‘Did I really do that?’
Over the years, the Ashes battles have introduced to us men who were destined to make a great impact on the game. From Frederick Spofforth to Glenn McGrath, a legion of legends have displayed their artistry on the canvas that is an Ashes series.
There can hardly be a bigger occasion for either an Australian or English cricketer than to inspire his side to Ashes glory or to salvage his nation’s pride in the grimmest of times.
However, at times even the greats of the game have failed at the biggest stage of them all. The pressure of an Ashes series can be immense, especially when the urn is at stake.
It is during such times that the spotlight turns on to lesser-known, understated men who have often seized the moment and established their place in the annals of the game’s oldest rivalry.
Let us look back at eight such unsung heroes who have become imbibed in the long history of this 130 year-old epic with their extremely valuable, and in most cases, unexpected contributions:
It is indeed unfortunate that the man who took a record 16 wickets on Test debut played only five more Tests for Australia.
Going by the full name of Robert Arnold Lockyear Massie, this fast-medium bowler from Perth was included in the team for the second Test at Lord’s in 1972 after England had taken an early lead at Old Trafford.
Massie went on to stun the home batsmen with his darting outswingers and generous pace. He swung the ball at will en-route to 8/84 and 8/53 in both of England’s innings, helping Australia to a comfortable eight-wicket win. The five-Test series was eventually drawn 2-2, with England retaining the Ashes.
Massie’s record haul of 16/137 is still the fourth-best match-figures in the history of Tests. His feat on debut was slightly surpassed by India’s Narendra Hirwani, who had figures of 16/136 in his first Test in 1987-88.
Massie played in the next three Tests of the 1972 Ashes, but took only seven wickets. His career did not even last a year, soon falling out of favour within the Australian team.
However, in spite of a nondescript Test career, Massie will forever be remembered for one of the most strange and memorable Test debuts of all time.
Steele was called by the Sun’s Clive Taylor as the ‘bank clerk who went to war’.
England had just been rolled over by a margin of 4-1 in Australia six months ago, with their batsmen repeatedly getting mauled by ‘Lillian Thomson’ (the fearsome pace bowling duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson).
The 1975 Ashes began in expected fashion, with England suffering an innings defeat at Edgbaston – the dreaded twosome taking twelve wickets between them. Captain Tony Greig wanted someone who could tackle Australia’s pace menace, and he hoped to find his answer in David Steele, a grey-haired and bespectacled 33 year-old from Northamptonshire.
Steele, who was known for his solid technique and yet had a first-class average of only under 32, duly made his debut at Lord’s, coming in at a wobbly 10/1 in his first innings. It later became 49/4 but he took Lillee and Thomson head on, before getting out for 50.
He also chipped in with 45 in the second innings and seemed to have broken the psychological chains in which Australia had bound the home side. His teammates managed to play a helping hand in the second dig, making substantial scores to force a draw.
In the third Test at Leeds, Steele top-scored in each innings with 73 and 92 respectively and suddenly he was becoming the unlikely hero of the summer. Australia’s final series victory margin remained 1-0, with Steele scoring 39 and 66 in the fourth and final Test at the Oval.
Steele scored 365 runs at 60.8 in the series, with England finding an answer to ‘Lillian Thomson’ from the unlikeliest of men.
He went to play the entire 1976 series against the West Indies, during which he struck a career-best 106 at Trent Bridge against the likes of Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel.
Strangely, he was never picked after that and his Test career lasted just eight matches in all. However, that duration was enough to forever seal his place in Ashes folklore.
Ellison, a medium pace bowler from Kent, did not inspire much public confidence when he was recalled for the fifth Test of the 1985 Ashes series at Edgbaston, given that he had taken only ten wickets in his previous five Tests at an average of nearly 49. England were looking to regain the urn and the six-Test series was locked 1-1 after four matches.
The remaining two Tests were enough for Ellison to become an Ashes hero – at Edgbaston alone he doubled his career wickets tally by taking 6/77 and 4/27, proving his doubters wrong. England had a commanding first innings lead of 260 and Ellison’s second-innings burst of four for one in 15 balls condemned Australia to an innings defeat.
He was not done yet, as in the final Test at the Oval he took 2/35 and 5/46. His second-innings spell helped England bundle Australia out for just 129, as England secured the Ashes with another series win.
Ellison took 17 wickets to finish as the fifth-highest wicket-taker in the entire series, but it is to be noted that the four bowlers ahead of him played in all six games compared to Ellison’s two. He also had the satisfaction of dismissing the visiting captain Allan Border thrice in four innings.
However, he wasn’t as effective overseas and soon faded into oblivion. He played only four more Tests, the last of which was in 1986, before retiring from the first-class scene in 1993 at the age of 33.
This Victoria-born fast bowler could bowl at real speed, as the English batsmen found out in 1978-79. He was among the many new faces in the Australian side for that summer, since the core of the team was missing due to the Kerry Packer exodus.
Amid the crisis and a nightmarish series – Australia were routed 5-1 – Hogg was the only one who provided the beleaguered home side with something to cheer about. He started by claiming 6/74 in his debut innings, and then took ten wickets at both Perth and Melbourne to race to 27 wickets in his first three Tests.
He took 14 more scalps in the next three Tests to finish with a stunning 41 wickets – 16 more than anyone else – at an average of 12.85.
Only Jim Laker (46 in 1956) and Terry Alderman (42 in 1981) have taken more wickets in an Ashes series. He naturally kept his place when the regulars returned, but this first series was to be his peak moment.
His debut series tally was to be a third of his career total – he finished with 123 wickets in 38 Tests at a respectable 28.47.
