Location and photographer unknown. Circa 1880
The first Test match took place at Melbourne in March 1877. England’s touring party was organised by the business-savvy captain James Lillywhite and comprised 12 professionals, although this fell to 11 when wicketkeeper Ted Pooley, an inveterate gambler, was detained in New Zealand in a betting scandal. The match began at 1pm in front of 1,500 spectators. Charles Bannerman, who was born in Kent but raised in Sydney, faced the first ball, and when stumps were called four hours later, with the crowd having swelled to over 4,000, he was 126 not out from 166-6. The next day he pushed on to 165 before his middle finger was split and he retired hurt, his final score accounting for 67.3% of the team’s total. Remarkably, across the best part of 2,500 subsequent Test matches, that record remains intact. Australia won the match by 45 runs. Incredibly, a hundred years later, the one-off “Centenary Test” at the MCG in 1977 would throw up exactly the same result.
Location and photographer unknown. May 1878
The Australia team that toured England and North America in 1878 may not have played any international matches but the quality of the cricket and the pulling power of the likes of Fred Spofforth (on the left of the three standing figures) – considered the pre-eminent fast bowler of the era – ensured that the public would demand more. Four years later they would return, and in the first Test match ever staged in England, Spofforth’s 11-over spell at The Oval clinched a famous seven-run win. The result prompted the Sporting Life newspaper to mock up a front page “obituary”, in which “the body of English cricket would be cremated” and the “ashes” taken to Australia.
Florence and the urn
Location and photographer unknown. Circa 1890
In the autumn of 1882, Ivo Bligh voyaged to Australia with a 12-man squad made up of Oxbridge amateurs and four professionals, playfully declaring to the press and any Australian within earshot that he was going to “reclaim those ashes”. Legend has it that at Melbourne a group of Victorian women, including among them Florence Morphy, presented an urn to the English tourists, containing, so the story goes, the ashes of a burnt bail. Bligh’s team, shorn of WG Grace but still strong, won the series 2-1, and he and Florence were married a year later. She became the Countess of Darnley; and England-Australia Tests became The Ashes. England would hold the urn for the next six series, with WG Grace, who was part of that infamous 1882 defeat, getting revenge on Spofforth with 170 at The Oval in 1886.
The Oval, London. August, 1905. By Reinhold Thiele
The Oval crowd, dressed in its finery, stands to watch the fifth Test of the 1905 Ashes. The photograph was taken by Reinhold Thiele, the pioneering German flashlight photographer. (Thiele, who came to England in 1878 to study photography, became one of the first press photographers, initially specialising in football teams before focusing his lens on wider sporting scenes, and later, portraits of prominent celebrities.)
The Big Ship
Trent Bridge, Nottingham. May 1921. Photographer unknown
Warwick Armstrong ruled Australian cricket through much of the early part of the century. Known as “The Big Ship” due to his immense physique, Armstrong was a garrulous and hugely popular Victorian, reputedly as gifted at Australian rules football as he was at cricket. He first debuted for Australia in 1902 but was only given the Test captaincy when cricket resumed after the Great War. By then the wrong side of 40, he masterminded a 5-0 whitewash of the touring MCC side in 1920-21, making three centuries himself and strolling out to bat at Sydney in the final innings of the series after drinking whisky with his mates all afternoon in the members’ bar. (It was all good practice for his later career as an agent for a scotch whisky distributor.) He then oversaw a 3-0 win in England the following summer, before retiring undefeated, with eight wins from his 10 Tests in charge.
Cricketers on tour
Queensland, Australia. December 1928. Photographer unknown
A day at the beach for players and partners midway through the Ashes of 1928-29, featuring members of both teams. Wally Hammond (third left), Patsy Hendren (centre), and George Geary (fourth right) formed the core of England’s successful retention of the urn that Australian summer. Hammond’s 905 runs in the series was a momentous tally. He was generally considered at that point to be the greatest batter not just of his time, but of all those who preceded him. The mark, from nine innings, should have stood forever. It stands today comfortably beyond the reach of all-but-one challengers, and yet the record lasted less than two years. Don Bradman, pictured second right, would manage a couple of smallish centuries in Australia’s 4-1 defeat in 1928-29 – his first tons in the Baggy Green – but two summers later in England he would obliterate Hammond’s record, and much of his pride, with 974 runs in his first full Ashes. Hammond, who registered 113 and 60 and not much else in the series, would rarely be free of Bradman’s shadow for the rest of his life.
The fateful scoreboard
The Exhibition Ground, Brisbane. 5 December 1928. Photographer unknown
The tale of the first Test of the 1928-29 Ashes makes for desperate reading for Australia. Defeat by 675 runs remains to this day by far their biggest runs defeat in the history of the contest.
