A truly great Ashes series leaves a glow in the memory that is forever golden. The greatest of all took place ten years ago, and gripped the nation in a way that cricket has never succeeded in doing so since. The names of the England players who took on as formidable an Australian team as has ever visited these shores, and defeated them, have come to possess for those who watched the Ashes in 2005 something of the aureate quality of heroes of ancient epic. They are – in an almost literal sense – legends.
That is why the chance to read what it was actually like to play in the series, and experience the tension of sport at its most unrelenting, is such a precious one. Numerous of the protagonists who took part in the 2005 Ashes have written books – but nothing half as gripping or revelatory as Simon Jones’s account. His role in England’s victory, as one of a devastating four-man pace attack, was as decisive as anyone’s: sufficient to give even as great a batsman as Adam Gilchrist nightmares. For Jones, though, his feats in 2005 had a peculiarly bittersweet quality: for he, unlike the majority of his teammates, did not go on to enjoy further success at Test level. His body, which had been injury-prone throughout his career, proved inadequate to the demands put on it by his bowling-action. As a result, unlike Flintoff or Pietersen, Jones touched the heights only the once.
The result, though, is as moving a sports biography as has been written. Unlike most in this genre, the structure is not linear. Instead, gripping accounts of the five Test matches of the 2005 series alternate with accounts of Jones’s life both before and after the series that won him his immortality. “The ankle burns. The ankle bites. Bone in flesh, flesh protesting.” This, from Jones’s account of the Old Trafford Test, might have appeared anywhere in the book. The strains which sport at the top level can put on the body; the self-doubt which is inevitably bred of physical pain; the occasional spectacular injury: to all of these Jones was particularly prey. It made the sheer scale of his achievements in 2005 all the sweeter a fulfilment – just as it also made the lows which framed them all the harder to endure. Ultimately, Jones’s unsparing honesty ensures that this is a book which will grip anyone interested in what it is like to scale the heights and plumb the depths. Superb as a cricket book though it is, The Test is ultimately about very much more than cricket.
Admirers of “The Old Batsman”, the superlative blog written by Jon Hotten, will be particularly familiar with these themes – and grateful that Jones should have settled on Hotten to help him with the writing of his book. Sports star and ghost have rarely been more perfectly in accord. There has always been a quality of the elegaic to Hotten’s writing, an appreciation of how fleeting are the golden moments of sporting greatness, and it makes him perfectly suited to infusing Jones’s autobiography with the qualities that make the prose, terse and muscular as it is, so very readable. This is the best account written of the greatest series in the long history of Anglo-Australian rivalry, and one that no cricket-lover will want to miss. Even those with no interest in the sport, though, might want to consider giving it a go. After all, the story of what it is like to attain the heights and then plummet back to earth is one at least as old as Icarus.