At a time where Test cricket goes under the radar for failing to engage the youth, enraptured by the compact T20 format, a bilateral series like the Ashes serves us well. It asserts why the longest format of the sport remains the most competitive - churning out moments which preserve themselves in cricketing lore. Two of the sport’s oldest teams, England and Australia, battle it out for the mythical urn, soon to be filled with the ‘Ashes’ of the losing side. It’s the rare chance for the cricketers from both sides to right the wrongs of their frayed careers for all will be forgiven once their team emerges the victor in the marathon five-match Test series.
That is perhaps the reason why the best cricketers to have played for England or Australia have a match-winning performance in the Ashes. Those performances at the hallowed altar of cricket were the most they could do for their team when it all mattered the most. As the commencement of the Ashes beckons, we take a look at the top knocks in the Ashes, since the turn of the 21st century.
Kevin Pietersen (57) Lord’s 2005
If cricketers were judged solely for their stats, perhaps Andrew Flintoff wouldn’t be regarded as the icon that he is for English cricket. Kevin Pietersen’s innings of 57 in the first Test falls in the same boat. It wouldn’t be exalted, as it frequently is, by ardent cricket fans and experts if the context of the match didn’t supplement his effort.
It was Pietersen’s debut, with his side reeling at 21/5. Australia’s Glenn McGrath had the English batsman baffled as he used the downward slope of the pitch at Lord’s to his advantage by ensuring the ball stayed low or nipped inwards. Pietersen's tall frame should have been susceptible to the same, only if he was planning to fend away and bide his time. Instead, his shot selection suggested that he’d woken up from a trance and hadn’t observed most of what had happened before his arrival at the crease.
Where the ball’s movement in the air had the batsmen dreading the line outside the off-stump, Pietersen flashed hard, seeing them through the cover region or past a diving fielder at backward point. Where the ball angled inwards, he stepped across and let his left leg in the line of the wicket, only to flick the ball off his pads to the mid-wicket fence. The occasional loose delivery from McGrath had Pietersen striding down the pitch and swatting the ball like it was an irksome wasp.
The highlight of that short innings which pushed England to 150 was when Pietersen, not making the effort of knuckling down on one knee, skied a good-length delivery from Shane Warne with a cross-batted slog sweep for a six over mid-wicket. That innings by Pietersen, albeit in a losing cause, set the tone for what would be a glittering career in the whites.
Alastair Cook (235) Gabba 2010
England’s series triumph in the 2010 Ashes, away from home, was largely down to Alastair Cook’s dogged defence denying Australia the win in the opening Test. Facing a 221-runs first-innings deficit, Cook’s 15-hour marathon innings had him playing luscious square drives and evaporate the hopes of the usually boisterous Australian crowd which trickled out of the stadiums. Soon enough, Cook’s short-arm pull shots over long-off revealed empty stands where hopes of an innings victory for Australia had reverberated a couple of hours before.
Alastair Cook (244) MCG 2017
England and Cook’s fortunes had revealed their symbiotic bond. When Cook’s rough patch continued unabated, England’s meek surrenders to the home side grew more embarrassing by the day. It was fortuitous then that Cook shrugged off his poor form and recalibrated his vintage self in the fourth Test. He never looked uncertain as he stuck to his strengths. In a marathon effort, Cook had abstained from driving on the up but played the short-arm jab from his back-foot at deliveries which angled in to bounce him out.
His innings was studded with the choicest of drives, down the wicket and past covers, all of the same make embodying military-esque routine. A few chinks here and there came but went bust as Australia let slip, allowing Cook to notch up the highest score by an English batsman at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. More importantly, Cook managed to salvage a draw for England in an otherwise forgetful series.
Adam Gilchrist (102) WACA 2006
Gilchrist had a score to settle against England. In a series where Australia dominated on all counts, Gilchrist’s contribution was limited to his glove-work. That was until the third Test. Australian batsmen had a field day in the second innings with Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey notching up centuries at the top of the order. Gilchrist utilised that solid platform and played with abandon as suited to someone batting at number six.
At the outset, Gilchrist sliced hard at the balls outside off, a faint chance for the fielder stationed at backward point. That was until Monty Panesar came into the attack. Gilchrist was rarely bound on the back-foot then as he negated the spin by advancing to the pitch of the ball. The bottom-handed pull shot lofting the ball over long-off and long-on. Gilchrist went on to notch up the second-fastest Test hundred, off 57 balls, second only to Viv Richards who did so in 56 balls. Australia went on to win the match by 206 runs.
