In 2008 Patrick Kidd of The Times asked me to select ten of my favourite Ashes players for his blog, then called Line and Length.
This was the result.
I’m not old enough to remember anyone who played all their Ashes Tests before 1972. So, sorry Don, Denis, Colin, Peter, Keith, Ray, Richie and the rest; I’m going to restrict myself to players that I’ve seen play in Ashes Tests and have made a lasting impression on me for a range of reasons. In the interests of balance, I’ve gone for five Englishmen (although two of them were born in South Africa and one in India) and five Australians.
Brisbane, December 1974. With the new partnership of Lillee and Thomson at their frightening best, England were doomed. But the memory which has really endured is that of Tony Greig cutting, driving and pulling the Australian attack to distraction during his first innings 110, pausing only to signal his own boundaries, something which I think annoyed Lillee just a little.
Because of what came afterwards I think Greig’s too often forgotten when England’s finest all-rounders are discussed. For anyone who thinks of him only as an over-excitable commentator, take it from me. He could really play.
Greg Chappell played in the first Test I went to, at The Oval in 1975, but he was overshadowed by his elder brother, then the captain, who made 192. By the time Australia next toured, two years later and in the shadow of Packer, Greg was captain and had to hold together a relatively weak batting side.
His 112 in the second innings at Old Trafford in 1977 remains one of the most sublime examples of the art of elegant acquisition I’ve seen, and, while Australia has produced many fine batsmen since, few have been better than Chappell.
Bob Woolmer: Bowler then all-rounder then batsman for Kent, batsman for England, ultimately one of the finest coaches of his era. But to me he has always remained the man who made the first complete Test century I ever saw live.
Woolmer’s 120 at Lord’s in 1977 was a superb innings; it prompted comparisons with Cowdrey and lavish expectations. Although he never fulfilled those, he finished his Test career having made all his centuries against Australia at a pivotal time in the game’s history.
Australian cricketers can be hard to like, but some you respect more than others. I always had a lot of respect for ‘Henry’ Lawson. After a successful series in Australia in 1982-83, he came to England in 1985 – when his head never dropped, despite the beating his side took – and, finally, in 1989, when his partnership with the young Steve Waugh at Lord’s set up his side’s victory.
You rarely see an Australian cricketer fail to play as though his life depends on the result; Lawson embodied this as much as anyone of his time.
‘Gus’ was a miserly and intensely competitive seamer, who, in the right conditions, could mix it with the very best.
I particularly remember his eight wickets in England’s Oval victory at the end of the 1993 series, when he hadn’t played Test cricket for over two years, and I was there to see his five on the last day at Sydney in early 1995, when he took England to the brink of an astonishing victory.
I grew up watching Allan Border and I never thought I’d see a tougher Australian batsman, but Steve Waugh was a man apart.
Defying injury to make a hundred at The Oval in 2001 was one thing, but his century at the SCG at the start of 2003 – and especially the way he reached it – was as pure a piece of cricketing drama as you could ever see.
In 1981 I was fifteen years old and obsessed with cricket.
Therefore, the choice of Ian Botham is inevitable and doesn’t require any explanation. It’s all been said before.
Mark Taylor was the most personable and astute Australian captain I’ve seen.
One of the gutsiest Ashes centuries I’ve been lucky enough to witness in person was the one made by Taylor on the Saturday of the Edgbaston Test of 1997. He hadn’t reached fifty for twenty-one innings and was regarded by many as a spent force. With the hundred made he retained his place, and, four Tests later, his side had retained the Ashes.
Kevin Pietersen’s 158 on the last day at The Oval in 2005 seemed at the time like an innings of remarkable bravado for someone playing in just their fifth Test; with three years’ hindsight it almost seems like a routine performance by an extraordinary player.
The innings put the final nail in the Australians’ coffin and was Pietersen’s first truly influential Ashes performance.
It won’t be his last.
For someone who’s lived through the last eight Ashes series, the choice of Warne is also inevitable.
It’s hard to highlight a single performance from Warne’s remarkable portfolio, but the one which made the most lasting impression on me was his hat-trick on his home MCG turf against Mike Atherton’s England side in 1994. I was there, and it remains the only Test hat-trick I’ve seen live.
After the 1993 Ashes series we thought Warne was exceptional; after the 1994-95 series we knew he was.
Line and Length (http://timesonline.typepad.com/line_and_length), 10th October 2008