The Ashes in Print – Part 4

The Ashes in Print - Part 4

After Kerry Packer and the establishment compromised their differences, England hurriedly made their way out to Australia again in 1979/80 for a celebratory series of three Tests, just twelve months after their 5-1 hammering of Australia’s second team. Quite why the Ashes are still treated as having been at stake in that dreadful mismatch I do not understand, but a three match series between the full strength of both countries was not enough for them to be contested in 1979/80, so despite a 3-0 victory for the Australian first team England still held the Ashes in 1981. Thus Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ Cricket Contest is not an Ashes book but nonetheless is a good account of events on and off the field.

The 1981 series is the stuff of legend, although the contemporary books published were, by and large, disappointing. Two that do stand out are Mike Brearley’s Phoenix from the Ashes and the collaboration between Patrick Eagar (photographs) and Alan Ross (narrative) A Summer to Remember. The increased television coverage of series and the release of highlights on home video meant that tour books had to change from their earlier descriptive role and Brearley’s tactical analysis and the largely pictorial content of Eagar/Ross reflected two different approaches to the challenge the video age presented to publishers.

After 1981 the 1982/83 series was always going to be something of an anticlimax and even England’s nailbiting three run victory in the fourth Test does not make this series, won 2-1 by Australia, linger very long in the memory, for England supporters at least. Perhaps surprisingly there were as many as six accounts of the series published. Robin Marlar’s book, Decision Against England, is in the nature of a traditional tour account, albeit with rather more comment and opinion than was usual in days gone by, but the best, in my opinion at least, was the second Eagar/Ross collaboration, Summer of Speed.

In England in 1985 England emphatically regained the urn by 3-1 in a six match series. As far as books of the series were concerned team Eagar/Ross again took the honours with An Australian Summer. The competition was from Matthew Engel and Michael Carey who gathered together their reports from the Guardian and The Daily Telegraph in traditional fashion.

In 1986/87 England travelled to Australia carrying the burden of Martin Johnson’s “Can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” tag. They easily shrugged it off however as they became, until now, the last England team to win an Ashes series away from home. The scoreline was 2-1 but that belies the comfortable manner of England’s win, Australia’s only success being the dead rubber at the end of the series. Peter Roebuck wrote Ashes to Ashes, a traditional sort of tour account, but a very well written one. Sadly there was to be no Eagar/Ross contribution and although a number of other books appeared, including one bearing the name of England skipper Mike Gatting, only one other merits mention. That other is Cricket XXXX Cricket by Frances Edmonds, writer wife of England left arm spinner Phil. Mrs Edmonds is not a cricket lover by any means, and did not pretend to be one in writing her book, but I do recall thoroughly enjoying what was, at the time, an entertaining account of a cricket tour from an unusual perspective. I have not looked at the book for over twenty years, and from my limited recollection suspect that it may have a badly dated feel today, but it might appeal to some.

For myself, and I would expect most England supporters, the next Ashes series was 2005. That said a quick look at my bookshelves has disclosed the existence of a further eight contests so, as this series of articles is intended to be comprehensive, I shall relive some painful memories. For me 1989 will always be the Steve Waugh show. The scorecards show England did actually get him out occasionally, but it didn’t seem like it at the time. Australia won 4-0. England had just one reliable performer, Jupiter Pluvius, without whose intervention it would certainly have been 6-0. There was an Eagar/Ross book this time Tour of Tours and, as if to mock England, the winning captain, Alan Border, lent his name to the imaginatively titled Ashes Glory. There were other books, most notably Mike Selvey’s Ashes Surrendered – all of those other books were fairly short, the reason being there wasn’t really a story to tell.

In 1990/91 the story was not very different. England lost 3-0, courtesy of three heavy defeats. For those of us looking for some basis on which to pin hopes for a more competitive future, at least this time England did deserve the two draws they secured in the third and fourth Tests. Mark Ray and Alan Lee’s The Ashes: England in Australia 1990/91 is the only record of the tour that found its way into English bookstores. More in the manner of Eagar/Ross than Plum Warner it is a well illustrated record of a one sided series.

By the time 1993 came round England had forgotten what it was like to defeat the old enemy and, despite being on home soil, suffered four heavy defeats, mesmerised from the off by a young Shane Warne whose “ball of the century” to Mike Gatting summed up the times on its own. There was some promise of better things in the drawn third Test, which required a rearguard action (although not a desperate one) from Australia to save it, and then, to provide a ray of hope for the future, the visitors let their guard drop in the final Test and England won again at last, and did so convincingly. There were just two books on the tour, both by Australians, with Steve Waugh’s Ashes Diary being rather better than Merv Hughes account, but neither will go down as classics of the genre.

