Despite the rising popularity of ODI and T20, to the true cricket aficionado Test cricket is still the pinnacle of the sport. The shorter formats are a quick fix with bursts of power and excitement. The longest format is the greatest test of skill and at its best can enthral the spectator for a full five days. Obviously it’s best when we can actually go to a day’s play but failing that (i.e. most of the time), we plan our day around the cricket. It’s good to be able to watch on TV and then it is even possible to have our meals during breaks in play. The brilliant radio coverage on TMS is as good as tele in a different way and I have a sneaky radio secreted at work and a couple of others around the house. One of these is small enough to travel with me. The last resort is following via online updates on a PC or phone. In the case of a great series this investment in time, planning and emotion can last for weeks turning to months. Almost every series has a good match or two, some even have a match that can be termed as great and these live long in our memories. Truly great series require an even balance between the two teams and a finale in which both are still in the hunt. These have always been infrequent and are becoming increasingly rare.
My first memories of cricket are of Ashes series and others featuring the emerging West Indies team. I recall watching the likes of Greig, Boycott, Richards, Holding, Lloyd, Lillee, Thompson and the Chappells. The first series to really enthral me was the 1981 series which was dubbed “Botham’s Ashes”, although my most vivid memory is of Bustling Bob Willis charging his way down the hill at Headingly to 8-43. Individual performances aside, this series doesn’t really count as “Great” as it finished 3-1, not close enough in my book.
The series that really turned my cricket habit into a lifelong addiction was England’s tour to the Caribbean in the spring of 1990. England had recently been battered 4-0 in a home Ashes series and West Indies were still the best team in the world by a distance. Led by Graham Gooch England sent a young inexperienced squad to face a team of contemporary icons; great batsmen and probably the best pace bowling attack there has ever been. On paper it was a mismatch, as my West Indian friends were constantly reminding me.
But England’s young lions punched above their weight and surprised everyone by winning in Jamaica to take a 1-0 lead. The test match in Guyana was washed out without a ball being bowled and England almost made it 2-0 in Trinidad but rain and bad light saved the West Indies. Gooch broke his hand in this match and that may have been the turning point as WI roared back to take the final two tests and clinch the series 2-1.
By 1999 the order of world cricket had changed and Australia now ruled the roost. They visited the West Indies expecting to dominate the home team and sure enough cruised to an easy win in the opening match with McGrath rampant. In the next held in Jamaica Brian Lara scored a brilliant 213 to help his side to a win.
The third test was an absolute classic. Steve Waugh scored 199 in the first innings to set the game up and it looked like Australia would control the game and eventually win with West Indies set 310 to win. Enter Brian Lara again who scored an amazing 153* to lead the home team to an unlikely one wicket win. WI were one up with one to play but the Aussies showed their class with a good all round performance to win and level the series. Langer scored 126 and Lara hit another century but it wasn’t enough this time. This was a great series and at that time nowhere else in the world could compare with the cricket mad West Indies for the atmosphere and backdrop to great cricket.
Then in 2005 in
home of the game cricket reached heights of excellence never before seen – by
me at least. The British people created
an atmosphere, up and down the country, that out stripped even the Caribbean in
its heyday. It’s hard to believe a
decade has passed since that series and following the retirement of Michael
Clarke only Ian Bell is still playing test cricket. Over the last decade England have won four
out of six Ashes series but those of us that have long addiction to test
cricket cannot forget that prior to 2005 we hadn’t held the urn for almost
Before the real cricket there was some short format stuff and whereas Australia were used to dominating everyone, this time they didn’t have it all their own way. England won the T20 match and gave the Aussies a fright in the ODI’s. Although Australia took the ODI’s overall, the scores were even going into the main event. Everything was set up perfectly going into the test series. Australia fielded a team of all time greats and had been the world’s best test side for a long time. England were on the up too, we had won our last five series and had just beaten South Africa on their own soil. This was a clash between the teams ranked numbers one and two in the world but Australia were still expected to win, even though some Aussie pundits conceded England might prove competitive for a change. There were some of us who thought that no team could possibly be as strong after having the Waugh twins retire. Also could the veterans McGrath and Warne stay fit for all five matches? I really believed England could win this time; the series couldn’t come quickly enough.
