Ashes to Ashes, stardust to stardust

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The Independent Online
Nowadays every season is open season on icons and it's a sign of the times that when Mark Taylor's team set out for England voices were raised in Australia condemning this latest Ashes tour as "irrelevant", no longer the ultimate contest because in the Test game England have been struggling like cows in a bog.

Happily Steve Waugh, an Australian who knows, loves and plays his cricket as passionately as any of the other champions who have passed through the gate at Lord's, offered the knockers some brain food: it's still the tour, he said, emphasis on "the".

Of course, "knocking" is a favoured pastime down here, almost as popular as swatting flies, and if the target is the England cricket team then so much more weighty the blow. It is reasonable to make a few telling points about England's Test form and its similarity to a game of snakes and ladders, but it's hardly the solid evidence on which to build the argument that the Ashes has now degenerated into some sort of marketing man's fantasy.

Such cynicism simply ignores the game's great uncertainty and dismisses its traditions as immaterial. Never mind stirring Steve Waugh, let them try their spurious line on the next generation of young Australian cricketers who fancy their chances of wearing the "baggy green". They still daydream of Lord's before they give so much as a passing thought to Sabina Park, the Wanderers, Gaddafi Stadium or the Basin Reserve.

The Texaco whitewash has provoked inquests on every aspect of Australia's play, from their hobbling captain to their horrible bowling. But only fleeting attention has been given to Australia's pace bowling predicament, judging how serious are the injuries to Andy Bichel and Brendon Julian.

Let us suppose for a moment that one of them had to be sent home and the vacancy was offered to Paul Reiffel, that wonderful seam bowler who was one of the heroes of Australia's 1993 Ashes win but who in 1997 was the most glaring omission from Taylor's team. Are the iconoclasts really suggesting that Reiffel would decline the selectors' invitation, announcing in that measured drawl of his, "No way I'm going on a junk tour like the Ashes."

The truth is that Reiffel was shattered by his omission, just as scores more before him have been, me included. I missed out on Ian Chappell's team in 1972 and the depressing memory remains - ear pressed to the radio in the kitchen listening to an alphabetical team announcement and realising the man on the microphone had reached F-for-Francis and Benaud hadn't got a mention.

We all know the Doug Walters story. How he hailed from a dairy farm outside Dungong in mid-northern New South Wales and how, when he was 14 years old, he took out the tractor and trailer one day and dug up ants' nests, brought them back to the yard of the house and prepared an antbed cricket pitch.

And there he batted - "mum was a pretty handy bowler" - and, when he was 19 he was chosen to make his Test debut at the Gabba against England and made 155. What a journey to Ashes glory!

There was a glitch. Doug went on to score 15 Test centuries, but none of the 15 was scored on any one of his four Ashes tours. Let the knockers try to get Doug to say that he couldn't care less that he never scored an Ashes century at Lord's.

The trouble with these cricket modernists is that they thrive only on the immediate past, their short memories titillated by trends rather than tradition.

To them the most valuable trophy is the one born of that modern cricket phenomenon, ratings - the only fair dinkum contest must be the one between teams one and two, or the No 1 batsman in the world versus the No 1 bowler.

For a while, until Australia won it twice in a row, the Frank Worrell Trophy was the ultimate contest, but the West Indies' wind-down has dulled the glitter of those moments. If the trend continues can it be long before it too is consigned to second-class status?

Next summer Down Under the relevant trophy will be the one struck for Tests with South Africa - pounds 10 if you can name it - or the Trans-Tasman trophy with Tests against New Zealand, each a garish, glistening reminder in metal and glass of the modern art of tasteless trophy-making.

Which announcement is most likely to inspire an adrenalin surge in an Australian cricketer. "You're in the Trans-Tasman team", or "You're in the Ashes team?" It's the little urn that still casts the spell.

It is ironic, if not moronic, that our modernists think that because England have had a decade of Ashes failure this in some way demeans the 1997 contest.

What then I wonder were their thoughts when Australia failed to lay a fingertip on the Frank Worrell Trophy for 20 years? If any West Indian had dared to suggest mothballing the trophy while we went about our mostly modest attempts to get it back, then I'm sure he'd have been howled down.

