. Shane Warne announced himself with a 7/52 that gave Australia the lead in a Frank Worrell trophy for the first time since 1980/81. The Sydney test was high scoring draw in which the Prince of Trinidad showed his appetite for the big score. The tightest of wins in the aforementioned Adelaide test meant the teams were level 1-1 as the 5th test began in Perth. Curtly Ambrose found a hidden extra gear in his arsenal as WI demolished Australia inside 3 days to win the series.
In summary the 2005 Ashes was as good a series as they come but it is not the greatest series of all time. The above mentioned 3 series and other series like India-Australia 2001, West Indies-Pakistan 1988 were just as absorbing, enthralling, exciting and hard fought as the Ashes of 2005.