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Ashes Smashers

The famous Ashes Urn, shown here actual size.

We all have them – favourite Ashes matches that went down to the wire. The most recent would include Monty’s last stand in Cardiff 2009 and Edgbaston 2005, while more mature readers might remember the Boxing Day Test of 1982. Prior to that, we’re relying on the prose of the game’s great writers to evoke the magic of memorable Ashes contests past.

Recently I’ve been working on a method of assessing individual match impact based on the diffferential in win probability before and after a particular event, but it occurred to me that it could also be used to highlight close contests in a much quicker and objective manner than having to pore through all of the match reports from 1877 onwards.

Close encounters of the first kind

There are a number of ways to assess how close two teams were in a particular match, and the first method I tried was to count the number of times during the match the win probability of both teams was close enough to be almost equal. The closest Ashes encounters when measured in this way turned out to be the following (click on the match result to see the scorecard):-

England beat Australia by 12 runs, 26 Dec 1998
England, two down to Mark Taylor’s team and coming off a 205-run defeat in Adelaide, were bowled to an an amazing 12-run victory by Dean Headley in the Boxing Day Test. Australia, 70 runs ahead on first innings, had required just 175 to win – Wisden described it as “a superb Test”.

England beat Australia by one wicket, 1 Jan 1908
In Jack Hobbs’ debut England were 116 to the good on first innings totals, but in the end scraped home by just one wicket. They were saved by the performance of the great SF Barnes, though surprisingly it was his deeds with the bat which saved England on this occasion – his 38 not out saw England home. However if Hazlitt had hit the stumps on the winning run cricket would have had its first tie.

England drew with Australia, 1 Jul 1993
Coming in to this Test England had lost seven in succession, including the first of the series by an innings. At the end of the third day England were four second innings wickets down and only 60 runs to the good, an eighth conscutive loss seeming the most likely result. But centuries from Gooch and debutant Thorpe allowed England to declare on 422 and, with Australia at 115/6 at tea it was, as Wisden opined, “England who felt cheated out of victory”.

There are some problems with this method, which are apparent when considering the match which scores highest, when West Indies beat Australia at Port of Spain in April 1978. The first three days were described by Wisden as “enthralling, in which the the balance swung one way and then the other, leaving neither side with an advantage.” Australia then collapsed so dramatically that West Indies won easily by 198 runs. One possible fix for that might be to weight each innings progressively higher.

Close encounters of the second kind

Another way to determine how close the match was is to measure the difference in win probability after each event and total those differences for the whole match – the lowest total would highlight the closest matches. The closest Ashes Tests are then found to be as follows.

Australia drew with England, 26 Dec 1974
Yet another nail-biting Boxing Day Test took place in 1974, the highpoint of the Lillee and Thomson onslaught. The closeness of this particular encounter can be gauged from the fact that the first three innings totals were within 3 runs, with Australia failing by just eight runs to produce victory from an injury-depleted England as the last hour saw seemingly constant swings in fortune in what was described as “an extraordinary Test”.

England beat Australia by 3 runs, 26 Dec 1982
Once more the Boxing Day Test produced a blinder. In this case all four innings ended with 10 runs of each other as a fabulous tenth-wicket stand of 70 between Border and Lillee came up a whisker short. Wisden sums it up – “A magnificent Test match, to be ranked among the best ever played, produced a finish of such protracted excitement that it had the whole of Australia by the ears…No-one who played in the game or watched it, or who saw it on television, or who listened to it on the radio, many of them from halfway across the world, could have been left unmoved.” Indeed.

Australia beat England by 28 runs, 22 Dec 1950
“one of the most exciting Tests in recent years” was how Wisden described another December Test at the MCG, as in a low-scoring game England failed to reach the target of 179 which would have been the lowest total of the match (an achievement which of course they still managed). For the first time in Australia since 1896 neither team managed to score 200 in four completed innings.

Close encounters of the third kind

Finally, we can try to objectively identify dramatic matches. The method I used for that was to total the changes in win probability, the highest and most dramatic shifts thus hopefully identifying the most dramatic matches – the highest scoring matches are as follows.

England beat Australia by 3 runs, 26 Dec 1982
This match was discussed above.

England beat Australlia by 12 runs, 1 Feb 1929
England had already won the series by this fourth Test at Adelaide, but there was no let up in the excitement in a match notable for the sparkling debut of Archie Jackson. Hammond, not to be outdone, managed two centuries in a high-scoring game where Jardine just failed to also reach that milestone with 98. Australia, requiring a distant 349 for victory, fell just 13 runs short as Jack White took eight second-innings wickets and 13 for the match. Wisden noted that “a match with even scoring throughout, had a most exciting finish.”

England beat Australia by 2 runs, 4 Aug 2005
No one reading will require any introduction to this match as, like Border and Lillee before, Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz so nearly brought Australia home. Within hours the “Greatest Ever Test” DVDs were on sale to commemorate a match which produced “exciting, fluctuating and often brilliant cricket from day one.” When Shane Warne was out having crafted a vital 43, Australia’s win probability was basically zero; when Lee snatched the single pulling within two runs of England, Australia’s likelihood of winning was then virtually certain.

The sharper-eyed among you will no doubt have noticed that most of these matches feature England victories – this, as Australian fans would no doubt be quick to point out, is because Aussie victories tend to the more one-sided. Let’s hope it’s the former rather than the latter in 2013 – we’re certainly off to a promising start.


[QUOTE=wpdavid;3098812]Enjoyable piece. Other tests worthy of consderation since I’ve been watching include Old Trafford in 2005, Edgbaston in 1981 and The Oval in 1997. Oh and obviously Headingley 1981.

Going back a while, didn’t Jessop’s test go to the wire with Rhodes and his 10th wicket partner getting there in singles, supposedly?[/QUOTE]

Thanks for reading and commenting, WPD. In all of the cases you mention except ’97, one team or the other was on top for virtually the whole game with all the drama coming in the 4th innings, so they don’t rate as highly as the ones I mentioned.

Comment by chasingthedon | 12:00am BST 16 July 2013

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