In the summer of 1981 Ian Botham provided me with better career guidance than any of the advisors Gayton High School in Harrow had previously employed. In a single month Botham against Kim Hughes' Australians convinced me I wanted to be a cricketer and instilled in me a love of the game and, in particular, of the Ashes.
So, my England Ashes XI. Being born in 1965 means that memories of Ashes battles in the seventies are somewhat vague but I still want to see extended footage of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee at their frightening best during the 1974-75 series. I know it was brutal for England but it contained fast bowling that now holds legendary status.
My first real Ashes memories were in 1977 when Geoff Boycott ran Derek Randall out in front of his home Trent Bridge crowd. After that Boycott did not dare get out, such was the crowd reaction, but, predictably, he scored a ton.
Michael Atherton kindly picked me in his England Ashes XI the other week but, sadly, I won't return the favour. Athers dropped me on several occasions and this is my first and last chance to drop him, so I will make the most of it. England were hammered in each of the five Ashes series I was fortunate enough to play in, but here are the players that have made the biggest impression on me during 35 years of watching and playing in Ashes cricket.
1. Michael Vaughan (captain)
10 Tests (v Australia), 959 runs at an average of 47.95
Very few England batsmen can have batted better than Vaughan did in the 2002-03 Ashes. In a side that was comfortably defeated, he scored three wonderful centuries. The innings were big hundreds too – 183, 177 and 145. It was not just the volume of runs Vaughan scored that impressed, the quality of his stroke-play was majestic, too. Two shots – the drive and pull – stood out. Mike Brearley is probably England's best captain but Vaughan has been given the honour in this team.
2. Chris Broad
8 Tests, 708 @ 59.00
Like Vaughan, The Ashes brought the best out of Broad. England's 1986-87 tour of Australia was the first where extended TV highlights were shown, and the images sent back to Britain were very exotic and powerful. The grounds looked spectacular and the cricket played by England was very good. Broad was at the centre of most of the drama, scoring hundreds in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. He was never elegant: functional is the best way of describing his batting – whenever a bowler strayed onto Broad's legs, runs were scored.
3. Andrew Strauss
15 Tests, 1,114 runs @ 38.41
There are players whose greatest achievements are always remembered and others whose deeds are overshadowed by bigger, sexier names. To date Strauss fits in the second category. Many people may have forgotten but Strauss scored 129 in England's first innings at The Oval in 2005. It was an outstanding display and Kevin Pietersen's wonderful innings in the second innings would have been deemed irrelevant had Strauss not performed. And it was the same in 2009 at Lord's when, as captain, Strauss set England on their way on the first day of the first Test with 161. That effort was overshadowed by Andrew Flintoff's last-day performance with the ball. Knowing Strauss as I do, I bet he sets the tone in this series, too.
4. David Gower
42 Tests, 3,269 @ 44.74
It is only when you play in the same side as someone that you fully appreciate how great they are. I had watched Gower score three glorious hundreds against Australia in 1985 but it was the century he scored at the Sydney Cricket Ground during the 1990-91 Ashes that blew me away. In the previous Test in Melbourne he scored a workmanlike hundred but this innings was sublime. Gower scored 123 and it proved to be his final Test hundred. Despite these innings it was not an enjoyable tour for Gower, who had several clashes with captain Graham Gooch. The Tiger Moth incident followed this fine display, after which his interest faded.
5. Derek Randall
18 Tests, 1,161 runs @ 38.70
Randall's most memorable innings for England did not come during an Ashes series but it was so special I am including it anyway. His 174 was compiled during the one-off Centenary Test against Australia at the MCG in 1977. The innings was magnificent in many ways. It was scored against a strong Australian side on a huge occasion in front of massive crowds. During it he had a brilliant contest with a fired-up Dennis Lillee, who sat him on his backside with bouncers on a couple of occasions. The image of Randall picking himself up and doffing his cap to Lillee is iconic.
6. Ian Botham
36 Tests, 1,673 @ 29.35 and 148 wickets at an average of 27.65
Botham's dominance over Australia started when he strangled Greg Chappell for his first Test wicket in 1977. Even when unfit he piled on the misery, taking 5 for 41 at the MCG when England famously regained the Ashes under Mike Gatting in 1986-87. Like all great cricketers he rose to the biggest challenges and every impressionable cricket-loving teenager of the early 80's wanted to play like Botham. He was fearless, aggressive and bloody good, England's greatest Ashes hero. The only thing he loves more than Aussies is beating Aussies, and perhaps the occasional glass of red wine.
7. Alan Knott
34 Tests, 1,682 runs @ 32.98
It was only after learning of his idiosyncrasies and watching him conduct a training session with Jack Russell in the 1990s that I realised Knott was, like most wicketkeepers, as mad as a hatter. Despite this he was magnificent behind the stumps, the best England has produced. When he caught the ball it was like it had landed in a feather pillow. Two of his five Test hundreds came against Australia when Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee were in their pomp. Knott retired with the rare distinction of winning more Tests than he lost against Australia.