Mike Atherton was England Captain by 1994/95, but the result of the series was all too familiar. Three convincing wins to the Australians, a draw which England got the better of but which ultimately the home side saved comfortably, and a token English victory once any hope of regaining the Ashes was gone. In the tour book department there was little activity, but the one book that did appear was in its own way as momentous as Warne’s delivery to Gatting was at Old Trafford in 1993. Gideon Haigh, now rightly regarded as the game’s finest writer, made an auspicious Ashes debut with One Summer, Every Summer.

1997 saw a false dawn as England had the old enemy reeling at 54-8 on the first morning of the first Test, going on to win convincingly. After that however only Jupiter Pluvius saved England at Lords, and in each of the next three Tests Australia hammered England for having the temerity to win the first Test. England won an exciting low scoring final Test by 19 runs but in truth the 3-2 scoreline flattered them – England were little better than in the previous four series. This time, for no obvious reason other than perhaps the deceptively close final scoreline, there were as many as seven books on the tour, of which Steve Waugh got in his name in the frame with not only his own diary, but another book co-written with Nasser Hussain. In my opinion the best by some distance was We’re Right Behind You Captain by David Hopps. Rather more than just a tour book, and that is why it stands out from the crowd.

Memories of four years previously were stirred in 1998/99, save that the one draw was not a match England got the better of. Australia’s three wins were not as one sided as in other recent series but were certainly comfortable enough to avoid any suggestion that the order of things was going to change any time soon. In accordance with recent tradition both captains, separately this time, produced accounts of the tour in diary form. Don’t bother with them is my advice. If you really want to read about the 1998/99 Ashes then seek out a copy of An Australian Summer by Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Charles de Lisle. CMJ has written many tour books but, without in anyway denigrating the others, this is the best by a distance and it is a shame he and Mr De Lisle have never repeated the exercise.

Australia desperately wanted to whitewash England in 2001 and had it not been for Mark Butcher’s wonderful innings at Headingley would surely have done so. There were four books on the series, none outstanding, but my recommendation goes to Jonathan Rice’s The Fight for the Ashes in 2001, by a short head from CMJ’s Men for all Seasons.

Prior to the 2002/03 party leaving there were some misguided individuals who thought the baggy green dominance about to end. Wrong. After Nasser Hussain invited Waugh to have first knock at Brisbane nothing, except Michael Vaughan’s batting, went right for England who lost 4-1 with just a consolation victory in the final Test. Publishers seemed to lack enthusiasm for the series too as just Adam Gilchrist and, inevitably, Steven Waugh, went into print. Waugh’s book is, in my opinion, the best to appear in his name but that deals largely with his emotional hundred at Sydney and both his book and Gilchrist’s deal with other business as well as the Ashes.

Which brings us on, at last, to 2005 and the greatest Test series of them all. Thirteen accounts of the series emerged, not to mention some of the England players “autobiographies”, that were in truth little more than accounts of the series. Some of the books are excellent and some less so and, as on the field of play, they all demonstrate that there is no substitute for talent and experience. The three best are David Frith’s Battle For The Ashes 2005,
Gideon Haigh’s Ashes 2005 * and Patrick Eagar’s The Ashes in Focus

As Steve Harmison sent the first ball of the 2006/07 series to second slip we all knew it couldn’t last, but it was some time before most realised that the “baggygreenwash” was finally going to happen. If anyone wants to read about the series, and hopefully in the New Year there will be a nation of Australians wanting to console themselves by doing so, then Gideon Haigh’s Downed Under* will help them. In addition Harmison himself, together with Australia’s Justin Langer, put their names to a series diary – stick with Gideon Haigh is my advice.

It was an England victory again in 2009 which, while not so dramatic as 2005, still brought the publishers out in force. I have not read Gideon Haigh’s The Ultimate Test but it seems from Archie’s review he was at his best. My favourite record of the 2009 series is Atherton’s Ashes. The dust jacket might be unappealing but don’t let that put you off. The former England skipper brings all of his many qualities as player and commentator to his writing.

* In Australia Ashes 2005 was published as A Fair Field and no Favour:The Ashes 2005.

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