Sport Editor Kit Shepard calculates which Ashes test is the greatest of the 21st century

Written by Kit Shepard
Published

Test cricket was not invented to create nail-biting finishes. With games stretched over five days, teams have plenty of time to assert their dominance gradually, meaning the result is often certain well before the conclusion.

Matches that do go down to the wire then, are rare and full of tension. After days of attritional battle, watching the outcome be determined in the final stages is a nail-biting experience.

Similarly, most test matches do not carry huge importance. Of course, both teams are desperate to win, and many series involve winner-takes-all games that can define careers. Nevertheless, test nations play so much cricket that the results of most matches are largely forgotten within a few years.

Again, there is an exception. Series between England and Australia, better known as The Ashes, always have high stakes. It is an old, bitter sporting rivalry, steeped in nearly a century and a half of hatred. While the two nations have not constantly been at the summit of world cricket and there are other cricket feuds that run even deeper (see India vs Pakistan), the Ashes, with all its tradition, legend, and little urn, is undisputedly the pinnacle of the sport in England, and probably the world too.

So, the perfect recipe for an enthralling test match, one that will be collectively remembered forever, needs two ingredients. First, the game must be immensely tight, with both sides either one boundary or one wicket away from victory when the final over is bowled. And it must be a match between England and Australia.

Only two tests in the 21st century fulfil both categories: Edgbaston 2005 and Headingley 2019. Each was an unbelievable game for different reasons. However, with cricket on hold until at least July and past matches being the only means for fans to get their fix, it is the ideal time to work out which game was better.

A Quick Recap

First, a brief summary of what happened in these two incredible matches.

Edgbaston 2005 was the second test match of a hugely-anticipated Ashes series. Australia captain Ricky Ponting curiously opted to bowl first, despite leading fast bowler Glenn McGrath unavailable after twisting his ankle during the warm-up. England took full advantage, storming out of the to post 407 on the first day. Even though they had a 99-run lead entering their second innings, they could only set the old enemy only 282 to win, and it would have been far less without some sensational hitting by Andrew Flintoff.

Yet with Flintoff then leading the way with the ball, Australia were 175-8 at the end of day three and an English victory seemed assured. The pendulum swung again the next morning as Australia, despite having no recognized batsman at the crease, rallied to get within three runs of victory, before Steve Harmison took the final wicket of Michael Kasprowicz, sparking scenes of jubilation. The result levelled the five-match series at 1-1, and England would go on to win the Ashes for the first time since 1987 over the rest of a vintage summer.

Headingley 2019 was the third test match of last summer’s Ashes. Australia held a 1-0 lead and, as they had won the previous series against England, needed just one more victory to retain the urn. It seemed that they would get it at Leeds, bowling England out for 67 in their first innings before setting the hosts a comparatively monumental 359 to win. Though Joe Root’s men fought admirably, their belated efforts looked to be in vain when the ninth wicket was taken with 73 more runs still needed. What followed was probably English cricket’s greatest individual innings, as Ben Stokes smashed 74 from just 45 balls, finishing unbeaten on 135, to tie the series with a one-wicket victory.

The Criteria

Analysis of the games will be broken down into six sections:

Quality of the Teams: Which match had the more talented cricketers? Though not essential for an entertaining game, there is something special about watching world-class players do battle.

Quality of the Game: Low-quality contests can be exciting, but games are better when they are decided by brilliance rather than mistakes.

Dramatic Ending: How many twists and turns were there at the end of the game? Did anything happen just before the winning moment that added to the tension?

Iconic Moments: When recalling the games, how many singular flashpoints remain vivid in the memory?

Commentary: An underrated element of any great sporting moment. What is the first thing you remember about Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal against QPR? Exactly.

Historical Relevance: How much would have changed had the result gone the other way?

Without further ado…

Quality of the Teams

A no-contest here. Edgbaston 2005 was a clash of the two top test teams of the world, while Headingley 2019 was fought between two middling sides still searching for their identity.

Those 2005 squads were ridiculously talented. England boasted an Andrew Flintoff at his peak, a devastating quartet of fast bowlers, and five batsmen who, besides Ian Bell, were close to or in the prime of successful test careers.

Meanwhile, the mid-2000s generation of Australian cricketers is in the conversation for the best test team ever. They included the players who would end their careers ranked second in test runs and wickets (Ponting and Warne respectively), a master wicketkeeper-batsman (Adam Gilchrist), and three others who would earn over 100 caps (Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Michael Clarke).