Ashton Agar (98) Trent Bridge 2013
Agar came within inches of scoring a maiden hundred which would have also been, the first by any number 11 batsman. Australia also came agonisingly close to what could have been a heist of a win before James Anderson staved off the visitors’ momentum and claimed a 14 run win for the home side. Nevertheless, Agar’s innings will be remembered for cheating what seemed to be destined, a first-innings batting collapse for his side.
He breathed life back into the match, saving the blushes for Australia by avoiding the ignominy of a heavy loss in the opening Test. One may have seen seasoned batsmen being bounced out on the pacey tracks in England and Australia but Agar downplayed his lack of experience when he’d play the hook shot without batting an eyelid, his body swivelling on one foot as his head followed the arc of the shot. By the time Agar walked to the pavilion, he held the record for the highest score by a number 11 batsman.
Steve Smith (215) Lord’s 2015
There had been plenty written about Steve Smith, his fidgety stints at the crease not appealing to those harping overtly on the aesthetics of Test batting. Smith’s conviction in his unique batting style – he holds his bat a bit sideways as he readies to face the ball, rather than behind his body like most batsmen – has seen him being anointed as the number one ranked batsman in Tests.
Against England at Lord’s, Smith played the pull shot frequently against Jimmy Anderson and decimated the threat of seam later in the innings with his square drives always slotted in the right areas. Smith’s time away from the Test format had nurtured his batting and he returned with a vengeance which found expression in his batting and captaincy.
Michael Hussey (195) Gabba 2010
Mike ‘Mr Cricket’ Hussey was heading into the Ashes that year on the back of a questionable selection, considering that he wasn’t feeling the ball on the bat, horrid form to be exact. There were many presaging his downfall and he almost proved them right. Hussey edged the first ball he faced in the first Test, the fielder at third slip lunged forward but couldn’t arrest the ball’s dipping trajectory. Hussey had had a lifeline and something clicked thereon.
He played his trademark short-arm pull shots which sent the ball to the mid-wicket fence. On occasion, he had grasped the pitch of the ball to able to play it high without worrying about the spin taking the edge off his bat. Australia may have spilt their chance to win big as the match ended in a draw, but for Hussey, more importantly, he had convinced sceptics of his utility in the middle-order.
Joe Root (180) Lord’s 2013
Root had impressed on the tour of India and it only made sense to promote him up the order. He opened at Lord’s in the second Test of the series and failed to fire in the first innings. The second innings, too, he edged one for what should have been an easy catch but had both, the seasoned Australian wicket-keeper Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke at first slip being overtly chivalrous, waiting for the other to jump and claim the credit.
In the end, neither did and the ball slipped past for four. Thereon, Root rarely let-up, never driving hard or flashing wide but playing within the narrowest, safest arc possible. His bat absorbed the ample pace on the ball and guided it to the fence while he showcased his Tendulkar-esque follow-through on the straight drive.
Ricky Ponting (156) Old Trafford 2005
This is probably the most famous and epoch-defining Ashes series of all time for brute aggression came to the fore here and the Australians were left gasping for breath. Amidst that series-long onslaught, Ricky Ponting went from being blooded by Steve Harmison’s bouncers and holing out to the slips soon after, to gaining a draw for his side when England needed just one wicket to win. Harmison persisted with his short-pitched bowling. Ponting, though blinded by the rising deliveries which came in like a glutton for his head, would play the pull shot with alacrity.
He was also helped a great deal by Ashley Giles dropping the ball short. Ponting became the first Australian to score a century in that series only on the last day of the third Test match. He fell to Harmison, attempting to pull the ball down fine leg but handing an easy catch to the wicket-keeper. England needed just one wicket but Ponting had brought his team close enough to stumps on the final day of the Test for his lower-order batsmen to see through the remaining four overs in the match.
Michael Vaughan (166) Old Trafford 2005
The England captain frustrated Jason Gillespie by defending his deliveries with soft hands. The ball would take the edge off his bat, somehow finding the narrow gap between the third slip and gully. Gillespie's repeated attempts at bowling outside off and probing the corridor of uncertainty didn't bear fruit as Vaughan would push off the back foot for four while also finding the opportune moment to flash hard with a full flourish of the bat, skying the ball over backward point.
A rare moment of ecstasy had one of those wild and expansive square cuts edging the ball to Adam Gilchrist behind the stumps. Luckily for Vaughan, Gilchrist failed to hold on as the ball was still on the incline and moving away from him. By the time Vaughan had reached 150, Gillespie was fuming for being faulted by his fielders and not having luck on his side. Vaughan, on the other hand, looked well set and was now pulling the short balls with ease and scoring at a brisk pace. While England had a huge first-innings lead, the match ended in a draw chiefly down to Vaughan's Australian counterpart Ricky Ponting scoring a century of his own on the last day of the match.