Ask the Spider #131

How many England captains have done what Andrew Strauss just has – presided over The Ashes being regained then retained?

Just three men since the turn of the 20th-century (before which Ashes cricket was the only serious international cricket and WG Grace and AE Stoddart traded the England captaincy according to who was available) have done this, one of whom has to have his achievement taken with a pinch of salt. Len Hutton won the urn back in 1953, then took a side to Australia in 1954/55 and won again; Raymond Illingworth regained them in 1970/71 and kept hold of them in 1972; and Mike Brearley presided over a credible regaining in 1977 before a near-inevitability of a retention in 1978/79 against Australia’s second team. Brearley did, however, return as captain midway through the next Ashes series again in 1981 and turn around what was looking like a hefty loss and come-out victorious.

With England having won at the MCG having won the toss and stuck Australia in, it occurred to me that I’ve never seen that happen before. How many times has it happened?

Astonishingly, there are precious few occasions to date; the victory in the just-concluded Test was just the fourth time they have done so – and funnily enough three of these four occasions have come at the MCG. Each was an innings victory: in 1911/12, they won a (timeless) Test by an innings and 225 after sticking their hosts in; they won by an innings and 118 at Edgbaston in 1985; and by an innings and 14 in 1986/87 – which funnily enough was the last time they secured The Ashes in Australia.

Is Paul Harris’ run in the South African Test side the longest of any spinner since readmission?

Since his debut, and excluding South Africa’s Tests against Bangladesh where they have occasionally rested some first-choice personnel, Harris has played 35 Tests out of 37 including the ongoing game against India. The only other spinners to have extended careers since readmission, Paul Adams and Nicky Boje, never enjoyed such sustained runs of both faith and fitness. Boje played 41 (excluding a couple against the joke of a Zimbabwe side in 2004/05) out of 68 from first Test to last, with more of these missed matches than not being through injury; Adams’ best was 33 out of 47 from his debut in mid-1995/96 to 2000. Harris has been no more successful than either; he simply has a better record with fitness and South Africa’s most recent sets of selectors have placed more emphasis on both spin and continuity than had been the case for those who presided over the first decade and a half after readmission.

Lots of people have spoken of how Ricky Ponting is the first Australian captain since the 19th-century to preside over three campaigns which have seen England finish in possession of The Ashes, but how many Australian captains have even led in four Ashes series’, as Ponting has?

Not very many. Ponting’s predecessor Stephen Waugh led in a couple; Mark Taylor in three; Allan Border in a record of five which is very unlikely ever to be beaten; Greg Chappell in two (and Graham Yallop and Kim Hughes one each in between Chappell’s two); Ian Chappell in three; Bill Lawry and Bobby Simpson two each; Richie Benaud in three; Ian Johnson in two; Lindsay Hassett in two; Don Bradman in four; Bill Woodfull in three; Jack Ryder one; Herbie Collins two; Warwick Armstrong two; SE Gregory one; Clem Hill one; Monty Noble three; Joe Darling four; “Harry” Trott two; George Giffen one; Jack Blackham two; Percy McDonnell two (plus a one-off Test); “Tup” Scott one; and, of course, Murdoch.

So, in short, only Border and Bradman have managed as many as Ponting’s four Ashes campaigns as Australian captain. Border lost the first two then won the next three (all defeats and victories being comprehensive) and Bradman, thanks in no small part to his own bat, won the lot.

And if Ponting were to manage to make it to the 2013 series in England (which admittedly looks unlikely at present) would that be a record-equalling number of Ashes participated in? I can think of Stephen Waugh and Bert Oldfield who also played nine.

No, in fact not even close. Jack Blackham, the legendary wicketkeeper of the 19th-century (still regarded by many as the greatest gloveman ever to play the game), appeared in ten Ashes series’ plus a one-off Test, but the record is a quite astonishing fifteen Ashes, which SE (Syd) Gregory played between 1890 and 1912. It is virtually inconceivable that any Australian will ever touch this record.

Is it true that Ponting is really the only man to fail to win The Ashes three times?

Well, realistically speaking if not in absolute statistical terms, it is, yes. Billy Murdoch, the only other man to nominally lead Australia to three Ashes series defeats, led in the inaugural Ashes of 1882/83 – this series is generally considered to have seen England captain Ivo Bligh “recover the ashes” (his tour had been pre-arranged, but it only took-on the significance of recovering the ashes after its schedule had been finalised), which were metaphorically taken to Australia after English cricket metaphorically died in 1882 as Australia (led by Murdoch, as they had been in the inaugural Test in England in 1880) won the one-off Test that summer. The metaphor was made real at the end of this 1882/83 series, with ashes being placed in the urn which to this day remains in the Lord’s museum. And there is nothing absolute even about that 1882/83 defeat – a fourth Test was arranged after the pre-scheduled series of three, which Murdoch’s side won. England then conclusively beat Murdoch-led Australian tourists in entirely pre-arranged series’ in 1884 and 1890. So, really, Murdoch only led Australia to two defeats in series’ where the Australians knew that The Ashes were at stake. The symbolism of them was not even created until the end of his first defeat!

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