Since 1877, 165 Ashes Test matches have been contested in Australia. 85 of them have been won by the host nation with England only claiming 54 victories. But with the Aussies currently on a steady slide down the world rankings, a resurgently confident England travel Down Under this month to defend the coveted urn that they triumphantly reclaimed last summer.
What sets the Ashes apart from other major international sporting contests is the time span over which it is settled. The series runs from November 25th to January 7th, and the mental concentration required to maintain a high level of performance in such an intimidating atmosphere is astonishing – particularly in Australia where the home press will always do their best to grind down the visitors’ spirit.
On March 15th 1877 the first official international test match began. Australia beat England by 45 runs on that occasion and the Ashes rivalry has raged ever since, producing some of cricket’s greatest moments. Here are five such moments that perfectly capture the spirit of an Ashes series Down Under:
Vaughan stands alone (2002-2003 Series)
In a series during which England were typically outplayed and embarrassed, Michael Vaughan fought a lone battle and piled up over 600 runs in 5 matches, taking him to the number one spot in Test Match batting rankings.
Gough takes 3 in 3 (Sydney 1999)
With no England player having taken an Ashes hat-trick for 100 years, Yorkshire’s finest Darren Gough claimed that most rare of cricketing achievements by removing Ian Healy, Stuart McGill and Colin Miller in consecutive balls.
An aluminium bat (Perth 1979)
An event that prompted the MCC to change the Laws of Cricket. Dennis Lillee walked out and began his innings with a bat made entirely of aluminium, and after the umpires asked him to switch it for a standard wooden one, he proceeded to hurl it across the outfield.
700 for Warne (Melbourne 2006)
Having claimed his 699th Test wicket in the previous match at Perth, the world’s greatest ever leg spinner announced that Andrew Strauss would be his milestone 700th wicket. Being Shane Warne, he of course did just that.
Tufnell’s admirer (Melbourne 1990)
Never known for pleasing captains with his (lack of) fielding ability, Phil Tufnell had been sent down to fine leg by skipper Graham Gooch in an effort to hide him from the ball he so often fumbled. However there was no hiding from the inspired wit of one Aussie crowd member who, in what must be the greatest sledge in cricketing history, proclaimed: “Oi, Tufnell! Lend us your brain, we’re building an idiot.”
The usual mind games are well and truly underway, and what makes it tastier than usual is the number of players who are staking the future of their international careers on their upcoming performances. In the Aussie camp captain Ricky Ponting is now more than ever feeling the pressure. He will need to dominate the England bowlers like he did in the 2006/07 series, otherwise he may not be on the plane for Australia’s next tour. In the England camp Alastair Cook has a lot to prove, with a dreadful record against Australia he will have to show skipper and opening partner Andrew Strauss that he is worthy of selection. Most of all Kevin Pietersen, holder of a magnificent record against Australia, will have to overcome recent personal demons in order to return to his former destructive self.
Who cares about the inconvenient time difference? Watching the Ashes Down Under is seeing legends being made, men being broken and sleep patterns ruined. Believe me – it’s worth it.