With the Ashes lost before England’s rearguard at Sydney, fingers are already beginning to point. A slavish devotion to the white ball game is one of many contributory factors. But it might be cathartic to look back and remember happier times on tour in Australia. It hasn’t all been bad…
In all honesty Brisbane hasn’t been the happiest of hunting grounds for England. They have a notoriously poor record at the Gabba, having only won two test matches at the ground since the end of the Second World War. The best result was a 7 wicket victory obtained twice in 1978 and 1986. The former was secured as part of a 5-1 series win; however, both sides were affected by the absence of players lost to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. Victory in 1986 had a much stronger glow of satisfaction as England later retained the Ashes with a 2-1 series win. They got off to a flier in the first test and compiled a gorgeous first innings total of 456. Bill Athey, Mike Gatting and David Gower all scored half centuries. But inevitably it was Ian Botham who starred with a sparkling 138. Never one to hang about Beefy scored thirteen fours and four sixes off 174 balls.
Australia was bowled out for 248 in their first innings as Graham Dilley took an excellent 5 for 68. The follow on was duly enforced, but Geoff Marsh was the only batsman who showed any real resistance with a solid 110. However, he ran out of partners as England clinically turned the screw. Greg Richie was the only other batsman to put in a real shift sharing a partnership of 113 with Marsh. A meagre second innings of 282 left England requiring 75 for victory. They lost three wickets but it was a sweet victory for England set up by the mercurial Ian Botham; adding fuel to the legend that he was only truly motivated when facing the Australians.
The Adelaide Oval is one of the oldest test venues in Australia having hosted its first match in 1884. England won that first rubber by 8 wickets; and by an innings and 230 runs in 1892. But the most notable recent victory came in December 2010 as England battled to retain the Ashes. The first test at Brisbane ended in a draw with almost 1,400 runs scored over five days. Alastair Cook scored an unbeaten 235 while Australia’s Michael Hussey hit 195. Both batsmen would emerge as top scorers in the series. The context was set as Australia won the toss and opted to bat. They were pegged back to 245 with some tidy bowling, particularly from Jimmy Anderson who took 4 for 51.
It paved the way for England to run riot with the bat as they nonchalantly declared on 620 for 5. Surprisingly, the only failure with the bat was captain Andrew Strauss who was bowled for a single. But Alastair Cook weighed in with 148 and Kevin Pietersen hit a monstrous 227 which included 34 boundaries. Australia needed 375 to make England bat again and initially made steady progress. They edged onto 238 for 4 as Michael Clarke was dismissed for 80. Michael Hussey and Marcus North were now at the crease; but could the Aussies run the clock down and eke out a draw?
The tourists lost Stuart Broad to an abdominal injury but they would not be denied. Graeme Swann mopped up any lingering resistance with a sterling 5 for 91. It was a magnificently controlled and disciplined performance as England won by an innings and 71 runs. They also struck a massive physiological blow going one up with three tests to play. All the pressure was now squarely on the shoulders of the Australians. A 3-1 series win for England had never felt better.
The very first test match was played at Melbourne in March 1877. Australia won the inaugural test by 45 runs; England squared the series with a 4 wicket victory a fortnight later. There have been some absolute humdingers over the years at MCG; two narrow England victories are worth a mention just for nuisance value.
In 1982, the Aussies were defeated by just 3 runs in the fourth test. England were trailing in the series 2-0 and desparate for a break. Only 3 runs separated the teams after the first innings. England knocked a modest 294 in their second innings with Graeme Fowler top scoring on 65. This left the Aussies with a modest 292 for victory. A stubborn middle order made a game of it; but England clinched the win thanks to a brutally fast 6 for 77 from Norman Cowans. In 1998, a similarly low scoring match produced a thrilling climax. The tourists set Australia an under nourished total of 175 to win. But England all-rounder Dean Headley returned excellent figures of 6 for 60 to secure a 12 run victory. Both results had a bittersweet quality as England lost both series in 1982/83 and 1998/99 but at least the Aussies didn’t have it all their own way.
Inevitably, certain tours down under stand out more than others and matches at the MCG are no exception. Again, the Ashes tour of 1986/87 looms large as England retained the Ashes with two days to spare in December 1986. Ian Botham was in devastating form as he returned figures of 5 for 41 and Chris Broad scored 112. But for the sheer margin of victory the Melbourne test of 2010/11 must take the plaudits. England dominated from the start as they put Australia into bat.
The tourists had the luxury of replacing leading wicket taker Stephen Finn, who they felt was leaking runs. His replacement, Tim Bresnan, took 2 for 25 as Australia crumbled to 98 all out in the first innings. England’s run machine purred into action and posted a hefty 520 with Jonathan Trott unbeaten on 168. Australia were dispatched with relative ease as they only reached 258. Bresnan justified his selection with a useful 4 for 50. The Ashes were retained with one test left to play. I took an extra helping of smugness as Ricky Ponting was fined 40% of his match fee for arguing with the umpires’ decision: oh how we laughed.
Sydney has been a test venue since 1882 and has seen Ashes combatants largely go neck and neck. England have recorded 22 victories against Australia’s 27 with 7 draws. The tourists posted wins by an innings in 1901, 1936 and 1966. More recently England cruised to a 225 run victory in 2003. The Ashes were already lost as they were 4-0 down and might be seen as a dead rubber. Nevertheless, some pride was restored as Michael Vaughn scored 183 and Mark Butcher hit 124. Something the current England team might care to bear in mind.
But, like a magnet attention turns yet again to the final test of the 2010/11 series. It was a victory roll for England but the execution was faultless. Much like the previous test Australia were bowled out cheaply and allowed England to build an unassailable lead. England compiled 644; their highest score of the series which included 3 individual centuries. Australia scored 281 in their second knock but could not prevent a defeat of an innings and 83 runs. It must be questioned when England will reach such heights again?
Perth didn’t take its bow as a test venue until 1970, and England have a dismal record at the WACA with only one victory in 1978. Mike Brearley captained the tourists in a series undermined by Kerry Packer’s machinations with World Series Cricket. One should never be ungrateful as England won by 166 runs; but the game was only distinguished by a century from David Gower. The Bellerive Oval in Hobart only became a test venue in 1989 and England are yet to play there. The final Ashes test for 2021/22, of course, will be played at Hobart on 14-18 January.
When a series is resolved by the third test there is a sense of anti-climax as the outcome is already known. Yet there are still important lessons to be gleaned and salvaging some respect does no harm. Any victory should be celebrated in the present, and we live in hope with glasses that are half full.