Over the years, the Ashes battles have introduced to us men who were destined to make a great impact on the game. From Frederick Spofforth to Glenn McGrath, legions of legends have displayed their artistry on the canvas that is an Ashes series.
There can hardly be a bigger occasion for either an Australian or an English cricketer than to inspire his side to Ashes glory or to salvage his nation’s pride in the grimmest of situations.
However, at times, even the greats of the game have failed at the biggest stage of them all. The pressure of an Ashes series can be immense, especially when the urn is at stake.
It is during such times that the spotlight turns on to lesser-known, understated men who have often seized the moment and established their place in the annals of the game’s oldest rivalry.
In this first of a two-part series, we look back at four such unsung heroes from the last 50 years, who have become imbibed in the long history of this 135-year-old epic with their extremely valuable, and in most cases, unexpected contributions.
Bob Massie (1972)
It is indeed unfortunate that the man who took a record 16 wickets on Test debut, that too at Lord’s, played only five more Tests for Australia. Going by the full name of Robert Arnold Lockyear Massie, this fast-medium bowler from Perth was included in the team for the second Test at Lord’s in 1972 after England had taken an early lead at Old Trafford.
Massie went on to stun the home batsmen with his darting outswingers and generous pace. He swung the ball at will en route to figures of 8/84 in the first innings and 8/53 in the second to help Australia to a comfortable eight-wicket win. The five-Test series was eventually drawn 2-2, with England retaining the Ashes.
Massie’s record haul of 16/137 is still the fourth-best match figures in the history of Tests. His feat on debut was surpassed by a whisker by India’s Narendra Hirwani, who had figures of 16/136 in his first Test in 1987-88.
Massie played in the next three Tests of the 1972 Ashes, but took only seven wickets. He soon fell out of favour – his career did not even last a year, as he was destined to play his last Test at the SCG against Pakistan less than seven months after his debut, finishing with 31 wickets in six Tests.
Massie’s first-class career too ended in 1975. However, in spite of a nondescript Test career, he will forever be remembered for one of the strangest and most memorable Test debuts of all time.
David Steele (1975)
David Steele was called by The Sun’s Clive Taylor as the ‘bank clerk who went to war’. England had just been rolled over by a margin of 4-1 in Australia six months earlier, with their batsmen repeatedly getting mauled by ‘Lillian Thomson’ (the fearsome pace bowling duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson).
The 1975 Ashes began in expected fashion, with England suffering an innings defeat at Edgbaston – the dreaded twosome taking twelve wickets between them. Captain Tony Greig wanted someone who could tackle Australia’s pace menace, and he hoped to find his answer in Steele, a grey-haired and bespectacled 33 year-old from Northamptonshire.
Steele, who was known for his solid technique and yet had a first-class average of less than 32, duly made his debut at Lord’s, coming in at a wobbly 10/1 in the first innings. It later became 49/4, but he took Lillee and Thomson head-on before getting out for 50.
He also chipped in with 45 in the second innings and seemed to have broken the psychological chains in which Australia had bound the home side – in the second dig, the other batsmen made substantial scores to force a draw.
In the third Test at Headingley, Steele top-scored in each innings, with 73 and 92, and suddenly he was becoming the unlikely hero of the summer. Australia’s final series victory margin remained 1-0, with Steele scoring 39 and 66 in the fourth and final Test at the Oval.
Thus, he scored 365 runs – England’s second-best tally after John Edrich – at 60.8 in the series, and England seemed to have found a riposte to ‘Lillian Thomson’ from the unlikeliest of men. He was named the BBC Sportsperson of the Year for his courageous performances.
Steele went to play the entire 1976 series against the West Indies, during which he struck a career-best 106 at Trent Bridge against the likes of Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel. Strangely, he was not picked after that, and his Test career lasted eight matches in all. However, that duration was enough to seal his place in Ashes folklore.
Rodney Hogg (1978-79)
Victoria-born fast bowler Rodney Hogg could bowl at quite a speed, as the English batsmen found out in 1978-79. He was among the many new faces in the Australian side for that summer, since the core of the team was missing due to the exodus to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket.
Amid the crisis and a nightmarish series (Australia were routed 5-1), Hogg was the only one who provided the beleaguered home side with something to cheer about. He started by claiming 6/74 in his debut innings, and then took ten wickets each at Perth and Melbourne – four successive five-wicket hauls – to race to 27 wickets in his first three Tests. His 10/66 at the MCG guided Australia to their only victory.
He took 14 more scalps in the next three Tests to finish with a stunning 41 wickets – 16 more than anyone else – at an average of 12.85, collecting five five-wicket innings hauls and two ten-wicket match hauls.
Only Jim Laker (46 in 1956) and Terry Alderman (42 in 1981) have taken more wickets in an Ashes series. He naturally kept his place when the regulars returned, but this first series was to be his peak moment.
Hogg’s debut series tally was to be a third of his career total, as he finished with 123 wickets in 38 Tests at a respectable 28.47. He reserved his best for Ashes contests – his record against England being 56 wickets at 17 in 11 Tests.
Mike Brearley (1981)
Mike Brearley has proved that mere statistics are not enough to indicate greatness. This right-hand batsman and occasional wicketkeeper from Middlesex averaged a paltry 22.88 in the 39 Tests he played, without a single hundred.
Yet, he achieved his place in Ashes folklore solely because of his outstanding leadership as England’s captain in the 1981 Ashes. The series might have gone down to be known as ‘Botham’s Ashes’, but it was Brearley’s astute captaincy that was the catalyst, both in Botham’s resurgence and England’s eventual 3-1 victory, which helped them regain the Ashes.
Botham was captain for the first two Tests of the 1981 series, but he could hardly prove to be an inspiration as Australia took a 1-0 lead. Moreover, ‘Beefy’ was suffering his worst run in Tests; a pair in the second Test at Lord’s being the nadir.
Brearley, who was not even part of the eleven, was recalled as captain and the rest is history. In the third Test at Headingley, Botham batted like a reincarnated man and proceeded to guide England to a famous win after following on with a stunning 149* in the second innings.
With England defending just 130, Brearley then persuaded Bob Willis to change ends and bowl with the wind behind him. Willis went on to grab 8/43, bowling England to an 18-run victory. Another improbable win at Edgbaston followed, and when England won at Old Trafford, the Ashes were regained.
Brearley, who had a highly intellectual mind backed by degrees in moral science and psychology, had turned a team in disarray into an Ashes-winning unit. Incidentally, the 1981 Ashes was his farewell series, and his overall captaincy record read an impressive 18 wins and four losses from 31 Tests.
He was one of the very few who could merit a place in the team purely on leadership, because he knew exactly how to extract the best out of his men. The Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg once said that Brearley has a ‘degree in people’.