The best of enemies: six brilliant series from sport's greatest rivalry

Australia beat England in cricket's first Test match at Melbourne in 1877, but it was not until 1882 that "the Ashes" were born, following an extraordinary match at the Oval. In a low-scoring game, England needed 85 to win. They reached 51 for 2 but after the dismissal of W G Grace, their last five wickets fell for seven runs, which was Australia's margin of victory.

In the excitement, one spectator dropped dead. Fred "The Demon" Spofforth, Australia's first fast-bowling hero, conceded two runs and took four wickets in his last 11 overs.

The result prompted a young London journalist, Reginald Shirley Brooks, to write this mock "obituary" in the Sporting Times: "In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which died at The Oval, 29th August, 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances, RIP. NB The body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia." During the following winter, England recovered the Ashes by winning Down Under.

The captain, the Hon. Ivo Bligh, was presented with a tiny urn said to contain the ashes of a bail used in the third Test, although there has been subsequent debate about the contents.

1932-33 Controversy of the Bodyline series

Ashes series have rarely been short on controversy, but none could match England's "Bodyline" tour. Bodyline was a tactic devised by Douglas Jardine, England's captain, to combat Don Bradman, the world's greatest batsman. Jardine believed the Don's one weakness was his inability to play short deliveries on the leg side. England's fast bowlers were instructed to bowl short, with the ball aimed at the body. Most of the fielders were positioned on the leg side. England's opening pacemen bowled to a field that included five short legs, plus two men deep behind them. Harold Larwood's pace made him particularly difficult to play and England won the series 4-1. However, the cost in relations between the two teams was huge. At the third Test, which Wisden described as the most unpleasant in the game's history, mounted police had to control an Australian crowd infuriated by several blows to the home batsmen. Australian cricket authorities sent a telegram to London to complain about the tactics. Politicians became involved and only careful diplomacy prevented a major breakdown in relations between the nations.

1936-37 Fair play restored

Don Bradman had taken over the Australian captaincy by the time George "Gubby" Allen took charge of an England team who did much to repair the damage done by the Bodyline tour. Allen won over the home crowds with his reputation for fair play and developed a strong bond with his Australian counterpart. This was perhaps the most competitive series in Ashes history, Australia eventually winning 3-2 after five magnificent contests played by two excellent teams. England drew first blood, bowling Australia out for 58 when the home side fancied their chances of reaching a winning target of 380. Victory by an innings in the second Test seemed set to put England on their way to a series victory, but Australia responded in style. Bradman scored a double century as Australia won the third Test at Melbourne in front of a record aggregate crowd of 350,534. The home captain repeated his feat at Adelaide to set up a decider at Melbourne, where Bradman scored another century as Australia amassed 604. Bill O'Reilly ripped through England's batting with five wickets in the first innings and three more when Allen's men followed on. Australia won by an innings and 200 runs.

1948 Bradman's 'Invincibles'

Don Bradman's 1948 touring team were arguably the greatest side in the history of cricket. They went undefeated throughout the tour, which was watched by huge crowds, delighting in Australia's first visit to England for 10 years. Australia won the series 4-0, rain forcing a draw in the other match.

Australia were strong in all departments. Bradman was incomparable as a batsman and received excellent support from the likes of Arthur Morris and Sid Barnes. Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller were a fearsome pace attack, while Bill Johnston's swing earned him 27 wickets in the series. The Headingley Test saw Australia at their best. Set 404 to win on the final day, they reached the target thanks to a partnership of 301 between Morris and Bradman, who made an unbeaten 173. In his four matches at Headingley, Bradman scored 963 runs at an average of 192. Bradman went into his last Test match innings in the final Test at the Oval needing only four more runs to finish with a career average of 100 and a total of 7,000 runs. Remarkably, he was dismissed by Eric Hollies without scoring, though it did not stop his team winning by an innings and 14 runs.

1981 Botham becomes a legend

The series which became known as "Botham's Ashes" started in ignominy for the England all-rounder. Having failed to win any of his 13 Tests as captain, Botham resigned - before the selectors could dismiss him - following a drawn second Test at Lord's. Australia had got off to a winning start at Trent Bridge.

Mike Brearley was installed as captain but the early indications at Headingley were that little had changed. England followed on and were facing an innings defeat when they stood at 135 for 7. Odds of 500-1 (which were taken by the Australians Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh) against an England victory did not seem unreasonable, but Botham mounted an extraordinary assault, hitting an unbeaten 149 and receiving excellent support from Graham Dilley and Chris Old. Australia, needing 130 to win, were dismissed for 111, with Bob Willis taking 8 for 43. The Australians then suffered a similar collapse at Edgbaston, Botham taking five wickets for just one run in 28 balls as England won by 29 runs. Botham capped a wonderful personal series when he hammered 118 from only 102 balls as England won the fifth Test at Old Trafford, an innings which was hailed in some quarters as the greatest knock in Test match history.

1986-87 Victory Down Under

Until yesterday's historic triumph at the Oval, England had not won the Ashes since Mike Gatting's team won 2-1 in Australia in 1986. Chris Broad, who scored three centuries, David Gower and Gatting were the backbone of England's batting, while Ian Botham's quickfire 138 in the first Test was the perfect statement of intent. John Emburey and Phil Edmonds proved a formidable spin attack, while Graham Dilley, Gladstone Small, Phil DeFreitas and Botham all took wickets. England got off to the perfect start by winning the first Test at Brisbane by seven wickets. Most of the front-line batsmen made runs in the first innings, Graham Dilley took five wickets when Australia batted and Emburey did the same when they followed on, and England cruised to victory. A crushing win inside three days in the fourth Test at Melbourne secured the series. Gladstone Small (above) and Botham took five wickets apiece as Australia were bowled out for 141. Broad's 112 helped England to 349 and when Australia's last seven second-innings wickets fell for 41, the tourists won by an innings and 14 runs.

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