What are the greatest Ashes series ever played?
With the first Ashes since probably the early 70s where the sides could legitimately be called the top two in the world on the way, it seems as good a time for this question as any.
Having watched some footage of it this morning, I am inclined to pick out the series in England in 1981. Australia took the first test on a lethal pitch through some heroism from Border and some great bowling from Lillee and a debuting Alderman, then after the second test was drawn and Botham resigned from the captaincy it generally looked like Australia were favourites to take the series. From there we saw the beginning of "Botham's Ashes", when he put in brilliant man of the match performances in each of the 3rd, 4th and 5th tests to guide England to an unassailable 3-1 lead. The 3rd test in Headlingly is the most famous of course, where Botham, having taken 6 wickets in the first innings with the ball and top scored with 50 with the bat, came to the crease with England 5 down and still 122 runs behind and following-on. He hit 149 at a run a ball to set up a target of 130 for Australia, and then Bob Willis destroyed the Australians with 8/43 to tie the series at 1-1. The 4th test is somewhat overlooked in the shadow of this, but it took an equally remarkable performance as Australia were set a moderate 151 to win in the fourth innings and passed 100 with four down, only to have Botham produce a stunning spell of 5/11 to leave them 30 runs short and put England on top in the series. The fifth test was more one-sided, where a second innings Botham century helped England set Australia an impossible 505 to win, only to have a rampaging Yallop and a sedate Border take Australia withing sight of winning and then saving the match with vital hundreds. In the final test Australia got on top through a century and an 80 odd to Border and 11 wickets to Lillee, only to have Knott and Brearley squeeze out a draw for England with a vital 5th day stand.
It was a series with everything, where both sides looked capable of winning it at various stages, fantastic individual performances from the likes of Botham, Willis, Border, Lillee and Alderman, and all six games going down to the wire in one manner or another, but particularly the third and fourth tests being all time classics.
The other contender that springs to mind is the 1930 Ashes in England. Billed as the battle between Bradman and Hammond to decide who was the greatest batsman in the world, a 22 year old Bradman wound up hitting a world record 974 runs, including two of his greatest innings at Lords and Headlingly, with his 334 at Headlingly being perhaps his greatest of all. England took the first test and Australia the second, and things were still tied heading into the final test where Australia dominated and won by an innings to take the series.