All-rounder Trott was one of the rare few to have played for both Australia and England. His entire Test career consisted of five Tests – three for Australia in the 1894-95 Ashes at home, followed by two for England on its tour of South Africa in 1898-99.
It was in his debut Test – the third Test of the 1894-95 Ashes at Melbourne – that Trott conjured his most memorable performance.
Firstly, he scored an unbeaten 38 at No.10 in his debut innings, adding 71 for the tenth wicket with Sydney Callaway to lift Australia to 238. Then in the second innings, with Australia leading by 114, Trott gave impetus to the innings again, this time making an unbeaten 72 to help set England a huge 526 to win.
With his right-arm slow bowling, Trott proceeded to destroy England with an astonishing spell as the tourists were skittled for 143, going down by 382 runs. Strangely he did not bowl in the the next Test at Sydney, but smashed a career-best unbeaten 85 to help Australia recover from 119/7 to 284 in the first innings and level the series with an innings win.
However, with the series locked at 2-2, England won the decider at Melbourne to retain the Ashes. Trott’s 8/43 remains the best innings-analysis by a bowler on debut until this date.
Tragically, he reacted to his rapidly failing health by shooting himself in 1914 at the age of 41, having written his will on the back of a laundry ticket and leaving his wardrobe and £4 in cash to his landlady. In his short Test career, he averaged 38 with the bat and 15 with the ball, and also forged a highly successful first-class career with Middlesex.
Mike Brearley has proved that mere statistics are not enough to indicate greatness. This right-hand batsman and occasional wicketkeeper from Middlesex averaged a paltry 22.88 in the 39 Tests he played, not registering a single hundred.
Yet, he achieved his place in Ashes folklore solely because of his outstanding leadership as England’s captain in the 1981 Ashes. 1981 might have gone down to be known as ‘Botham’s Ashes’, but it was Brearley’s astute captaincy that was the catalyst, both in Botham’s resurgence and England’s eventual 3-1 victory which helped them regain the Ashes.
Botham was captain for the first two Tests of the 1981 series, but he could hardly prove to be an inspiration as Australia took a 1-0 lead. Moreover, ‘Beefy’ was suffering his worst run in Tests, a pair in the second Test at Lord’s being the nadir.
Brearley, who was not even part of the XI, was recalled as captain and the rest is history. In the third Test at Headingley, Botham batted like a reincarnated man and proceeded to guide England to a famous win after following-on with a stunning 149 not out in the second innings.
Defending just 130 in the fourth innings, Brearley then persuaded Bob Willis to change ends and bowl with the wind behind him. A near stone-faced Willis took 8/43 to bowl England to an 18-run victory. Another improbable win at Edgbaston followed, and when England won at Old Trafford, the Ashes were regained.
Brearley, who had a highly intellectual mind backed by degrees in moral science and psychology, had turned a team in disarray into an Ashes winning unit. Incidentally, the 1981 Ashes was his farewell series and his overall captaincy record read 18 wins and four losses from 31 Tests.
He was one of the very few who could merit a place in the team purely on leadership, because he knew exactly how to extract the best out of his men.
This Barbados-born fast-medium bowler had his moment of Ashes glory in just his third Test, which happened to be the fourth Test of the 1986-87 Ashes at Melbourne. Coming into this game, England were leading 1-0 with two Tests left and Australia still having a chance to regain the urn.
Any such hopes were extinguished by Small on Boxing Day, as he grabbed a career-best 5/48 while bowling in tandem with the great Ian Botham (5/41) to help bowl out the hosts for a paltry 141.
Small’s scalps included the prized wickets of David Boon, Dean Jones (who top-scored with 59) and Steve Waugh. He was pencilled into the team as a last-minute replacement for an injured Graham Dilley and went on to justify his selection with a display of high-class swing bowling.
England won the Test by an innings and 14 runs, Small picking up 2/40 in the second innings. He followed it up by taking 5/75 in the first innings of the fifth Test at Sydney, which Australia won by 55 runs.
England took the series by a margin of 2-1. Small, who was known to be a wholehearted cricketer, made his debut in 1986 and played 17 Tests in all and took 55 wickets at 34.01. He was never a regular fixture in the side and played his last Test during the 1990-91 Ashes.
Few may question Panesar’s presence in this list, but he did play an important part in England’s Ashes-regaining 2-1 series win in 2009. The previous series in 2006-07 had been a nightmare for England, blanked 5-0 on Australian soil.
Australia had begun the 2009 series with a dominating performance in the first Test at Cardiff – replying to England’s 435 with a mammoth 674/6, before having the home side on the mat at 70/5 early on the final day with almost 80 overs remaining.
Paul Collingwood then played one of the gutsiest knocks – a 245-ball 74 – to raise hopes of an English escape. However, when he fell, the score read 233/9. At that point, England were still trailing by six runs with Australia having almost 12 overs to take the last wicket and go one-up.
Enter Mudhsuden Singh ‘Monty’ Panesar, an old-school number eleven who averaged a shade over five in Tests. He joined James Anderson at the wicket with Australia needing just one good delivery to wrap things up.
While Anderson had experience as a nightwatchman, Panesar was no more than a rabbit with the bat. But the left-arm spinner did the unthinkable – he survived for 35 balls for an unbeaten seven.
England staged one of the greatest escapes in Test history and without Panesar’s determination it would not have been possible. It is very demanding for an ‘accomplished’ tail-ender to last for so long against a buoyed bowling attack, but ‘Monty’ did just that.
Australia’s confidence was dented by this unexpected draw and they went on to surrender the Ashes.