The series arrived and it was magnificent. You can read match reports on the web if you go looking but here are my memories of the greatest series ever played.
First test – Lords
The test series started late this year and we had to wait until the third week of July but at last it was here! The first test was held at Lords and the teams enter the field through a Long room that had never been so animated. Australia won the toss and elected to bat. England had a four man pace attack that was fit and fearless, they roared into the Aussies!
I was at work, listening to the match on TMS and it was fantastic! England got stuck right into he Aussies, the challenger landed some punches and the champion wobbled! Hayden fell early, Ponting was hit and cut and then out! The pace attack shared the wickets and Aus were 97-5 at lunch! It continued in the afternoon, Steve Harmison was inspired and ripped through the tail for 5-43 and Aus were all out for 190. England were 10-0 at tea! The first couple of sessions had been thrilling; I’d yelled and whooped with every wicket, the sound reverberating around the large warehouse I managed at the time. England had bowled out and battered the Aussies; they knew they were in a fight now.
That was the high point. Glenn McGrath loves Lords and he was at his best taking the first five wickets and reducing England to 97-7 at the close. Only the young upstart KP Pietersen was showing any resistance.
From day two onwards Australia dominated the match. England’s tail wagged but Australia had a lead on first innings which they built on second time around. England bowled well but a partnership of 155 between Ponting and Clarke, who top scored with 91, took the game away. The elation of the first two sessions will never be forgotten but Second time around, England were bowled out for 180 and Australia won by 239 runs. For England Pietersen on debut scored a half century in each innings but the great Glenn McGrath took nine wickets and was man of the match. I missed the worst of the carnage by fishing for Zander in the fens. A check of the diary reveals I had a six pound Zander and a surprise double figure Pike in the same net when both rods went within minutes of each other at first light.
In the aftermath all the usual suspects jumped on the bandwagon to declare this Ashes summer would be just another easy Australian victory. Ashley Giles in particular was slagged off in the media for not contributing. None other than John Emburey, speaking on Radio 5 called for him to be axed. The fans sometimes know more than the pundits, we knew Giles had been a key member of a successful team for some time, he’d come good. Defeat was horrible but this fan was not too despondent. I knew England could perform much better than that and it was noticeable that Gillespie didn’t take a wicket in the match also Gilchrist didn’t get many runs. After Lords, after going 1-0 down I was even more sure England could bounce back and win.
Second Test – Edgbaston
I tuned the radio in at work to find that Australia had won the toss and inserted England. This was a surprise but doubly so because Glenn McGrath had twisted his ankle in the warm up and wasn’t playing!
So England batted and smashed the Aussie bowlers all around Edgbaston! Wickets fell fairly regularly but England were flaying the Aussies pace men and even Warne was getting some stick. Trescothick top scored with 90 whilst Flintoff and Pietersen also passed fifty. Just about everyone chipped in along the way. England finished the day 407 all out, scoring at a run rate of 5.13. A good score but some, including Sir Geoffrey declared England were 70 runs short and had wasted a chance to really pile the pressure on.
I tuned it at work again on the second day to hear the Aussie reply. Hayden fell early for a duck but Langer and Ponting dug in and took the score to 88 before the latter was out for 61. That Friday afternoon I had to drive our Shantel to her Guides camp in the west of the county. This meant a couple of hours in the car so I obviously tuned into TMS to hear England’s bowlers chip away at Australia. Wickets fell at regular intervals and it dawned on me that a good position was turning into a potential match winning one. Flintoff picked up three wickets as did the maligned Ashley Giles and Aus were all out for 308. By the end of the day England had stretched their lead to over a hundred but Strauss had fallen.