The ebb and flow of cricket demands not just that players will have a run of outs like Mark Taylor, but that yesterday's hero is tomorrow's has-been - uncertainties that are reflected in team strengths.

That's why the 1997 Ashes battle retains its magic, and will for at least as long as it takes for one question to be answered - is this the year England will turn it around?

And, even if they don't, we can be sure the next Ashes contest will be just as keenly awaited. Tradition ensures it.

Six players relive the drama of conflicts past

Lord's 1953: Willie Watson

AT Lord's in 1953 he took part in one of Test cricket's most celebrated rearguard actions. Now 77, he was one of the last double internationals and has lived in South Africa for 30 years.

THERE seemed to be a feeling in the country in the summer of 1953 that Australia could be beaten. It was my first Test against them and it was pretty close throughout until England started their second innings. Ray Lindwall and Bill Johnston were fearsome with the new ball and I went in on Monday evening with the score at 12 for 3. Denis Compton and I managed to see out the last 15 minutes. On Tuesday, no instructions were needed. We just had to stay in on a wicket which had lost a bit of pace. Denis was going comfortably for an hour when he was leg before to one from Johnston that shot through. This brought in Trevor Bailey. We didn't say much, tried not to stop scoring completely because you can dig a big hole doing that. My problem as a left-handed batsman was that the Aussies had the left-arm fast of Johnston and the two leg-spinners, Doug Ring and Richie Benaud, all pitching into the rough outside my off stump. Everything else was OK. As the day wore on the crowd grew aware something was going on and that a draw was becoming possible. The atmosphere was exciting but if the Australians were frustrated they didn't show it. The second new ball was very significant and once it had gone off we settled down again. Trevor and I didn't say much. Late in the afternoon as the partnership went on something suddenly occurred to me and I went down the pitch to him and suggested that we could actually get the 343 we needed to win. He simply ignored this, turned round and went back to his crease. When I was out for 109 after batting for something near six hours we had put on 163 and felt the match was saved. It was truly satisfying to have done the job. After the match I travelled down to Taunton to play for Yorkshire and the Australians, who were going on to Bristol, were also on the train from Paddington. Their captain, Lindsay Hassett, and I had a long chat. In the next few days it became clear what it meant to people. I was congratulated everywhere and received lots of letters. I have batted better, but it was never so important. My form suffered after that. I think it was a reaction and, out of nick, I was dropped for the Fifth Test when England at last won back the Ashes after 20 years. It was disappointing but not surprising.

Headingley 1964: Peter Burge

HE took five years to establish himself in the Australian team and went on to score four Test centuries, all against England in four separate series. The 65-year-old Queenslander is now a Test match referee.

THE innings that paid everybody back, that justified all the faith that so many people had shown in me was at Headingley in 1964. It was the third match of a pretty even series and we were in trouble at 178 for 7, replying to England's 268. I was struggling to make much of anything but then Ted Dexter took the new ball. Immediately, I said to Neil Hawke at the other end that I was going to try to make the most of it. It came off. We got more than 40 runs off the first seven overs with the new ball and I was in. It was pretty satisfying because the bowler on whom a lot of the damage was inflicted was Fred Trueman. He had made life a misery for me before that and now here I was in front of his home crowd getting a bit of my own back. Fred wasn't ecstatic. Dexter was given a lot of stick for his decision to take the new ball but I sympathised with him. It must have seemed like a good thing to do. Australia went on to win the match, the series just 1-0 and kept the Ashes. I felt vindicated. It was simply the most important innings of my life. My first century, in the fifth Test of the 1961 series, was also significant but it was in a different context. We were 2-1 up and needed a draw to keep the little urn. We were three wickets down for not very many but then got out of it all right. To beat England in England is every Australian's dream. You always fancy beating them on your own territory, and an away victory, believe me, is extremely special. That was Peter May's last Test. I remember another innings from that summer with equal fondness. It was at Lord's in the Second Test and 20 minutes before the start the captain, Richie Benaud, pulled out with a shoulder injury. Neil Harvey had to lead the side for the only time in his career. There was not a single member of the side who wouldn't have done absolutely everything in their power for Neil to win that game. It became known as the Ridge Test because of the bounce at the Nursery End and batting was never easy. Australia were left with just over 70 to win but when we fell to 19 for 4 with Trueman and Brian Statham bowling like the wind there were jitters. I still rank that unbeaten 37 very highly and Neil Harvey remains the only post-war Australian captain with a 100 per cent record.

