It seems strange now to recall that England's last Ashes-winning tour, the solemnly garlanded 1986-87 party, was some way short of being a launching pad, a watershed or a culmination of anything tangible. It was, if not a fluke, then an oddity. Unlikely Ashes heroes burnt briefly: Chris Broad, Gladstone Small, the forgotten wicketkeeper-batsman Jack Richards, while Ian Botham enacted a paunchy swansong. So it is perhaps fitting that the springboard for England's only successful Ashes tour of the past 31 years was a rain-interrupted and gloomily autumnal drawn Test in late August 1986, albeit one that featured a number of strangely resonant moments.
Routed by Richard Hadlee in the previous Test at Trent Bridge, England were slipping towards a second summer series defeat by the time they reached The Oval (India had already beaten them over three matches). The summer had been dogged by the tabloid distractions of the blond mullet-era Botham, who had been banned for a rather arbitrary-sounding 63 days by the ECB for his admission that . In his absence England had been dismal, foreshadowing the approaching generational dismalness of the 1990s. This was a makeshift, stitched-together-looking team, with Derek Pringle floundering in a large hole at No6 and Phil Edmonds (one of England's all-time most watchable tailenders) troublingly high in the order at No8.
A gloomy occasion was illuminated by Botham's combination of talent and bombast. Rumbling in with golden highlights bobbing, he took 12 balls to mop up the two wickets he needed to go past Dennis Lillee's all-time Test wicket-takers' record. Graham Gooch famously remarked "Who writes your scripts?" after Botham had picked up Bruce Edgar to equal the record with his second delivery. New Zealand went on to grind out 287 at 2.23 runs an over and were dismissed on the Saturday. Botham then capped an aggressive England reply by thrashing 59 off 36 balls, in the days when people simply didn't do that kind of thing.
A poor England team, who after the Ashes would go on to lose to Pakistan home and away, had been briefly sparked by the dying embers of Botham's greatness. In their next match, the Ashes opener in Brisbane, he would continue where he left off with a devastating 138. The most isolated – and also retrospectively misleading – of Ashes victories was under way, given momentum by a few sessions of selector-baiting Botham-resurgence in a rain-dogged draw at The Oval. BR
A Test match to keep us warm into our dotage. Technically it was not the last of the summer – England played a one-off game against Sri Lanka afterwards – but in real terms it was, because in those days the Sri Lanka match was little more than an obligation-fulfiller. And few Tests anywhere have had such a powerful end-of-term combination of life-will-never-be-the-same-again poignancy and benign goodwill. The great Lance Gibbs, West Indies' manager, described this as "the happiest and most sporting of tours I can remember".
England, 2-1 down and 5-1 with the bookies going into this final Test, took all sorts of risks with their team selection and won the match in wonderful style, thus avoiding defeat in a series against West Indies for the first time in 17 years. The match ebbed and flowed beautifully, but the real joy was in the individual stories; there were almost as many subplots as in the film Magnolia. Viv Richards, Jeff Dujon and Malcolm Marshall played their last Tests, the symbolic end of the golden age of West Indies cricket (Richards was given a standing ovation as he arrived in the second innings and made the 20 runs he needed for an average of 50); Ian Botham, playing his first Test for two years, theatrically hit his first ball for four to win the match and finally secure a Test victory over West Indies at the 20th attempt; he also famously in the first innings.
The recalled Phil Tufnell gave a wonderful and rare glimpse of flight and craft – there was at the time – to take six wickets for four runs in an amazing first-innings spell, albeit aided by one of those peculiar collective brainmelts against spin from West Indies; Alec Stewart, whose selection over Jack Russell was widely perceived as an act of aesthetic vandalism, gave the first real hint of the majestic wicketkeeper-batsman he would become; Robin Smith and Richie Richardson, at the time, ended excellent personal series with high-class centuries; Syd Lawrence bustled in cheerfully for his only Test five-for ( is extremely moving given what would subsequently happen to Lawrence and Marshall).
You could go on forever about this match: Hugh Morris's courage in the first innings and the preposterous snorter he received from Patrick Patterson in the second; Mark Ramprakash looking the part again – and getting stuck in the 20s again; Carl Hooper's glorious Sunday morning assault on Tufnell, who second time round took precisely a sixth of the wickets he had in the first innings for six times the runs (six for 25 became one for 150); Desmond Haynes serenely carrying his bat in the first innings, barely a bead of sweat on his brow as everyone else lost it at the other end; Chris Lewis batting and bowling with huge maturity; England hurtling to victory at a surreal 4.61 runs per over on the final afternoon. If anyone ever questions the superiority of Test cricket as a sporting format, just sit them down and tell them all about five glorious days in south London in the summer of 1991. RS
Was this the worst England team of all time? Certainly many at the time thought so, although this may be a little dismissive of an excellent New Zealand team that contained three of all-time great Black Caps in Daniel Vettori, Stephen Fleming and Chris Cairns. The Wisden Test ranking table (soon to be replaced by the ICC rankings) certainly indicated something might be up however: defeat at The Oval, capping a 2-1 series loss, left England bottom of the table, a table that also included Zimbabwe. This was an England team that famously featured four No11s (Andy Caddick, Phil Tufnell, Ed Giddins and Allan Mullally). Supplemented by Ronnie Irani they made up up a five-pronged bowling attack of conjoined inconsistency.
