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Wisden on the Ashes
and Australia at Melbourne in 1877, not that it was advertised as such. Wisdentook a while to recognise that these games were more important than Gentlemen v Players, or Eton v Harrow, but almost from the start the almanack included detailed accounts of what eventually became known as Test matches. And that is what we have collected together here: all the Wisdenmatch reports from Test matches between England and Australia – edited versions of all 316 of them from 1876 –77 to 2006–07 – together with extracts from the tour reviews, relevant Editor’s Notes, Cricketer of the Year essays and other Ashes-related articles. For the sake of completeness we have featured all the Tests, including the dozen or so in which the Ashes were not at stake.
There might just be some surprises along the way. I didn’t know before starting this collection that another spoof obituary appeared in the press two days before the famous “Ashes” notice in the Sporting Timesin 1882. And I hadn’t realised that the credit for resurrecting the legend of the Ashes, which had been almost forgotten after the original brouhaha in 1882–83, was down to Pelham Warner, a man more commonly associated these days with his rather hapless performance as England’s co-manager in the Bodyline series. There’s also the Ashes Test in which they got through 15 substandard balls in the first two innings, the one where Australia declared at 32 for 7 (and won), two matches England won after following on, the series when Australia came back from 2–0 down to win 3–2, and arguably the most famous Editor’s Note of all – when Sydney Pardon observed that England’s selection for the 1909 Oval Test “touched the confines of lunacy”.
The other aspect that leaps out from the pages is a cavalcade of cricket’s greatest names. W. G. Grace pops up early on (“a capital innings from Dr Grace” was a leitmotif of early Wisdens), then the limelight shifts to Victor Trumper, to S. F. Barnes, to Warwick Armstrong, to Walter Hammond. . . and then to Don Bradman.
Bradman’s achievements still boggle the mind more than 60 years after he retired. No one has ever reeled off big scores so consistently, or dominated to the same extent. It’s arguable that no one has dominated any sport in the way The Don did cricket: his Test batting average of a boundary short of 100 is more than 50% better than anyone else’s (60.97 is the next-best for a complete career of a decent number of innings). Those who say that Bradman had it easy because of friendly wickets, helpful laws and unscientific field-placings overlook the fact that the other fine batsmen of Bradman’s time slot into what we still consider the benchmarks of a pretty good Test batsman (an average of more than 40) or a great one (more than 50). Hammond, England’s preeminent batsman of Bradman’s era, averaged 58.45, and Jack Hobbs 56.94. Bill Ponsford, the Australian who made two first-class 400s, averaged 48.22 in Tests.
Only Bradman, too, has had a whole strategy invented just to curb him. Bodyline – the practice of stacking the leg-side field with catchers and then bouncing the ball fast at the batsman’s body and head – restricted Bradman to an average of “only” 56.57, and England won the Ashes easily (4–1), so it might be said to have worked, although the fuss it caused meant it was a victory achieved at considerable cost. Wisden’s coverage of the controversy shows up the time-lag in communications in the 1930s, compared to our instant satellite gratification. These days everyone would have seen for themselves exactly what the tactics were, and had them explained by a chorus line of former Test players. But in 1933 Wisden’s editor Stewart Caine was still sure “that English bowlers, to dispose of their opponents, would of themselves pursue such methods or that Jardine would acquiesce in such a course is inconceivable”. He did, however, admit that the matches had to be “described largely from cabled reports and hearsay
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evidence”, a handicap we don’t have nowadays when sometimes – as with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in 1974–75 – the bowling has looked to be more Bodyline-ish even than what Harold Larwood and Bill Voce served up in 1932–33. Wisdenhad caught up by 1934, when the new editor Sydney Southerton wrote a balanced and defining article condemning Bodyline.
Don Bradman remained the focal point of the Ashes story until his retirement in 1948. Soon after that came Johnston’s outburst at The Oval, when England beat a Donless Australia to win back the Ashes, starting a brief period of dominance that included Jim Laker’s astonishing 19-wicket haul at Old Trafford in 1956. And the Ashes survived the colourless 1960s and lived through the colourful ’70s, saw off the challenge of World Series Cricket, and established itself once again as cricket’s marquee series in 1981, with another epic rubber, this one dominated by Ian Botham.
Botham, now a knight of the realm as well as a blunt TV commentator, was a central figure in 1985 and 1986–87, too, before his mate Allan Border ushered in a period of Aussie supremacy in 1989. Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh presided over eight successive series victories, which was either amazing or appalling, depending on which hemisphere you came from. By 2005, though, what people in England and Australia craved was an exciting series, to rekindle the Ashes. The essence of a decent rivalry is that both sides are in contention and that the matches are close, and successive series which were over by about halfway did not fit the bill. All but the most one-eyed of Australian fans wanted a good battle. And what transpired was better than anyone can have expected: Wisdenhad no hesitation in dubbing the 2005 Ashes the Greatest Test Series of all, and devoted a special section to it. But pride comes before a fall, they say, and the 2006–07 rematch – the last series covered in this book – was a contender for Worst Series. Good or bad, it all goes into the Ashes melting pot.
Collating all the material for this book has been a pleasure – and sometimes a bit of a pain. Some of the early reports were too long, while others were too short or almost non-existent: in 1885 the Editor apologised for not carrying much information on the previous year’s Ashes series, pointing out that full details had been printed in another book, “whereas no other annual has appeared. . . in which so much space is devoted to the leading Counties, the Universities, the Gentlemen of Philadelphia and the MCC.” The 2005 Editor fortunately chose not to follow this lead. Early on, it seems, time was – literally – of the essence: many reports carried exhaustive details of exactly when Dr Grace went in, or when Ulyett or Mr Murdoch or Briggs was out. For the sake of space – and readers’ attention spans – I had to remove some of this sort of thing, and also usually cut out details of who had been left out of a particular Test squad, unless it seemed of particular importance.
I tried wherever possible not to tinker with the wording of the pieces, preferring to retain the period feel of the language, but I have occasionally inserted the odd comma into pieces where they originally seem to have been mysteriously banned. The major changes have been in the length of some of the articles, especially the tour reviews, which have grown and grown over the years and these days often weigh in at around 5,000 words – too long for a work like this. I have tried to shorten them sympathetically, leaving in details of the important figures of each series. The same goes for match reports. If anyone feels deprived, or wishes to find out more about a specific tour, the unexpurgated reports and articles can be found in the Archive section of our website, www.wisden.com. STEVENLYNCH
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