Old Trafford 1968: Doug Walters

AS a teenager he made centuries in his first and second Tests in the 1965-66 home Ashes series but despite a long, prolific career he never made a Test hundred on four tours of England which, at 51, still rankles slightly.

IT is a lasting disappointment to me that I never managed to reach a hundred in a Test in England. I liked playing there; it improved me as a batsman enormously but the pitches and captains who maybe got to know my game prevented me getting to the landmark. I got three 80s, all in Manchester, but I missed out on some good wickets. My most successful game in England was my first. It was on the 1968 tour, at Manchester. None of us had had much batting because of the weather. I made 81 in the first innings and another 80-odd in the second and we won the match. The ball seamed quite a lot but John Snow had a lot of problems with the bowlers' footmarks. Although they were filled in, some kind of mixture of soil and concrete must have been used because when Snow came into bowl sparks were flying off as his sprigs came into contact with the surface. It was very disconcerting for me; it must have been worse for him. Those runs were as well as I ever did on four England tours. It was our solitary win but it was enough to keep the Ashes. In 1975 I was at the other end to Rick McCosker on the fourth night when we were 220 for 3 still needing about the same to win. When we arrived the next morning the pitch had been dug up and the match was abandoned. It was a pretty good gesture by the England captain, Tony Greig, for agreeing to call it off because I didn't see we could win. The person I felt really sorry for was Rick who was on 95 not out and chasing his first Test century. I was hoping to make a fifth tour in 1981 but the selectors decided perhaps that I'd had enough chances in England. I always enjoyed it; that was in my make- up and my philosophy was that if it came off, well, then great but if it didn't it wasn't the end of things as we know them. But I probably had as many nerves as anybody else going out to bat even if I didn't show them. Mark Taylor is the best captain we have had since the one I played so often under, Ian Chappell. He really knew cricket, but more importantly knew cricketers. I was given my head in the Australian team and there are guys around now, potential match-winners such as Michael Slater and Ricky Ponting, who aren't being given a similar opportunity.

Headingley 1972: Derek Underwood

AS a left-arm spin bowler with a unique method, Underwood, 51, took five wickets in an innings four times against Australia and spearheaded two famous wins.

FOR years and possibly still, the match that everybody talked about was the 1968 Test at The Oval when, with the Ashes already gone, England squared the series on a drying wicket and I took 7 for 50 on the last afternoon. It's a bit of a pain in the neck to me because it also saddled me forever with the reputation of being a wet-wicket bowler. True, when conditions are in your favour and the ball is turning the spinner has to take wickets. It's expected of him. The rest of the time you have to bowl rigidly, length and line, and rely on the batsman to make a mistake. I'm not sure that The Oval that day was the minefield it has been adjudged and I have a similar feeling about Headingley in 1972. That was the year that the fungus, fusarium, invaded the Leeds pitch, leaving it fairly grassless. The ball was spinning from the first morning. Australia were bowled out cheaply and then found they were at a disadvantage. Although they had Ashley Mallett in the side, they had left out their other leading spinner, John Gleeson. Wickets were expected. Conditions were in my favour. In their second innings after Geoff Arnold struck two crucial early blows with the new ball they came quickly. We retained the Ashes on Saturday afternoon and a few of the boys were worried that their counties might want them for Sunday League matches the next day. Four of them actually played. It was a significant match for me. I had not played in the first three Tests of that summer and Norman Gifford, my replacement, had been left out after going wicketless on a flat Nottingham pitch. Had he been picked for Headingley then I might have waited a long time, to play for England again. My last five-wicket return against Australia was in 1977 in the Second Test at Nottingham. I took 6 for 66 in a really spirited win in conditions that were not immediately identifiable as in the spinners' favour. Greg Chappell played magnificently for 112 and although I got him out quite a lot in Tests, 12 or 13 times in all, the one I bowled him with that day came off an edge as he shaped to cut. But it was enough to ensure England would win. I put the ball in my cricket bag to keep, where it still resided when I turned up to play for Kent in their next match. Suddenly it wasn't there. Somebody had taken it to practise with and the ball had gone forever.