So it was that chasing 246 to win the match and the series England's last seven wickets fell for 19 runs and an absolute of modern-day Test match wretchedness was reached. The new captain, Nasser Hussain, as the home crowd booed. The new coach, Duncan Fletcher, sat in jowly contemplation. But it would be a happy story in the end: from their nadir Hussain and a still-jowly, still-brooding Fletcher would turn England's fortunes around. This was an end-of-summer end of something: a moment where a decade of managed ineptness finally bottomed out. BR
The very best movies still make you nervous no matter how many times you've seen them, and so does the deciding Test in the 2005 Ashes. Even now, five years on, how can we make sense of this game? Especially that absurd final day when the collective pulse rate did not drop below 100 until around 5pm, at which point even the most pessimistic Pom knew England had won the Ashes for the first time since 1986-87. Watch Kevin Pietersen's , a white-knuckle ride so extreme that it might have been made illegal, and feel your body shake a wee bit. In hindsight, it's a miracle there weren't a fair few coronaries to go with the coronation of the class of 2005.
There has since been some dispiritingly churlish revisionism about the nature of England's celebrations – and particularly the role of the Andrew Flintoff, who, lest we forget, bowled 18 overs off the reel in this game. Given what they achieved, how they achieved it, and how much of their souls they put into achieving it, it's a minor miracle the England team ever stopped quaffing celebratory booze. They should have an open-top-bus tour on 12 September every single year. Truly, we will never see the like again. But then we knew that at the time. RS
In its 1977 Wisden Cricketer of the Year write-up for Michael Holding, the almanack noted that "on a depressingly lifeless pitch, the other fast bowlers of both teams could only take five wickets between them at a cost of 477 runs. Yet the conditions seemed to act as a catalyst which lifted Holding to an extraordinary performance." Extraordinary, as it would turn out, in more ways than one. The bare facts of Holding's returns in West Indies' 231-run victory are startling, even more so for a player who had made his debut a year before. He took eight for 92 in the first innings and six for 57 in the second, with .
It was a visually striking performance too: bowling fast and straight from an ambling, romping, rhythmical run-up - not muscle-bound but tall and flexible - Holding dominated a match played on a parched white Oval outfield at the end of a famously arid summer. There was a deeper significance too. West Indies were on the rise. Not yet a dominant force (they had been beaten 5-1 in the Test series in Australia the previous winter) Clive Lloyd and Clyde Walcott were building a team that would rule for a generation, inspired in part by a sense of cultural and racial unity.
It is significant that of his second-innings wickets it is only Tony Greig's, stumps splayed playing across a fast straight ball, that Holding celebrates with abandon. "I intend, with the help of Closey and a few others, to make them grovel," the South Africa-raised Greig had said on television ahead of the series, a remark that seems ludicrous not just in context of a righteously-dished out 3-0 series defeat, but also given West Indies' coming dominance – an era prefigured by Holding's grace and speed at a frazzled and woozy late summer Oval. BR
The English, eh? They are destined to die wondering. The upside of that, certainly for those who have been given the questionable gift of caring about the England cricket team, is that every now and then – once every 75 years or so – they provide a high so shocking that you'll struggle to replicate it legally. Is there anything in sport quite as thrilling as seeing England not be England?
The best example came at the Oval in 1994, with a demented demolition of an ostensibly unyielding South Africa side to draw a series in which England had been mostly under the pump on and off the field (it was the ). It was as if they had, Being John Malkovich-style, entered the body of Australia for four days, and there is a decent case for hailing this as England's most aggressive performance of all time.
With the exception of victories over diabolical Bangladesh and West Indies sides in 2005 and 2007 respectively, they have . And from the moment Darren Gough and Phil DeFreitas started slapping around a weary Allan Donald on the second evening, England scored their remaining 287 runs in the match at more than a run a ball – an unthinkable rate of scoring in Test cricket. Their approach was described wonderfully in this paper by Matthew Engel as "oh-bugger-it-batting".
This is before we even mention the game's most memorable element: on the third day. Malcolm was one of a number of England players , which led a performance of vigilante savagery. Never before or since have they played with such undiluted . They should try it more often. RS