Ian Bell’s move from four to three for the Edgbaston Test gives him the opportunity to play a series defining innings, to stamp his mark on the 2015 Ashes the way he did just two years ago. Below I look back on three such innings and that set the bar very high indeed for the Coventry cover driver.
Viv Richards – 232 First Test England vs West Indies Trent Bridge 1976
We had seen the West Indies new number three before of course, specifically in the World Cup Final of the previous summer where he had distinguished himself not with the bat, but in the field, disposing of opener Alan Turner and both Chappells with an athleticism seldom seen back then (an athleticism fostered under fitness coach, Dennis Waight, that would mark the West Indies as decades ahead of their time). We also knew that he had not capitulated during the subsequent tour Down Under, as Australia wreaked revenge with the pace battery that would inspire Clive Lloyd to stoke his Fire In Babylon strategy with fast men rotating without respite. There may even have been a mention or two of big runs back home in the recent controversial series vs India in which Bishen Bedi had more or less taken his bat home in the face of a relentless bouncer attack. Like most of the West Indian batsmen, he had played a bit of county cricket, but he had only picked up one Man of the Match Award in the one day stuff and averaged around the mid 30s in first class cricket in both his seasons for Somerset.
But there was also “Grovel” to stir into a heady mix.
So we didn’t know much about the gum-chewing, bearded Antiguan under the maroon cap as he walked out, an hour into the morning session, introducing the British public to a ringwalk of an entrance, that of a man who would take no backward step, not now and not ever – a gladiator in the Colosseum.
Five hours later, he walked back to the pavilion, to the applause and can-rattling of the crowd, having compiled an undefeated 143 full of punches through midwicket, cuts sending the ball to the boundary as he fell away just a little to leg, the better to offset the force imparted and drives hit on the up straight or through extra cover, the stroke finished with the bat high above his now imperious head.
There was more to follow on the Friday, as the cameras would focus on Trent Bridge’s Australian style scoreboard to mark his 150, then 200 and on to 232, before he was dismissed with his team 408-3, a huge score in those days.
The match petered out in a draw – with Michael Holding not available, Clive Lloyd held back Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel in the second innings, the two quicks bowling just 18 of 78 overs, the nuclear button only being pressed at Old Trafford after another draw at Lord’s had shown just how much weaponry the big Guyanese had at his disposal.
And though the most vivid memories of that unforgettable red hot summer will always be Holding and Daniel vs Edrich and Close of an early evening at Manchester and then Holding again, simply powering through England’s batting as Tony Greig crawled back to the sanctuary of The Oval pavilion, it was King Viv at three at Trent Bridge in an otherwise unremarkable match who had set the tone for a series that, on and off the field, would challenge received opinions of how Test cricket could be played and watched. It was never the same again.
Ricky Ponting 142 Second Test Australia vs England 2006-7 Adelaide
Not many England fans expected much at The Gabbatoir, Brisbane’s grim concrete citadel of Australian ruthlessness and, sure enough, they got nothing. England went to Adelaide one down, but, after the extraordinary events of 2005, a drawn series would be enough to retain The Ashes and that would be plenty for me and my fellow all-nighters in cold, dark Blighty.
So, with Paul Collingwood quietening the tedious sledges about his OBE with an epic 206 and KP chipping in with another brilliant 158, the platform was set for England to take the game well beyond Australia’s reach securing a foothold in the series with (at the very least) a draw. Until Andrew Flintoff, going well himself on 36 in company with Ashley Giles, whose fragile confidence was bolstered with every stroke of their 60 runs 14 overs partnership, suddenly chose to declare! Had he not seen (as I had) India overhaul Australia’s first innings 556 to win by four wickets at this very ground just three years earlier? An old-fashioned third morning declaration was all I wanted, guaranteeing that the prediction of the toiling Glenn McGrath (30-5-107-0) could be written off early for the second series running.
Yet, come that third morning, things were looking good, Flintoff’s aggressive captaincy appearing to pay off as handsomely as his aggressive batting and bowling had done a brief 16 months previously. Australia were 78-3, Matthew Hoggard bowling swingers and cutters beautifully, when Ricky Ponting, at that very moment the owner of the third highest batting rating in the history of Test cricket, lifted a long hop in a gentle high parabola out to deep square leg. Even with the camera following the ball, every England fan knew there would be a man underneath and there was, but Ashley Giles never looked like catching it and didn’t. He was never to play a first class, List A or T20 match again.
Ponting, who knew not to look a gift horse in the mouth, took guard again and found a willing accomplice in Mike Hussey, then 13 matches into his remarkable introduction to Test cricket and they took the score to 257 constructing the platform for Michael Clarke and Adam Gilchrist to give Shane Warne something to bowl at – and, boy, did he bowl at it.
Ponting has many higher scores, many more fluent and accomplished innings, many more important knocks, but few more definitive in shaping a series, indeed, shaping a narrative that continued in 2013-14 and is all the talk again now as the 2015 Ashes tilts Australia’s way. The Tasmanian fighter had seized his chance and the ghosts of Adelaide 2006-7 still loom large in English minds today.
VVS Laxman 281 Second Test India vs Australia 2001 Kolkata
Like Ian Bell, VVS Laxman is not a natural number three, but, like Bell, circumstances dictated that he play that role in one of the most celebrated innings of all-time.
The famous numbers bear repeating. Having lost by ten wickets in Mumbai, India were following on, 222 runs back, when Saurav Ganguly sent in the elegant Laxman at first drop reasoning that, as last man out in the shambles of a first innings, he might still have his eye in for the second dig. Ten and a half hours later, including a fourth day comprising 345 runs scored by Laxman and Rahul Dravid, Ganguly’s hunch had paid off more handsomely than he could have imagined.
The tide well and truly turned, Harbhajan Singh took six wickets on the fifth day and then another 15 at Chennai to secure perhaps the most remarkable come-from-behind series wins ever, against one of the greatest Test teams in history. VVS had also secured something almost equally rare – the unequivocal respect of every Australian who had ever lifted a bat in anger.
Though more appreciated for his sublimely old-fashioned strokeplay than the output of Sachin Tendulkar, the grit of Dravid or the combative nature of Ganguly, Laxman averaged a tick under 50 against Australia’s all-conquering early 21st century team, making scores of 200*, 178, 167, 148 and 109 in addition to his monument, four of his six centuries coming on the hard, bouncy tracks Down Under. He was on the winning side nine times in the 29 matches he played against the Aussies, passing 50 a remarkable ten times in his fifteen completed innings in those matches. (India also registered six draws and 14 defeats in 29 matches against Australia for which VVS was selected, a commendable record against so ultra-strong a team).
So when Ian Ball takes guard at his home ground, the Australians buoyed by taking the first England wicket, I hope he’ll be thinking of the opportunity that lies before him, not just to match his own feats in 2013, but also to shape a series to his will as those lionised above did so memorably.