England’s line-up at Headingley had few batsmen with the concentration and technique for the longest format

Fast forward to 2019, and things were vastly different. England’s line-up at Headingley had few batsmen with the concentration and technique for the longest format. Only captain Root averages over 40 in tests, a decent barometer for a solid, reliable player. For some perspective, Each of England’s top five at Edgbaston all averaged over 40 during their long careers. As for England’s bowlers at Headingley, the jury is still out on whether Jofra Archer has enough discipline for the longest format, Jack Leach is yet to establish himself as a frontline spinner, and only Stuart Broad has consistently reached the standard of the 2005 pace attack. Even with Stokes, who has cemented his status as the world’s top all-rounder, England were worse in 2019.

It is the same story with the Australian side at Headingley. They had three players averaging over forty with the bat (compared to seven in 2005, two of which averaged over 50). Without Steve Smith, who missed this game after being felled by an Archer bouncer in the previous test, their only batsman who has shown evidence that he can be relied upon to build a score in England is Marnus Labuschagne. Admittedly, the 2019 bowlers are not far off their Edgbaston equivalents, with Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon all ranked in the top 20 in the world. However, without the transcendent talents of a player like Warne, this attack is not quite as intimidating as the 14 years earlier.

Big Edge: Edgbaston

Quality of the Game

The gap in quality is best explained by England’s contrasting first innings in the respective matches. At Edgbaston, they smashed the Australian bowlers to all parts on day one, amassing 407 to take control of the test match. Marcus Trescothick, Kevin Pietersen and Flintoff batted positively, scoring quickly without slogging.

If England balanced aggression and control in perfect harmony in 2005, they achieved the opposite 14 years later. At Headingley, cricketing traditionalists were left incredulous as batsmen showed a horrific lack of temperament, playing wild shots to balls that were never there to be hit. Australia’s pacemen had a field morning (the innings did not last long enough to call it a field day), as England were bowled out for 67, their lowest Ashes total in 71 years.

They did bat better in the second innings, and Stokes’ hundred was comfortably the best individual effort in either test. Still, the fact that England went on to win at Headingley shows just how poor the two sides were, especially compared to 2005. Australia’s first innings in 2019, where they posted just 179, was a poor total, but was forgotten once the carnage of the next morning began. Had it not been for a couple of terrible mistakes (more on this later) they would have won at Headingly. At Edgbaston, England’s excellent first day did lay the foundations for a famous victory, but they had to fight off a vicious Australian comeback to win by the narrowest of Ashes margins. In short, Edgbaston 2005 was won by England, Headingley 2019 was lost by Australia just as much as it was won by Stokes.

Big Edge: Edgbaston

Dramatic Ending

Edgbaston, in this context, falls victim of having several experienced test cricketers who handled the enormous occasion remarkably. Sure, England could have bowled better on the final morning, Simon Jones dropped a difficult chance with 15 runs required, and the final decision was incorrect (Kasprowicz’s hand was marginally off the bat when he made contact with the ball). Yet for much of the final morning, everyone is annoyingly competent. The only heart-stopping moment of drama is this final wicket but, prior to that point, it had been a morning where the game slowly trickled away from England with few twists.

The conclusion to Headingley, in contrast, was an hour of non-stop drama. Above all, there was Stokes’ breath-taking batting, as balls disappeared everywhere, his hundred unlike anything seen before in a test match. At the other end, number 11 Leach played with impeccable technique and discipline to keep the Australian bowlers at bay, before nonchalantly polishing his steaming glasses in between overs.

[Headingley had] an utterly chaotic finale that not even 2005 can match

This odd couple’s brilliance was accompanied by figures on all sides utterly losing the plot. Australia skipper Tim Paine kicked off the comedy of errors, wasting his last review on an LBW shout that reeked of desperation, a mistake that showed the extent to which Stokes had rattled the tourists. The next over, with England needing just two runs and Australia one wicket, number 11 Leach set off for a quick single that Stokes had not even entertained. Not to be out-done, Lyon, at the bowler’s end, fumbled the simplest of gathers with Leach stranded and a one-run victory in his hands. The next ball, umpire Joel Wilson turned down a huge LBW appeal, before replays showed that the ball would have gone on to hit middle stump, signalling that the decision would have been overturned had Australia been able to review it.

