Top 5 Ashes moments – number 1

Blokes love ranking things.  It’s just something we do.  We love to order things, quantify things by relative quality, and relish in the ensuing debate.  YouTube is brimming with videos entitled ‘Top 10 Goals OF ALL TIME!!!,’ ‘Top 20 most brutal knockout punches,’ or ‘Top 17 escapes from tricky snookers behind the baulk colours’ (I made that last one up by the way, although I am now considering compiling such a video).  Rugby HQ, Fox Sports Australia’s Rugby Union show, has had a new slot this year detailing Rugby’s Top 5s in a variety of categories, including Top 5 Tackles Gone Wrong, Top 5 Bombed Tries, and Top 5 Fatman Tries.  Most of them have topped 100,000 YouTube hits.

Cricket as a sport loves ranking (I said Rrrranking) more than most.  A sport in general will have a World Ranking list.  Cricket, as you might expect from a sport dedicated to statistics, has rankings for international teams, rankings for the best batsmen, best wicket-keepers, best bowlers and best all-rounders in international cricket (although given Alex Hales is currently rated the best Twenty20 batsman in the world I wouldn’t rely on them too much).  Not only does every current international player have a ranking, but every international player of all time.  Some people have been paid (jammy bastards) to trawl through every cricket international ever played, and feed the data into the ICC’s rank-o-meter, so if you want to know the top ranked Test batsman or bowler in July 1958 (Peter May and Tony Lock respectively if you really want to know), you can find out. 

All I have been trying to do in those two paragraphs is justify the subject of this latest article, which will be the top 5 Ashes moments that I can remember.  I’ve decided to limit it to one per series, and only ones that I can actually remember happening rather than reading about later on.  Given my tendency to waffle on, I’ll publish them one at a time, so here goes.

  1. 1.       Day 5, Adelaide, 4th Test 1995

The first Ashes series that I was aware of was the 1989 series, an unmitigated disaster for England, who, laughably, started the series as favourites, but ended up, due to injury, the announcement of a rebel team to tour South Africa in the winter, and a staggeringly short-sighted selection policy, using 29 players during the series, the equivalent of picking 3 new players every Test.  To my mind the series consisted of Mark Taylor scoring runs, and Terry Alderman trapping a succession of players (but mainly Graham Gooch) lbw – never any chance of there being a top moment here then.  The 1990-91 series likewise passed me by, and it wasn’t until the Oval Test of 1993 that I was able to consciously experience an England victory in an Ashes Test.  However, other than the fact it was Angus Fraser’s return to Test cricket, I don’t remember much about that game, so we must continue to England’s nest Ashes victory for my first moment.

England arrived Adelaide in a pretty dreadful state.  Some ludicrous selections (Martin McCague and Joey Benjamin ahead of Angus Fraser?  Really?), and a terrible run of injuries and illness meant the Aussies won the series despite not being anywhere near their best.  Shane Warne took a stack of wickets to win the first two matches in Brisbane and Melbourne, but Darren Gough inspired an England fightback in Sydney, where Australia ended the final day 7 down to claim a draw.  However, in the one-day international between the third and fourth Tests, Gough, England’s latest new Botham, suffered a stress fracture to his foot, and by the morning of the Adelaide match, Mike Atherton literally only had 11 fit players to choose from, with Graeme Hick’s injury meaning Chris Lewis had to be drafted in from playing local club cricket.  The batting line-up looked desperately shallow, with Steven Rhodes, in horrendous form with the bat, batting at 6, and Fraser, belatedly called up as a replacement, getting vertigo at 9.

As it turned out, England didn’t do too badly in the first innings, making 353, thanks mainly to Mike Gatting scratching out an ugly 117, and Atherton making a cussed 80.  Reservations about the length of the tail proved accurate, however, as the last 6 wickets only added 57.  Australia responded strongly, with Michael Slater and Mark Taylor putting on 128 for the first wicket, but a quick flurry of wickets left the score at 232-5, a promising position for England.  As per usual, they couldn’t make it count as debutant Greg Blewett, a batsman so aesthetically pleasing you could hang his cover drive in the Louvre, and Ian Healy, possibly my most hated cricketer growing up, put on 164 without too much effort.  Although Australia did a passable impression of England, losing their last 5 wickets for 23 on the morning of the 4th day, you felt that their lead of 66 would probably prove crucial.  Once Lewis was bowled by Damien Fleming trying to leave the ball, England were 181-6, a lead of 115, and despite John Crawley and Philip DeFreitas dragging them to 220-6 by the close of play, no-one but the most deluded would have expected anything other than yet another Australian victory (yawn).

It turned out both Crawley and DeFreitas must have been pretty deluded, as they added a further 50 before Crawley fell for 71 to that most potent of weapons, a Mark Waugh bouncer.  It was at this point that DeFreitas went beserk.  Whether he thought that England’s lead was such that they now had a chance, whether he figured that, with only Fraser, Devon Malcolm and Phil Tufnell to come, he was England’s only hope of runs, or whether he just fancied giving it a pit of humpty, he proceeded to lay into Craig McDermott, flicking him expertly over square leg for 6, and then taking 22 off his next over, including a brutal hook over long leg, before becoming the next victim of Mark Waugh’s suddenly unplayable bouncer.  His 88, coupled with a couple of Malcolm specials off Shane Warne, lifted England’s total to 324, setting Australia a target of 265 in 66 overs.  The perfect run chase – low enough for the chasing team to have no qualms about going for the runs, high enough for the defending team to set attacking fields and not worry initially about conceding too many.

As it turned out, an Australian victory was never on the cards.  Devon Malcolm had one of those days where it all clicked – similar to his famous 9-57 against South Africa at The Oval the previous summer, where the South African batsman had looked petrified.  You knew it was going to be England’s day when Tufnell of all people took a tricky catch at fine leg to dismiss Slater, and when Malcolm timbered Steve Waugh first ball with a blinding in-ducker to leave Australia 23-4, it was a question of whether Australia could hold out.  Wickets continued to fall regularly – Mark Waugh went to a very questionable catch by Gatting off Tufnell at short leg (the ball apparently hit Gatting on the instep and ballooned into his hands without touching the ground), and when McDermott edged Lewis to Rhodes, Australia were 83-8 with more than 30 overs left.

But that annoying bastard Healy was still there and, accompanied by Damien Fleming, hung around, scoring fairly fluently and never looking like getting out.  The pair battled through until 9 overs from the end, when Lewis, giving one of his best performances in Tests, which isn’t really saying much, bowled a short-ish ball to Fleming that didn’t bounce as much as the batsman was expecting.  He missed his pull shot, the ball struck him on the pads and the 9 England players around the bat all appealed.  To the naked eye, the ball appeared to be going over the top, but umpire Venkat immediately raised the finger, and England had the breakthrough.  Healy got to his 50, but when last man, leg-spinner Peter McIntyre was left on strike, Atherton brought back Malcolm.  It only took one ball, a fast inswinger trapping the tailender in front, to give England an unlikely victory.

The reason this is a memorable moment for me is the sheer unexpectedness of it.  At the risk of sounding like an old git, there was no internet back then, no up-to-the minute scores, so for Test matches in Australia, you went to bed, and woke up the next morning to find out what had happened in a whole day’s cricket.  So, I went to bed expecting another ignominious England defeat, only to be greeted with the news at breakfast that they had somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, a most un-English trait during the 1990s.

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