It is both the biggest and smallest prize in cricket. The Ashes urn stands at just 11cm but it represents so much more. Even though the MCC will tell you that the Ashes urn is not actually a trophy and doesn't change hands, the winner of the Test series between England and Australia provides the ultimate bragging rights for their nation. And over the course of more than 140 years of cricketing history some of the greatest players ever to pick up a bat or ball have played their part in creating its legend.
Who though would make it into an all time Ashes XI?
This is the challenge taken up by the Daily Mirror's Cricket Correspondent Dean Wilson who grew up on the feats of Sir Ian Botham and David Gower and marvelled at the toughness of Allan Border and Steve Waugh. He has covered every single Ashes match in England and Australia since the start of 2005 and these are his picks for a greatest Ashes XI for those who played in the post Kerry Packer World Series Cricket era since 1980.
OPENER – Sir Alastair Cook
Opening the batting requires bravery as well as skill especially in the cauldron of Ashes cricket. No-one was braver than Michael Atherton in an era of truly hostile fast bowling, likewise Justin Langer who wore bruises like badges of honour, but for sheer doggedness, unflappable ability, longevity and quality Graham Gooch and Sir Alastair Cook are two men who would never let you down. By virtue of scoring two double hundreds in Ashes cricket the protégé gets the nod.
OPENER – Michael Slater
Ashes cricket tends to reward the bold so at least one of my openers needs to be a dasher. Someone who will take the game to the bowlers and not just let them settle, like the giant figure of Matthew Hayden ready to advance down the pitch and whack them back over their head, or the stand and deliver approach of Marcus Trescothick who would bring his bat down like a hammer on an anvil. Michael Vaughan opened in one Ashes series and struck the ball as sweetly as any batsman before or since, but the sight of Michael Slater cutting the first ball of the 1994/95 series for four set the tone for the entire contest and summed up his approach to batting.
BATSMAN – Ricky Ponting
I could give a namecheck to one or two other batsmen who did a good job at number three for either England or Australia, but what's the point. There is only one man who can bat here and that is Ricky Ponting. Done. End of story.
Ponting had everything a Test batsman needs to be successful, a pull shot to die for, a rock solid defence, a hawk-like eye, a toughness that brought the best out of him the harder things got, and a gambler's preference for having a go. His first instinct was to attack and for a small man he could do so with such force, power and timing that once he was up and running he became impossible to stop.
BATSMAN – Mark Waugh
In an era of Aussie dominance one man still managed to float above the rest. While most of his team-mates were characterised by their growls and stern demeanour Mark Waugh was elegance personified in the way he batted. For this viewer there were precious few consolations to watching Australia bat all day, but a flick through mid-wicket from Waugh junior was one of them. The game looked so easy for him and often it really was. He was also an outrageously good slip catcher.
BATSMAN – Kevin Pietersen
Kevin Pietersen was a batting genius at times. He played three of the greatest innings I have ever seen in the space of just nine months in 2012 and he certainly delivered in Ashes cricket too. His 158 at the Oval in 2005 confirmed his arrival as a superstar, but it also showed that he had the technique and the temperament for the biggest occasions. He used his height as an advantage hit balls on the top of their bounce and he was as destructive as they came. Imagine getting rid of Waugh and then seeing Pietersen walk out. Watch the shoulders slump.
ALL ROUNDER – Sir Ian Botham
Arguably the greatest cricketer England have ever produced thanks to his exceptional all round feats which he usually saved for the Ashes. He had skill and heart in spades and loved the limelight. His exploits in 1981 were little short of astonishing with both bat and ball and he remains the standard to which other all rounders compare themselves. Andrew Flintoff had a series to remember in 2005 and was just as influential as Botham in his pomp, but he burned as briefly as it was brightly. Ben Stokes could yet hit the same heights, but not just yet. The Aussies have struggled to produce all rounders of this class in recent years with Shane Watson and Mitch Marsh the latest pretenders to the Botham throne.
WICKET-KEEPER – Adam Gilchrist
The job of a wicket-keeper has steadily evolved over the years from being all about the best gloveman to equal billing being given to the ability to bat. As much as this selector would love to give Alan Knott or Ian Healy the nod, the bar has been nudged upwards by Alec Stewart and Matt Prior and taken to the top by Gilchrist who really redefined what a wicket-keeper was capable of, taking catches and stumpings and cracking hundreds in equal measure. His performance in Perth in 2006 was the peak of his destructive Ashes career.
BOWLER – Shane Warne
When you are able to pick one of the five cricketers of the century as named by Wisden in 2000 then clearly this is not a difficult decision to make. Leg-spinner Shane Warne also happens to have taken more Ashes wickets than any man in history too. On pure numbers alone he walks into this team, but there was so much more to him that that. Everything about the way he played the game was pure drama, theatre and full of emotion. He was a joy to watch and he made English batsmen look silly for fun.
BOWLER – Glenn McGrath
There was nothing fancy about Glenn McGrath. As a fast bowler he just did the basics right, using his attributes of height and accuracy to deadly effect. He got the ball to nibble a little bit this way and that, but it was always around the top of off stump. Meet McGrath now and it is hard to believe that he had such a fearsome temper when he was younger but there was plenty of mongrel in him on the field. And when most cricketers struggle to produce their best cricket away from home, England and Lord's in particular brought the best out of him.
BOWLER – Mitchell Johnson
If I'm in charge of this fantasy Ashes XI then I want pace, pace, and more pace. I don't want any batsman feeling comfortable in the middle whether they've got 7 or 70 to their name and that is exactly what Mitchell Johnson brings. He simply put the frighteners on England in 2013/14 with his pace and his left-arm angle. The Ashes is a gladiatorial contest at times and he was the emperor in that series. The fact he struggled previously in England shows great character too.
BOWLER – Steve Harmison
England have had their fair share of pace demons down the years and it was hard not to include Bob Willis in this side for his Headingley 81 feats alone, but for pace and hostility and sheer awkwardness Steve Harmison comes out on top. He was the man who put the wheels in motion for the 2005 Ashes success. Even though England lost at Lord's, he made a huge statement by drawing blood from Ricky Ponting and to this day the former skipper carries the scar. No Aussie enjoyed facing Harmison.
12th Man – Gary Pratt
Of course one sub-fielder doesn't win you a match or a series, but in 2005 Gary Pratt came as close as anyone by running out Ricky Ponting at Trent Bridge with a moment of sublime skill. His pick up and direct hit to dismiss the Aussie skipper not only helped keep England's eventual target low enough for them to successfully chase it down, it also caused Ponting to blow a gasket and confirm England's supremacy over the old enemy. The fact that England's bowlers took liberal 'comfort' breaks while having the best fielder in the country replace them was neither here nor there!
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