Published: 13th August, 2019
When England take on Australia in the final Test at the Kia Oval in September, it will be the 38th time they have done battle at this country’s first Test ground.
In the seventh part of his series, Richard Spiller looks at the matches around the turn of the 20th century.
If the 4-0 trouncing in 1989 had come as a rude shock to English cricket, four years on Australian supremacy was becoming routine.
Allan Border’s men had easily retained the urn down under in 1990-91, winning 3-0, and the gap between the sides appeared to be getting even wider with the arrival of Shane Warne, the blonde leg-spinner making his Ashes entry in sublime manner in the opening match of the series at Old Trafford by dismissing Mike Gatting with what became known as the ‘ball of the century’.
Overwhelming victories in three of the first four Tests not only meant The Ashes were retained but sparked the resignation of England skipper Graham Gooch, who had taken over following the 1989 meltdown and sparked a revival against all but Australia. His replacement, Mike Atherton, got an immediate taste of the difficulties when his first match in charge resulted in defeat by eight wickets at Edgbaston. The resignation of Ted Dexter, chairman of selectors for the previous four years, added to the chaos.
Maybe the tourists were ready to go home but the sixth Test – ‘to general astonishment’, according to Wisden – saw England rediscover their resilience as they won by 161 runs, a first success against Australia in 2,430 days or six-and-a-half years.
Surrey members were expecting to see three of their own players in the side – Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe and Martin Bicknell – as the trio survived the Birmingham hammering. But Bicknell, England’s best seamer in difficult circumstances, had to withdraw with a knee injury and was to wait for another decade before getting his recall. Thorpe, meanwhile, suffered a broken thumb in the nets on the first morning – inflicted by his club colleague from Farnham, Peter Dickinson, of all people – which was a particularly big blow given his impressive arrival on the international scene had included a century on debut at Trent Bridge.
The beneficiaries were both from Middlesex. Angus Fraser had suffered a hip injury on the previous Ashes tour which threatened his career, a spurt of wickets in the previous two weeks finally signalling he was returning to his best, while Mark Ramprakash was rushed over from Lord’s where his county were taking on Northants. There were many who wished it had been David Gower – controversially omitted all summer, much to the surprise of the Australians – who had been called in but the door had been slammed shut on England’s most graceful batsman.
Gooch and Atherton, old captain and new, gave the home side a flying start of 88, both making half-centuries, while Graeme Hick – dropped after the second Test – celebrated his return at the expense of Robin Smith by hammering an aggressive 80, Stewart’s 76 advancing England to 380 although that seemed disappointing having been 231-3.
With paceman Devon Malcolm making his first appearance of the series and relishing the pace of Harry Brind’s pitch, Australia were rocking at 53-3. Fraser appeared at his metronomic best and Glamorgan’s Steve Watkin completed a more threatening attack than England had put out for some time. Despite Mark Taylor’s battling 70, Australia were in dire trouble at 196-8, requiring a typically ebullient 83no from wicketkeeper Ian Healy and assistance from the tail to reach 303, Fraser finishing with 5-87 and warmly applauded off the field.
Freed of the cares of leadership, Gooch was in commanding form when England batted again, his 79 seeing him pass Gower to become his country’s highest scorer and gaining early support from Atherton (42) and Hick (36). Rain chopped two hours off the fourth day, tired trio Merv Hughes, Paul Reiffel and Warne slowing down the charge but Ramprakash taking his unexpected opportunity by making a composed 64 which lifted England to 313 all out.
It left Australia the final day of the series to make 391 for victory and they were soon in strife as Welshman Watkin ripped out the top three. Malcolm ended Border’s final Test innings in four full tours of this country when he was caught behind for 17 and followed up with Mark Waugh (49) to leave it 95-5, which soon became 106-6. Again the tail wagged through Reiffel (42) and Warne (37) but when Fraser (3-44) grasped a return catch from the former in the final hour, England had their victory and at least a little honour from the summer.
Ramprakash’s memories of the games are, not surprisingly, somewhat frenzied: “One minute I was getting ready to play a county game at Lord’s, the next I was in a black cab with my coffin trying to get to The Oval as quickly as possible after Thorpey had his thumb broken.
“Beating Australia, who had such a wonderful team, after so long was a real delight. They had a fine attack and Merv Hughes was pretty formidable. It was a great comeback game for Gus Fraser and he extracted a lot of bounce from his natural length.
Given the wealth of great players Australia could call on at the time, it was no surprise that they looked at least as strong – if not stronger – by 1997. Mark Taylor had succeeded Border and led the way to a 3-1 victory down under in 1994-95, his enterprising leadership yet another complication for his opponents.
Back in England, Atherton’s side took a surprise lead at Edgbaston against the out-of-sorts tourists, having already beaten them in the one-day series, but a draw at Lord’s was followed by Australian wins at Old Trafford, Headingley and then Trent Bridge to secure the urn once more.
By the time they came to The Oval for the sixth Test, injuries had forced Jason Gillespie, Brendon Julian and Paul Reiffel to fly home so that all-rounder Shaun Young – playing for Gloucestershire – was called up. England recalled Mark Butcher after a one-match absence but left out Surrey colleague Ben Hollioake, who had his Test debut alongside brother Adam at Trent Bridge.
What followed was ‘a contest fit to rank with the great games in Ashes history’, according to Wisden, one which was all over inside three days on a dry pitch which started to crumble on the first evening. That meant England – winning the toss for the first time in the series – had more reason to be happy than they might with an apparently modest 180 all out in their first innings, Alec Stewart’s 36 on his home ground the best score with Nasser Hussain making 35, the innings going into sharp decline from 128-3 against the precision of Australia’s spearhead Glenn McGrath (7-76).