Bradman’s world record
Headingley, Leeds. July 1930. Photographer unknown
The hordes congregate around the greatness of one man. Bradman, then just 21, departs the field 309* after day one of the third Test. That night in his diary he wrote, with presumably comic dryness (although Bradman was not renowned for his wit): “We won the toss and batted. Archie [Jackson] out for one. I followed, and at stumps was 309 not out.” The following day he would take his score up to 334. His series tally of 974 runs remains by some distance the highest individual return in the Ashes. Australia won the series 2-1.
The Gabba, Brisbane. March, 1933. Photographer unknown
By the third Test at Adelaide, “Bodyline” had come to dominate and scandalise the contest. On day two, when Australia’s captain Bill Woodfull was hit over the heart by Larwood, Jardine was reported to have called out “Well bowled, Harold!” as Woodfull, surrounded by fielders, struggled for regain his breath. When Woodfull eventually resumed, and Jardine reverted to a leg-side-heavy field, the crowd was incensed, threatening to riot. Although Jardine later said he regretted the decision, at the time he was unrepentant. The England team manager Plum Warner later visited the Australian dressing room and was rebuffed by Woodfull, who said: “I don’t want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not.”
With a tear in his eye
The Oval, London. August 1948. Photographer unknown
Although they were never afforded full Test status, the five “Victory Tests” in the summer of 1945 were nonetheless a cherished chapter in Anglo-Australian cricket, unfolding in a spirit of euphoria following the end of the second world war. Three years later Australia were back as a full representative side, led by Bradman in his final series. Here he departs for the final time, bowled second ball by an Eric Hollies googly to leave his Test average tottering at 99.94. Legend has it that he was unable to dry his eyes following the standing ovation that greeted his walk to the middle. On commentary John Arlott was moved to silence, letting the applause of the crowd carry Bradman to the pavilion. That summer, Bradman’s Australians went unbeaten across 34 first-class matches, assuming the title of the “Invincibles”.
The era of Richie
SCG, Sydney. January 1959. Photographer unknown
Smooth, sharp-witted and tactically astute, the leg-spinning all-rounder Richie Benaud was Australia’s first great post-war captain and the biggest influence on the world game at the time. The 1958-59 series was a personal triumph: with the ball he claimed 31 wickets, and he led with great attacking instincts to pulverise a conspicuously poor MCC team by four Tests to one. The bigger challenge would be the return scrap in England in 1961. A seesawing series eventually fell to the tourists in the fourth Test at Old Trafford, when Benaud came up against the young Ted Dexter in the fourth innings. Chasing 256 to win, England were going well at 150-2 before Benaud chose to go round the wicket, immediately removing Dexter for 76 and then the captain Peter May for a duck. The squeeze was on, and Benaud ran through the lower order to claim six wickets and a 54-run win. With the Ashes retained, the series win was duly secured with a draw at The Oval.
The rise of the sandshoe crushers
MCG, Melbourne. December 1974. By Patrick Eagar
The 1974-75 tour was a hostile bloodbath. After the events of four years before, Australia plotted revenge with their own policy of short stuff. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, technician and tearaway, were their chosen enforcers, and Thomson’s bloodlust in particular was insatiable; homing in on skulls and toes with little in between, he declared that he’d rather see claret spilt on the pitch than numbers in the wickets column. Spurred on by his hard-nosed skipper Ian Chappell, Thomson ripped through England’s line-up, claiming 33 wickets as Australia won four of the first five Tests. Only when Lillee and Thomson were missing for the last match, did England register a flimsy consolation win.
Location and photographer unknown. January 1980
The England captain, sporting the beard that spooked the Aussie public into nicknaming him “Ayatollah”, masterminded a 5-1 Ashes win in 1978-79 against a team ravaged by defections to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. A year later, the two teams met in a hastily arranged three-Test rubber which took place after an agreement was reached by the Australian cricket board and the WSC defectors. The series, which fell outside of the official Ashes story, was won 3-0 by Australia, but it has been largely consigned to history, with Dennis Lillee’s infamous aluminium bat its only footnote. Although Brearley never made a Test hundred he nonetheless occupies a unique position in Ashes folklore, as the captain who orchestrated the 1978-79 win and the 1981 turnaround.
Headingley, Leeds. July 1981. By Patrick Eagar
Australia’s Ray Bright glances back at his splayed stumps, rearranged by a rampant Bob Willis, whose 8-43 has just toppled the tourists for 111. His spell wraps up a pulsating 18-run victory – just the second time in Test history when a team has won having followed-on. As Brearley’s men scamper off the field to dodge the invading fans, Australia traipse away to contend with the series being level at 1-1, and a delivery of £7,500 after a couple of the players decided to place mid-match bets on England winning at 500-1. Subsequent wins at Edgbaston and Old Trafford put ‘Botham’s Ashes’ into the history books.