On the third day I took Madison, Isaac, a tent and a car load of fishing gear west to the fens and set up beside a river. During the day we fished for Bream and silver fish, many of which became bait as light fell and we commenced fishing for Zander. I remember this was a bit of a social session with a few other friends and we enjoyed a barbecue and a bottle of wine through the evening too. I couldn’t remember if we caught much and the diary revealed just one tiny Zander. Anyway back to the cricket…
England’s second innings got into a bit of a mess as Brett Lee found his rhythm and Shane Warne found his magic to end with 6-46. Freddie Flintoff came to our rescue with 77 but England could only post a lead of 281. The match was in the balance.
Australia batted and started steadily but as we listened to TMS Flintoff bowled one of the great overs to remove both Langer and Ponting to reduce Aus to 48-2. England chipped away at the middle order but an eighth wicket partnership developed which threatened to tilt the game back in Australia’s way. Then with the final ball of the day Harmison bowled Clarke with that slower ball, 175-8. We all roared, surely the game was ours!!
By the time play started on the fourth day I was back in home, lying in bed trying to rest my eyes with the match on TV. I expected England to wrap up the game quickly and I could catch up on some sleep. It didn’t work out that way. First Warne, then Lee and Kasprowicz waved the bat and the total crept ever closer. Simon Jones dropped a difficult catch at third man, the luck was now going Aussie’s way. As England’s lead dwindled I became increasingly more agitated. The more the innings went on my agitation turned to desperation. Australia were going to win. They were going to take this match away from us after we’d played all the cricket. It wasn’t fair! When Australia’s target crept below double figures I could no longer take it. I couldn’t watch any more so went to the shower to sulk and wash my sorrows away. When Harmison bowled that ball to Kasprowicz my world was being drowned out by water so I didn’t even see or hear it. I became aware that England had won when the children started shouting and celebrating!! We had won by just two runs!! The despair and gloom was forgotten in an instant and I watched the replays over and over. It was only then that I saw the handshake between Freddie and Brett Lee that became one of the images of the summer. The series had been just one stroke away from being effectively over but it was still alive and kicking!
Third Test – Old Trafford
I can’t really remember too much about the third test match. I expect I spent the first two days working within earshot of the radio and I would have spent large chunks of the weekend glued to the TV. McGrath was fit again (or was he?), England played an unchanged side. The game was another classic.
Vaughan won the toss and England batted with the skipper himself leading the way with 166 and with half centuries from Trescothick and Bell England posted 444. For Aus, Warne and Lee took for wickets each. Then Australia struggled in reply; Ashley Giles took three wickets and Simon Jones 6-53 and only a fighting 90 from Warne took the Aussies on to 302. England batted around a century from Strauss and more runs from Tres’ and Bell to declare on 280-6, setting Aus an unlikely 420+ to win. McGrath took five of the six wickets to fall. England needed to take ten wickets to win the match and take a lead in the series. It would have been great to break the opening partnership but they hung on to the close of day four. I remember feeling that just one wicket before stumps might make all the difference.
Cricket fans had been excited before the series but by now the whole country had got behind the England team. There were a few tickets on sale for the final day and by 8am people were queued around Old Trafford. The tickets went quickly and thousands were left disappointed. Those lucky enough to get in were treated to a fantastic day’s cricket. I remember being at work, glued to the radio. Langer fell early and Hayden struggled but Ponting dug in with a brilliant innings. However everyone else struggled and every time it looked like Australia were out of danger, another wicket fell but it always felt that we were just one Aussie scalp short.
I was home from work and perched in front of the TV when Ponting’s resistance ended, ninth man out for a superb 156. That left Lee and McGrath to fend off 24 balls to escape with a draw. There were close calls for LBW and breathless moments then it all came down to the final ball. Harmison bowled to McGrath… who survived and the Aussie’s celebrated like they had won. Yes the great Australian team was celebrating a draw.
So now we were three games into the series and it was 1-1 with two to play. On the whole England had been better team over the three games, could we maintain this superiority and claim the series?