Best of enemies

England and Australia go to war over a tiny urn since 1948. Here the newly retired Test Match Special legend recalls the most dramatic Ashes moments he has witnessed.

My first memory of the Ashes takes me cavorting back to Lord’s towards the end of June in 1948. This was my first visit to the ground and it was for the third day of the Second Test against Don Bradman’s Australians. The game of cricket was already well and truly racing through my veins even though I was not yet nine. 

It was a lovely day and we sat on a rug on the grass in front of what was then Q Stand, later to become the Allen Stand. England lost their last remaining wicket in the first few minutes and then we sat back to watch Australia build on the big lead. Arthur Morris and Sidney Barnes put on 122 for the first wicket with great composure. 

Morris was then bowled by Doug Wright and as he returned to the pavilion, I remember kneeling and straining my neck (I was forbidden to stand) to see the arrival of the next man to great applause. He was small with a determined stride and a huge baggy green Australian cap pulled firmly down over his ears. This was Don Bradman, going out to play his eighth and last Test innings at Lord’s. In his previous two innings in this series, he had been caught around the corner at backward short leg by Len Hutton off Alec Bedser. Both Bedser and Hutton were soon in position, but that particular form of lightning did not strike again. Bradman seemed completely in control. 

I remember Yorkshireman Alec Coxon, playing his only Test match, running in quickly from the Pavilion End and the Don pulling him two or three times, along the ground of course, to the midwicket boundary where I was sitting with my parents eating strawberries. Once I actually touched the ball after it had come over the rope and been mostly stopped by the man in front of us. What a moment! 

For the record, he made 89 and then edged Bedser to Bill Edrich at first slip, where he took the catch up by his shoulder. I can see it now in my mind’s eye as I write these words. He walked briskly and unfussily back to the pavilion. Australia won by 409 runs, but that didn’t matter: I had seen Bradman bat.

 My mind now flits from Frank Tyson’s fast bowling which won the series in Australia in 1954/55, to Jim Laker’s 19 for 90 at Old Trafford in 1956, to Richie Benaud’s round-the-wicket leg-spin which gave Australia victory by 54 runs on the same ground in 1961, to Derek Underwood’s thrilling demolition of Australia on a drying pitch at the Oval in 1968 after Basil d’Oliveira had made 158.

A few days later, d’Oliveira was not picked to tour South Africa – a decision which must have had more than a little to do with South Africa’s subsequent sporting isolation until apartheid ended.  I shall never forget the tour of Australia in 1974/75, when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson began their formidable fast bowling partnership and 42-year-old Colin Cowdrey flew out as a batting reinforcement for England. 

In March 1977, England were back in Australia for the Centenary Test match, played exactly 100 years after the first-ever Test match had been played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in March 1877. Australia had won that first Test by 45 runs. Now, mainly as a result of magnificent fast bowling by Lillee and in spite of a miraculous innings of 174 by Derek Randall in England’s second innings, Australia won this match by the identical margin of 45 runs. What an occasion it was, too, with all the former Test cricketers of both countries who had taken part in Ashes matches there to celebrate the occasion.

It was only six months later that Kerry Packer’s intrusion into the world of cricket, initially on behalf of his Channel Nine television network, split the international world of cricket in half. Channel Nine had been refused the right to buy exclusive rights to televise international cricket in Australia by the Australian Board of Control. The 1977 series in England saw Ian Botham’s debut for England at Trent Bridge, in a series England won against a depleted Australian side because some of their leading players were preparing themselves for the Packer fiesta which was shortly to follow.

I have written about the Ashes matches from my earlier years which by no means everyone will remember, and yet they still have me jumping up and down with excitement. But now, to end, fast forward to the most exciting series on which I ever commentated. In 2005, Michael Vaughan’s shrewd captaincy took England to their first Ashes victory since 1986/87. Glenn McGrath destroyed England’s batting at Lord’s. Australia’s last-wicket pair of Brett Lee and Mike Kasprowicz almost saw Australia home in the next match.

As it was, Steve Harmison flicked Kasprowicz’s glove and England won by two runs. Australia’s last pair just held on at Old Trafford. Shane Warne then nearly won the day for Australia at Trent Bridge, before Ashley Giles shovelled him to the midwicket boundary and England won by three wickets. At the Oval, Kevin Pietersen’s magnificent 158 just enabled England to hang on for the draw that gave them the series and the Ashes by two matches to one.

As I write, it’s all about to begin again, with Joe Root’s side taking guard in Australia for the next instalment of a sporting event which surely even cricket’s sometimes less-than-reliable governing body will not bring to an end.

Henry Blofeld OBE joined the Test Match Special commentary team in 1972 and retired in 2017.

Please play responsibly