With less than two weeks left until the beginning of the Ashes, all the pre-series talk of ‘hatred’ and’ war’ has made clear the importance both teams — England and Australia – attach to this five-series, nearly two-month-long spectacle.
The time, therefore, is perfect to have a look at how emotions had swelled up in the heat of the contests in the years gone by, and how they had brought out some of the best performances ever on a cricket field.
Here’s a look at the top five innings played in the Ashes, which often changed the course of the match, and sometimes, even that of the series altogether.
1. Ian Botham, 149, Headingley, 1981
An innings that single-handedly turned around the match, and later the series, was Ian Botham’s 149 in the famous Headingley Test of 1981. Botham had, earlier in the series, given up captaincy, and runs had deserted him as well. He was dismissed for a pair in the second Test at Lord’s. With England following on, and in a precarious position at 135/7 at Headingley, Botham decided that the best way out of the hole was to slog. 'Beefy' ended up scoring 149 runs off just 148 balls, taking England to 374, giving them a lead of 129 runs.
The target was still a small one, but Australia came in the crosshairs of Bob Willis that day, who took 8/43. Botham also took a wicket in the Australian innings.
Deservedly, Botham’s Headingley masterclass ranks as the best batting effort in the history of the Ashes that stretches for over a century.
2. Allan Border, 196, Lord’s, 1985
This is fondly remembered as 'Border’s match’. Australian captain and premier batsman Allan Border brought out his top performance against old rivals England, and made 196 runs in his team's first innings total of 425, in the second Test at the Lord’s. Many of Australia's top notch players had withdrawn from the Ashes tour to go on a rebel tour to South Africa, and Border was thus leading a depleted Australian side.
Following England's 290 in the first innings, Australia were in a spot of bother when they were reduced to 101/4. Border found a staunch ally in Greg Ritchie and they stitched together a 216-run stand to rescue Australia. In the second innings as well, Border had to take control of the small chase of 126. In the end, Border ended up scoring 43 percent of Australia's total runs in that match, eventually taking them home with four wickets to spare.
3. Steve Waugh 157*, The Oval, 2001
At No 3 on the list is Steve Waugh’s 157 at The Oval during the fifth Ashes Test in 2001. After sitting out the fourth Test with a calf injury, Waugh desperately wanted to make a return to the team for this match and lead his team in the last match of the series.
Waugh played, though he was less than 100 percent fit, and together with his younger brother Mark, essayed an innings that showed what made him one of the most admired figures in the cricketing world.
For most of the innings, he battled with severe pain, limping through for singles. He pushed himself to hit quite a few boundaries as well. However, for all his struggles, it was a quick single that took the elder Waugh to three figures. Scampering for the run, he dived to avoid being run out, and then celebrated his hundred without getting up, smiling and acknowledging the crowd's ovation by raising his bat. That image remains one of the most enduring memories of Waugh's 20-year-old career.
4. Ricky Ponting, 156, Manchester, 2005
The importance of such an innings by one of Australia’s best batsmen ever can hardly be overstated. The knock came in Australia’s second innings, when they were faced with a world record chase of 423 in Manchester. With the series all square at 1-1 and with two more matches to go, Australia faced an uphill task to deny the Englishmen a victory at Old Trafford.
Struggling for form so far in the series, Ponting brought out his best when his team needed him the most. At the centre, against an English attack led by the ferocious Andrew Flintoff, Ponting scratched his way to a half-century first. He started to move more assuredly as the innings went on and brought up his century. Ponting’s 156 proved just about enough for his country to hold onto a well-deserved draw in that Test.
5. Mark Butcher, 173*, Headingley, 2001
There is a reason why the Ashes win of 2005 is remembered so fondly by the English supporters. It was a good series win; maybe one of the best series of all times, but it wasn’t just that. England’s dismal exploits in the 20 years before that, when they couldn’t muster up a good fight against the Aussies, made that rare series win much sweeter.
In 2001, England was going through one of those difficult series. Trailing 0-3, England walked into the fourth Test at Headingley with no hopes of salvaging the series. Butcher himself wasn’t at his best during the series, having registered just one fifty up to that point. When stand-in Australian captain Adam Gilchrist declared with the lead at 314, with a full day left in the game, few would have thought that England would end up on the winning side on the fifth day.
Coming in at the fall of Michael Atherton, Butcher unleashed a flurry of cover drives and straight drives against the mighty Aussie pack of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillepsie.
With useful contributions from Nasser Hussain, and later Mark Ramprakash, Butcher ended up unbeaten on 173, helping England script an unlikely victory when it seemed all lost for them. The innings provided some relief to the fans who were just recovering from another Ashes loss to Australia.
6. Kevin Pietersen, 227, Adelaide, 2010
It’s hard to ignore this particular knock by Kevin Pietersen – his highest Test score, which came in the second Test of the Ashes in 2010. After gaining confidence in the drawn first Test at Brisbane, where Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott came together to score 517 runs, England were a changed side.
In Adelaide, after England dismissed Australia for 245 in the first innings, Pietersen teamed up with Cook, and ensured the hosts never got an opportunity to come back in the game.
Coming in at a fall of Trott, with the score at 176, Pietersen spared no one. He was particularly severe on the leg-side, picking out small gaps between three or sometimes four fielders stationed on the boundary, with great ease.
He stepped out, shuffled, pulled, and when it was too wide, smashed the delivery past extra cover. His loud yell, when he flicked Doug Bollinger towards square leg for a single to reach his century, exemplified how important the ton was for the South Africa-born batsman. His innings propelled England to a huge total of 620, which eventually allowed the visitors to take a 1-0 lead in the series; a series that they would go on to win 3-1, their first win in Australia in over two decades.