Thursday 13 December 2018

Classic Ashes memories as action switches to Melbourne

England players at the MCG yesterday ahead of the fourth Ashes Test Photo: Getty
England players at the MCG yesterday ahead of the fourth Ashes Test Photo: Getty

Simon Burnton

England have won 36.1 per cent of their 61 matches at Trent Bridge and 36.4 per cent of their 77 Tests at Old Trafford; they have played 55 times at the MCG and won 36.4 per cent of those. If it does not feel quite as homely as Nottingham or Manchester, Melbourne has been the site of many great English moments - as well as, inevitably, a few grisly nightmares.

Perhaps the greatest of those 55 Tests, and surely the most thrilling, came in 1982, with England 2-0 down after three matches but the destination of the urn still undecided. It was, England spinner Geoff Miller said, "the best and most exciting Test match I ever played in".

Australia's final pair, Allan Border and Jeff Thomson, needed 74 runs to win the match and with it the Ashes. England's tactic was simple: offer Border easy singles and wait for Thomson to get himself out.

"There was no pressure on me," Thomson later said. "Everyone expected me to play a stupid shot and get out. But it didn't happen that way. I can still picture the England side's growing anxiety. They had stupid fields, bowled badly and everything was in the batsmen's favour."

Slowly, the target got closer; England took the new ball with Australia 33 runs from victory, but still the wicket they needed would not come. Eventually, Australia needed four more runs to claim victory. Thomson was on strike, and Ian Botham bowling.

"I thought I would get a single, so AB could hit the winning runs," Thomson said. "It was a half-tracker and a bit of an away swinger. A bad ball really. I just tried to push it out for a single rather than smash it."

It caught his edge and flew to Chris Tavaré at second slip. He could not hold it but the ball popped up behind and Miller caught it at first slip. "I couldn't talk about it for years," Thomson said. "It was one of the all-time low moments in my life."

That match still sits joint-third on the list of closest Test finishes, of which nine of the top 15 came in Ashes contests. The 1998 MCG Test is at No13, another slender England victory - by 13 runs - memorable for Alec Stewart's first Ashes century, Mike Atherton's first Test pair and a classic last-innings collapse by Australia. Set an eminently achievable target of 175, the home side fell from 130-3 to 140-7 and 162 all out with Dean Headley achieving career best figures of 6-60, his only Test five-for.

The finest English bowling performance in Melbourne, however, came in 1954-55 when Frank 'Typhoon' Tyson, described by Don Bradman as "the fastest bowler I have ever seen", finished the match with a spell of 6-16 to tilt the series in England's favour. The Guardian's Denys Rowbotham wrote that this was a victory "so violent and unexpected . . . that three hours after its accomplishment the mind and senses have not quite recovered from the shock of it".

Brian Statham took five wickets in the first innings and Rowbotham noted: "The speed of both bowlers was simply too much for the Australian batsmen's techniques," a now unlikely sounding occurrence that the Aussies have avenged many times since.

In March 1977, the MCG hosted a special one off match to celebrate the centenary of the first ever Test. The victors, Australia, were the same in each match. Remarkably, England's margin of defeat in both games was 45 runs. There was some drama along the way, though: Australia were skittled out for 138 on the first day, with the opener Rick McCosker's dismissal particularly unusual: he mistimed a hook and was hit in the face by a Bob Willis bouncer, which not only broke his jaw but the ball also dropped on to his stumps.

Richie Benaud opined: "There has never been a more disastrous day for Australian cricket in the 100 years the game has been fought between the two countries," but the following morning Dennis Lillee took six wickets as England were bowled out for 95. In the second innings three Australians scored fifties and Rod Marsh hit an unbeaten 110, while McCosker, swathed in bandages, unexpectedly returned at No10 to hit a doughty 25.

England's target was 463 - 60 more than the record successful chase at the time in Tests. Derek Randall made 174, in terms of balls faced the longest England innings in Melbourne, and at 346-4 the improbable was suddenly possible. Randall's innings proved in vain but was unforgettable (though for sheer endurance Bob Cowper's 12-hour triple century in a draw in 1966 puts it to shame).

The MCG was Shane Warne's home ground and it was where he took his 150th, 350th and 700th Test wickets. The last of these was a particularly emotional moment, coming in December 2006 soon after he had announced his retirement from international cricket. "There are some special days that happen in your life and some special things that happen and that is definitely one of them," he said. "The birth of your children, getting married, playing your first Test, they're pretty special. From an individual point of view that's got to be one of the best days I've ever had."

Another came at the same ground 12 years previously when Warne claimed his only Test hat-trick as England, chasing an unlikely target of 388, were bowled out for 92. It was the MCG's fifth Test hat-trick, all taken in pursuit of the Ashes, but the first for more than 90 years.

The one Englishman on that list is Willie Bates, another spinner, whose performance in 1883 must rank among the finest in Melbourne: coming in at No8 in the first innings he scored 55, the second-best score of the match, and he then took seven wickets in both Australia innings, including a hat-trick in their first knock.

On another tour of Australia five years later, Bates was struck in the face by the ball during a nets session, the injury leaving him with vision so badly affected that he never played first-class cricket again. He died, aged 44, 12 years later.


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