Headingley 1977: Mike Hendrick

THIS naggingly accurate seam bowler in the characteristic Derbyshire mould became a key member of the England side under Mike Brearley and was also an outstanding slip fielder.

IT would be wonderful to say that the ball which won back the Ashes hit the seam, moved, drew the batsman into the shot and flew off to slip. It wasn't like that. It was short and wide and Rodney Marsh decided to throw the whole works at it. He mistimed it, Derek Randall caught him in the outfield and did a somersault to celebrate. It doesn't come much better than that. England had won the series. I took eight wickets in the match [for a mere 95 runs] but that was overshadowed by the batting of Geoffrey Boycott. That was the game in which he got his 100th hundred on his home ground Headingley. He batted beautifully as well but there was a ball from Australia's left-arm spinner Ray Bright early on which drifted down the leg side. For a brief moment it looked as though Boycs might have got a touch. "Not out," said the umpire. Two other memories still stand out. Randall, from cover, ran out the Australian opening batsman Rick McCosker as he was backing up, and Graham Roope, one of the best slip fielders around, put down a simple slip catch off my bowling. Boycott had come back the match before in that series after being out for three years and got a hundred at Trent Bridge but not before running out Randall. You could have heard a pin drop. Boycs and I hadn't got off to the best of starts. I had arrived in the changing-room before him, put my bag down and when he turned up he decided he wanted my spot and came the bit about being the senior pro. He changed elsewhere. It was a very good side to play in under Brearley. Although it was the summer when the news about the Packer Revolution and the formation of the breakaway World Series Cricket had broken, it didn't seem to affect us, although three or four players had signed. The match at Trent Bridge in which Boycott returned was also Ian Botham's first match. He was always a delight to have bowling at the other end. He had so much variation, he would make the batsman think. I just tried to put it on the spot and hit the seam, which isn't as easy as it sounds, and make them play. It was an effective combination. He took five wickets immediately. I never did.

Old Trafford 1981: Chris Tavare

IN 31 Test matches for England he established a reputation for a refusal to give away his wicket lightly. On no occasion was that more appreciated than at Old Trafford in 1981 when he made his second fifty of the match but was a supporting act to the main show.

IT is imperishable, that warm July afternoon in Manchester. Nothing happened in my cricket career to compare with being at the other end while Ian Botham went through his repertoire, taking the attack to Australia in general and Dennis Lillee in particular. What was so memorable was the sudden change in atmosphere when he came to the wicket. Everything had been pretty slow and England were in some difficulty at 104 for 5. When Botham came out it was as if the crowd suddenly sensed something was going to happen, maybe inspired by his Herculean feats at Headingley and Edgbaston. I went on playing as I had been because that was how I was going to score runs. It had been fairly overcast earlier but then the sun came out. Botham played himself in carefully at first and I had a feeling something was going to happen. He played the most exhilarating shots you could ever wish to see. There were times when he hooked and pulled and I thought he must be caught but it ended up five or six rows back in the seating. His century came inevitably as if the crowd knew it would [in a stand of 149 for the sixth wicket, Botham made 118 with six sixes off 102 balls while Tavare's innings lasted 423 minutes and was then the slowest 50 in English cricket]. It was a memorable innings in every way though I still think that perhaps his innings at Headingley when he got 149 was better because that was played with England in an even worse position and on a pitch which wasn't as good. He got a tremendous ovation and when I got out soon afterwards I probably received some of the spin-off. Alan Knott and John Emburey built on that and although Australia made it difficult for us - and there were times I thought they might get the 500 they needed - they were also batting last. Graham Yallop and Allan Border both made hundreds and Border, who had a broken finger, was still there at the end. We took a while to get Lillee out but we won the match and with it the Ashes. It was the outstanding moment of my career by a long way.