8. Andrew Flintoff
14 Tests, 856 runs @ 34.21, 43 wickets @ 36.11
Flintoff had to wait 47 Tests to get his first chance to play against Australia but he made the most of the contests when they came along, taking 24 wickets and scoring 402 runs in 2005. The performances made Flintoff, who had the happy knack of producing or doing something special against Australia. In 2005 he helped change the course of the series in the second Test at Edgbaston, scoring 68 and 73. He also delivered an inspirational spell to remove Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting, scored a hundred at Trent Bridge and in the final Test at The Oval bowled through an entire two-hour session. In 2009 Flintoff bowled England to victory on one leg at Lord's before swooping famously to run Ponting out at The Oval.
9. Geoff Miller
14 Tests, 479 runs @ 20.82, 39 wickets @ 21.94
Miller had an excellent record against Australia but it is not his admirable performances with the ball that get him in this side. On a cold December night in 1982 I, like many, had all but given up hope of an England victory in Melbourne while snuggled up in my bed listening to Test Match Special. Bob Willis's side seemed to have thrown away certain victory before Jeff Thomson edged Ian Botham to Chris Tavare at slip. Tavare fumbled the catch and Miller caught the rebound to give England a three-run win. If Miller's spin could cause problems Down Under, Graeme Swann's should too.
10. Darren Gough
17 Tests, 34 wickets @ 30.81
Gough loved playing the Aussies and it brought out the best in him. Bowling fast in Australia is physically demanding, especially when temperatures pass 45 degrees and the wind comes off the desert to the north. This was the case in Adelaide on the 1998-99 Ashes and nobody gave Gough much chance of getting through the day unscathed. But in the heat it was the far more athletic-looking Dean Headley and Alan Mullally who faded. Gough came through with the second new ball and took two late wickets. It was a great effort.
11. Bob Willis
35 Tests, 128 wickets @ 26.14
Willis's ungainly run-up made him the brunt of many jokes when I was young. We all used to imitate him. But boy could he bowl. With his right hand pumping Willis tore in day after day for England, always giving his all. The image of him uprooting Ray Bright's middle stump at Headingley in 1981 remains strong, as did his run back to the pavilion. Sportsmen talk about getting "in the zone" for big occasions but Willis seemed to be on another planet as he scattered ecstatic spectators as they tried to congratulate him. Botham's heroics with the bat are remembered most but Willis's 8 for 43 won that famous Headingley Test.
...and his Australian XI
Selecting a Baggy Green side was as hard as picking the England team because there have been so many outstanding performers. Terry Alderman – 100 wickets @ 21.17 in 17 Tests – Bruce Reid, Merv Hughes, Craig McDermott, David Hookes, Rod Marsh, Mark Taylor and Dean Jones are unfortunate to miss out.
1. Justin Langer 21 Tests, 1,658 runs at an average of 50.24
JL was never very popular among the England team but I loved him. Australia has produced fewer tougher or prouder sportsmen.
2. Michael Slater 20 Tests, 1,669 @ 45.10
I hated bowling at Slats. In the first over of the day he would be looking to smash you back over your head for four.
3. David Boon 31 Tests, 2,237 @ 45.65
Another gnarled, no-nonsense cricketer. Rarely said a word when batting or at short leg – he just got on with it.
4. Allan Border 47 Tests, 3,548 @ 56.31
AB is one of my all-time heroes. Has there been a tougher cricketer? Border set the example the likes of Steve Waugh and Langer followed.
5. Mark Waugh 29 Tests, 2,204 @ 50.09
As classy as they come. Mark batted like a player from the subcontinent. He had great touch and so much time. Watching him bat was a joy.
6. Steve Waugh 46 Tests, 3,200 @ 58.18
The ultimate competitor. Witnessing him score a hundred against England at Sydney off the last ball of the day was one of the greatest bits of cricket I have seen. Waugh's cricket obituary was being written at the time and he made fools of his doubters.
7. Adam Gilchrist 20 Tests, 1,083 @ 45.12
I did the team a favour by dropping Ian Healy on about four in the first Test of the 1998-99 Ashes. He went on to get a hundred, which kept Gilchrist out of the Aussie side for the remainder of the series. He regularly changed the nature of Tests in under an hour.
8. Shane Warne 36 Tests, 195 wickets at an average of 23.25
I don't know what all the fuss was about, he never got me out. Overrated. His last-day spell at Adelaide during the 2006-07 Ashes was astonishingly brilliant.
9. Dennis Lillee 29, 167 @ 21.00
The ultimate fast bowler. With his shirt open to his naval, histrionics and great bowling, every young quick of the 1970s and 1980s wanted to be like him. The tougher the conditions the harder he tried.
10. Jeff Thomson 21, 100 @ 24.18
Raw, incredibly fast, hostile and deliberately ignorant – he was (and still is) great. Worked so well in tandem with Lillee. Facing Thommo without a helmet? No thank you.
11. Glenn McGrath 30, 157 @ 20.92
McGrath was mesmerisingly consistent and aggressive. He was at you all day every day. The perfect bowling machine.