A great Ashes innings can define a player’s career. Saving or winning a Test, some of the greatest cricketers in the history of the sport have shone in the Ashes. Cricket’s most famous, oldest rivalry is the stage of heroics, of drama.
First played in 1882/83 in Australia, there have been enough Ashes series to build up a remarkable catalogue of individual performances.
Batsmen have battled in challenging conditions to save matches against the odds, others have ridden their luck to chase down improbable totals. This article looks at the best knocks that firmly have their place in cricket history...
Ben Stokes (2019)
Ben Stokes gave England their greatest one-day moment in July 2019. Just a few weeks later, Stokes delivered one of the greatest Ashes moments following in the footsteps of his all-rounder predecessors, Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff.
After sloppy bowling and a poor dismissal in the first innings, Stokes bowled a gargantuan spell to keep England in the game as Australia tried to build a lead. It set the tone for what Stokes did with the bat on the evening of day three, as he battled to two runs off 50 balls.
Stokes continued in a similar way the following morning. When Joe Root was dismissed, he aided Jonny Bairstow’s counter-attack.
Bairstow fell, there was a nightmare run out with Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes was out quickly, Jofra Archer played a few shots before being caught on the boundary, Stuart Broad lasted two balls.
Stokes had started to accelerate. With one wicket to win, and Jack Leach his partner, England were out of it, needing 73 runs to win. Stokes went into World Cup Final mode.
Ramp shots, switch hits, 19 off a Josh Hazlewood over. The required runs ticked down, as Stokes farmed the strike superbly – Leach faced only a handful of balls before his now iconic single to tie the game.
The Ashes were alive with Leach’s single. The next ball was crushed for four by a brutal Stokes cut shot, a fitting way to the not just the greatest ever Ashes innings, but the greatest innings in Test cricket history.
Stokes’ arms were aloft before the crowd realised it was the winning moment. For the second time in as many months, the Christchurch-born all-rounder had defied all odds to lead England to a famous victory.
Ian Botham (1981)
Another of the best ever cricket matches. Another match featuring heroics from an England all-rounder. Another match at Headingley.
The similarities between Ian Botham in 1981 and Ben Stokes in 2019 are obvious. The innings were different – Botham swung from the hip while Stokes batted with greater responsibility – but the outcome, the elevation to hero status and superstardom was much the same.
The 1981 Ashes are known as Botham’s Ashes – and it all started with Botham crushing 149 not out as England followed on.
The Ashes were on the line. Botham had just given up/been stripped of captaincy. It was do or die, and Botham was never one to die wondering.
Graham Dilley was a more than helpful partner for Botham as they gave England a sniff of an improbable victory. Bob Willis did the rest.
Lee Hutton (1938)
After no results in the first three Tests of the 1938 Ashes, Australia won in Leeds to take the lead. England needed something at The Oval to tie the series, though the Ashes were already heading down under.
Sid Barnes made his debut for the tourists, but it was the hosts opening batsman, Len Hutton, who stole the show. Despite the first wicket falling with just 12 runs on the board, Hutton dug in.
Nearly 400 runs were put on for the second wicket with Maurice Leyland – Hutton remained at the crease until England had 770 on the board.
Eventually dismissed for 364, Hutton’s knock was the highest individual score in Test cricket until Garry Sobers passed him in 1958. It remains the most runs scored by an Englishman and the sixth-highest score ever.
Don Bradman (1930)
Donald Bradman, the greatest batsman ever, scored 974 runs in the 1930 Ashes, the best individual performance in any Test series. A mammoth 334 – a then record – of those runs came at Headingley (the ground that dominates this list).
While Australia were unable to force a result, their huge total batting first put them in control of the match and made defeat impossible. The series was 1-1 at the time and Australia went on to win it 2-1 in the final Test.
Of Australia’s 566, Bradman scored 334, which is a remarkably high percentage. Bradman’s 309 runs scored in a day is an all-time record.
There were plenty of other Bradman innings that could have taken place on this list – like the famous run chase at Headingley in 1948 – but it’s impossible to overlook a triple century.
Kevin Pietersen (2005)
Australia were the best Test match team ever when they came to England in 2005.
Ricky Ponting’s team, featuring more than a few all-time greats, were the overwhelming sports betting favourites. It became the best Test series ever played as England regained the Urn for the first time since 1989.
England’s Test team was relatively settled in the build up to the Ashes. There was one change, however.
The introduction of a South-Africa-born middle-order batsman who had lit up one-day cricket over the previous few months, including some bludgeoning knocks against Australia in the shortened format earlier that summer.
Pietersen played aggressively all series. He took the game to Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath like no other player had done. It was at The Oval, though, when Pietersen truly announced himself with England needing to bat out most of the final day to win the Ashes.
A nervous start led to a chat with skipper Vaughan at lunch. Pietersen was told to continue attacking – he did just that. Hooking Brett Lee for six, tonking Warne all around the park and smashing McGrath over his head, Pietersen threw out the ‘bat for a draw’ rulebook.
Pietersen scored another 22 Test hundreds. None were as memorable or significant as that destructive 158 in the September sun at The Oval.
Allan Border (1993)
Allan Border is known as the man who changed Australian cricket. Border led the changeover from the flimsy sides of the 1980s to the juggernaut of the 1990s.
His undefeated 200 at Headingley (the most pivotal of Ashes venues), personified his batsmanship.
Coming to the crease with Australia in a good, though not dominant position, and batting at five, Border grinded the England bowling attack into the dirt, batting over nine hours to put Australia in control with over 650 on the board.
The innings victory that followed confirmed a series win for Australia and consolidated their supremacy, making it three series wins on the bounce. Australia didn’t lose another series against England until 2005.
David Gower (1985)
There haven’t been many more elegant batsmen than David Gower. The England skipper headed into the Ashes on a run of poor form with fifties hard to come by in the previous three series against India, Sri Lanka and West Indies.
A poor start in Leeds was quickly forgotten, however, as Gower hit the most purple of patches. His 166 at Trent Bridge was sublime, but it was the 215 at Edgbaston that is most well remembered.
With the series at 1-1 and with a Test to play, England couldn’t afford defeat in either of the final two Tests if they were to regain the urn.
Coming in at 38/1 after Australia scored over 300, Gower put on over 300 with Tim Robinson then nearly 100 with Mike Gatting. England reached just short of 600 and won the match by an innings.
They followed that up with an innings victory in the sixth Test to seal the Ashes. Gower’s dismantling of the Australian attack is one of the most attractive knocks in Test history.
*Credit for the main photo belongs to Jon Super / AP Photo*