Watching both players and officials at the summit of their profession make the most basic errors due to the intense pressure was a sight to behold. It gave us an utterly chaotic finale that not even 2005 can match.

Edge: Headingley

Iconic Moments

The final hour of Headingley is loaded with unforgettable moments, including Stokes’ reverse-hit for six, Lyon’s fumble and the winning runs. Yet outside the chaotic conclusion, this was not a game filled with legendary flashpoints will go down in cricketing lore. Aside from England’s 67, which was a case of poor concentration rather than anything extraordinary, the first three innings in 2019 were rather unspectacular.

Edgbaston, though, produced countless iconic moments throughout the match, as the tension steadily built towards a sensational crescendo. McGrath twisting his ankle in the warm-up. Warne spinning it sideways to dismiss Strauss. Flintoff hitting Brett Lee out of the ground, and then his over to Ponting an hour later. Harmison’s slower ball to Clarke. The final wicket. Flintoff consoling Lee. The 2005 encounter would have been a fantastic game of cricket even without the last hour, and the same cannot be said for 2019.

Edge: Edgbaston

Commentary

On the TV side, the legendary Richie Benaud’s cry of ‘Jones! Bowden!’ at Edgbaston is unmatched by anything from 2019.

Headingley does win the radio battle courtesy of BBC’s Test Match Special, as Jonathan Agnew, Alistair Cook and Glenn McGrath struggle to contain themselves as they watch the dramatic finale. For any England fan, watching a spewing McGrath just about hold it together as the game slips away from Australia is a sweet, sweet sight.

Nevertheless, the Headingley commentary was accentuated by the footage from the box. In contrast, Benaud’s two words were all that was required to describe the incredible drama.

Slight Edge: Edgbaston

Historical Relevance

Stokes’ Headingley heroics captured the nation in a way test cricket has not since 2005. After the incredible finish to the world cup final six weeks earlier, the match further showcased the sensational entertainment that the sport had to offer. The game emphatically dismissed the stereotype that cricket is boring, slow, and devoid of drama, giving it a platform from which popularity could be boosted in the coming years. Unfortunately, momentum has been ground to a halt by the pandemic but, at the end of last summer, it truly felt as if the sport had been resurrected.

Yet the result at Leeds did not change the destiny of the Ashes, as Australia recovered from the gut-wrenching defeat to win the next test and retain the urn. On the other hand, if England did not win at Edgbaston in 2005, the cricketing world and beyond would have been dramatically altered.

English cricket would have been left humiliated

Here’s one likely scenario: Australia, with a 2-0 lead, would have won the series at a canter. English cricket would have been left humiliated after an eagerly-anticipated encounter became a no-contest, driving national interest in the sport to an all-time low. Warne and McGrath would have retired at the end of the series having never lost an Ashes series, the deadly duo’s names etched in the nightmares of the few English cricket fans remaining. Rather than becoming a media star as he did after his epic all-round performances at Edgbaston and the matches thereafter, Flintoff would have become an injury-prone cricketer who never fulfilled his potential. This means Sky’s A League of Their Own gameshow never takes off and Jacamo would have to find another athlete to model their garments. When one wicket has the power to alter the future of a clothing brand, you know things are serious.

Edge: Edgbaston

The Verdict

With the advantage in five of the six categories, Edgbaston is the clear winner, perhaps surprisingly. Granted, it has never been a secret that both England and Australia had far better players in 2005 compared to 2019 and ergo produced a higher level of cricket, but what has been somewhat forgotten is how good the Edgbaston test was from start to finish. There was drama before a ball was bowled, runs-galore on day one, iconic wicket-taking deliveries on days two and three, Flintoff single-handedly keeping England in the game, and that nerve-shredding fourth morning.

Headingley 2019, meanwhile, is a touch overrated. Yes, Stokes’ innings and the last hour were amazing. They were bizarre. They encapsulated exactly why sport is worth watching. But the rest of the test did not have the same historic feel that Edgbaston 2005 exuded in abundance. The fact that the destiny of the urn was altered in Birmingham, but not in Leeds 14 years later only confirms which game was more significant.

In sum, if you are willing to sit through three days of mediocre test cricket to be wildly-entertained for an hour, watch Headingley 2019. If you want to be captivated for four days by an event with monumental consequences for sport and society (depending on how you feel about men’s fashion), watch Edgbaston 2005.

Final Edge: Edgbaston

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