At 94-2 early on the second day, there seemed only one winner but left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell, given his first outing of the summer, made the most of conditions by working his way through a star-studded line-up with his victims including Taylor (38), Greg Blewett (47) and Ricky Ponting (40) to finish with 7-40, only Shane Warne’s aggressive 30 at the end earning the tourists a lead of 40.
Could England make the most of this unexpected opportunity? It seemed unlikely when they slumped to 52-4 only for a crucial fifth wicket partnership worth 79 between Graham Thorpe (62) and Mark Ramprakash, recalled for the match and underlining his ability to pick Warne – hampered by a groin strain – in stroking a measured 48.
The rest were swept away by seamer Michael Kasprowicz, whose 7-36 made him the third bowler to claim seven wickets in the game, the first time it had happened in a Test.
Australia now needed 124 for victory, Devon Malcolm immediately removing Matthew Ellliott for what was to prove his final Test wicket. Tufnell enjoyed the sharp turn available to claim another four wickets, finishing with 11 wickets in the match, and in tandem with Andrew Caddick gave England hope. At 88-5 it still seemed Australia’s game but Tufnell trapped Ponting in front for 20 and the rest fell for 16 runs with Caddick (5-42) sweeping through the tail for victory to be secured by just 19 runs in front of a full-throated crowd when McGrath was pouched by Thorpe at mid-off.
Ramprakash recalled a wonderful display by Tufnell, then a colleague at Middlesex: “It was brilliant performance and he was virtually unplayable at times. His action meant he got the ball to dip and the turn he got from the pitch made it very tough for batsmen.”
When Steve Waugh took over from Mark Taylor at the end of the 1998-99 Ashes – won 3-1 by Australia against Alec Stewart’s side – he declared that not only did he wish to maintain their position as world leaders but end their habit of losing ‘dead’ Tests.
His mission to retain the urn had been accomplished by the third day of the third Test – the series having reverted to five matches – thanks to victories by an innings and 118 runs (Edgbaston), eight wickets (Lord’s) and seven wickets (Trent Bridge). Waugh had torn a calf muscle in the third Test, having to be carried off the field, and in his absence Australia – led by Adam Gilchrist – were beaten at Headingley. It took one of the great Ashes innings to do so, Surrey’s Mark Butcher mastering their attack with a blazing unbeaten 173 which overhauled a target of 315 by six wickets.
Still struggling to move properly but knowing it was likely to be his last appearance in England, Waugh returned at The Oval but after winning the toss was not required until after tea. He watched Justin Langer, replaced out-of-form Michael Slater, construct a formidable opening stand of 158 with Matthew Hayden launching a partnership which was to become one of the great opening alliances in Test cricket.
Langer might have gone on longer than 102 had Andrew Caddick not hit him on the head but the tourists were ideally set at 324-2 by the close of day one and on the second went on to a mammoth 641-4dec, Mark Waugh stroking 120. Yet the main image in most newspapers was his brother laying horizontally, acknowledging the crowd’s applause after diving in to complete his century, before going on to finish 157no despite his clear discomfort. All the main bowlers conceded in excess of 100, Phil Tufnell’s first – and, as it turned out, farewell – appearance of the summer seeing him finish with 1-174.
Would England, forced to field in tropical heat for almost two days, fold up ignominiously? Faced with a rampant attack in which Shane Warne was seeking to be the first Australian to take 400 wickets, they resisted strongly through Marcus Trescothick (55) and skipper Nasser Hussain (52). Mark Ramprakash had returned from a two-year absence at Lord’s and perhaps owed his retention by this stage of the series to injuries elsewhere but now batted with the freedom and command he had so long promised since making his Test debut a decade earlier.
Finding another ally in Usman Afzaal (54) and useful contributions down the order, Ramprakash batted five-a-half-hours in the heat to achieve his second Test century and first in England. Having joined Surrey from Middlesex the previous winter, he now became the fifth player from his new county to score a Test century at The Oval, following Walter Read, Tom Hayward, Jack Hobbs (2), Ken Barrington and John Edrich.
Warne had been forced to wait several hours after making Hussain his 399th victim, and when he had Stewart – who had been his 150th and 250th victims – caught behind, the goal was finally achieved.
Rampraskash’s final 133 could not quite avert the follow-on, England all out for 432 with Warne claiming 7-165 in 44.2 overs, and Waugh sent them in again on the fourth morning, only 21.3 overs possible before the drought broke and rain lashed down for the rest of the day.
Even that short period had its drama. Michael Atherton’s dismissal for nine, to his old nemesis Glenn McGrath, signalled the end of a stellar Test career, although it was only confirmed after the match. Emotional set-piece farewells were not for him, a batsman whose 7,728 in 115 Tests, 54 of which he captained, often came when his side were fighting to avoid defeat in an era of struggle. Cricket’s loss has been journalism’s gain.
Going into the final day at 40-1, England had a chance of saving the game but it was not to be, Warne taking four more wickets to finish with 11 in the match and McGrath claiming 5-43, Waugh’s aces dominating again to dismiss the hosts for 184 to gain victory by an innings and 25 runs.
It was only Australia’s third victory at the ground since the Second World War but their dominance seemed everlasting.
“They had an amazing attack – you were up against McGrath, Brett Lee and Warne but we still got pretty close to saving the follow-on. You didn’t get too many gifts!”
And one memory sticks in his mind involving the Surrey chief executive of the time, Paul Sheldon: “Mark Butcher had got that century in the previous match – Paul came and wished me good luck and told me it would be my turn to get a hundred.”