Get past that
Lord’s, London. July 1989. By Patrick Eagar
Patrick Eagar is the godfather of modern cricket photographer, an aficionado of the game first and foremost, and Steve Waugh’s forward defensive at Lord’s is the sort of photo that only a true lover of cricket would think to take. Waugh came to England that summer without a Test century to his name. He rectified that at Leeds in the first Test, helping Australia to an innings victory, and then went to Lord’s and made another. He wasn’t dismissed until the third match of a series that Australia would win 4-0. Urn reclaimed, they didn’t relinquish it for 16 years.
Be afraid, be very afraid
Old Trafford, Manchester. June 1993. By Patrick Eagar
Shane Warne in action on his first Ashes tour, at the ground where he had already produced the “Ball of the Century” from his first delivery. Warne’s 34 wickets helped Australia claim a 4-1 victory and kickstarted a career of utter dominance over English techniques and minds. He retired in January 2007 as one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Century; 195 of his 708 Test wickets came in Ashes Tests.
Dare to believe
Edgbaston, Birmingham. June 1997. By Laurence Griffiths
A nine-wicket win in the first Test prompts excited talk of an English renaissance. Nasser Hussain makes a double hundred and Graham Thorpe 138 as England dominate the visitors, before the trio of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Steve Waugh get to work.
Jones’ Gabba nightmare
The Gabba, Australia. November 2002. By Darren England
Having inserted Australia to the surprise of everyone, Nasser Hussain could only watch in horror as he lost Simon Jones to injury shortly after lunch on the opening day of the series. Sliding for a ball on the sandy Gabba outfield, the fast bowler’s studs got caught in the turf, rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, an injury which kept him out of the game for over a year. The visitors went on to lose by 384 runs and eventually succumbed to an eighth consecutive Ashes series defeat, but when the two sides next met England would be a considerably more potent force, with Jones part of a formidable four-pronged pace attack. “It made me come back a better bowler,” he later said of his injury. “I was young and raw at the time and bowling a few miles an hour quicker, but my skillset was far superior when I came back.”
The Oval, England. September 2005. By Philip Brown
Kevin Pietersen drinks in the adulation having effectively secured England’s first Ashes win for 18 years, rescuing his side with a scintillating 158 following a second-innings collapse which threatened to scupper their chances at the last. Playing in his maiden Test series, Pietersen scored 473 runs at 52.55.
England’s perfect day
Melbourne, Australia. December 2010. Photographer Mark Dadswell
The momentum appeared to be with Australia after a thumping victory at the WACA had levelled the series at 1-1 with two to play, but by the conclusion of day one of the Boxing Day Test it was clear that England would retain the Ashes. Andrew Strauss, who later described this as England’s “perfect day”, bravely chose to field first and then watched his seamers wreak havoc under cloudy skies, Ricky Ponting the third wicket to fall after edging Chris Tremlett to Graeme Swann at second slip. The hosts were 58-4 at lunch and all out for 98 before tea. By stumps, England had opened up a lead of 59 without having lost a wicket in one of the most one-sided days of cricket between the two old rivals. After innings defeats at Melbourne and Sydney gave England their first overseas Ashes win in 24 years, Ponting called time on his tenure as captain.
Facing up to Johnson
The Gabba, Brisbane, Australia. November, 2013. Photographer Scott Barbour
Stuart Broad nervously prepares to face Mitchell Johnson as the left-arm quick steams in on day two of the first Test at Brisbane. It’s a match Johnson dominates with ball and bat, taking nine wickets and hitting a crucial half-century to inspire Australia to a crushing 381-run win. That performance sets the tone for the series. The revitalised fast bowler, who cut such a forlorn figure when England visited three years earlier, shatters stumps and reputations across five matches of relentless ferocity, claiming 37 wickets at 13.97 and three Player of the Match awards.
The miracle of Headingley 2.0
Headingley, Leeds, England. August 2019. Photographer Stu Forster
Jack Leach’s face sums up the emotion of a nerve-shredding day, as Ben Stokes creams Pat Cummins to the cover boundary to pull off the unthinkable, scripting a one-wicket win that keeps England’s hopes of regaining the Ashes alive.
Wisden Cricket Monthly has produced an Ashes digital special edition. You can read it for free here, and it’s compatible with all major devices. With contributions from writers such as Adam Collins, Tom Holland, Sam Perry, Alison Mitchell, Tim Key, Rob Smyth, James Wallace and Felix White, it’s the perfect companion to the series.