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Top 5: Ashes innings by English Batsmen

After Ben Stokes produced one of the great Ashes innings on Sunday – hitting a match winning 135* – it was lauded as ‘the best’ many have seen. On reflection to those comments, Playfinder will review the top 5 Ashes innings by English batsmen in recent history that could challenge Stokes’ top-spot.

5. Alastair Cook 235* – 1st Test, 25-29 November 2010 (The Gabba, Brisbane)

When Andrew Strauss led England down under for the 2010/11 Ashes series, he had the unenviable task of attempting to retain the Ashes on away soil. The Aussies had not lost a home Ashes series since 1986/87 which exemplified the nature of the task Strauss was facing. However, England had a ‘golden generation’ of cricketers and were favourites heading into the series.

It was important for England to lay down a marker in the opening Test, and that is exactly what opener Alastair Cook did. The Baggy Greens had built an extremely healthy 221-run first innings lead which left England reeling, enter the opener nicknamed ‘Chef’. Cook was regarded as one of the finest batsmen in world cricket at the time and showcased his composure and ability to bat for long periods as he expertly compiled a double hundred and eventually finished 235*.

His innings, which lasted for over 10 hours, was largely faultless throughout the 428 balls he faced as he grinded the Aussie bowlers down in the extreme heat at The Gabba, Brisbane. After being in a perilous position, Cook’s heroics meant England earned a draw, which set up the rest of the series nicely for the away side. England went on to make history by securing a 3-1 victory and ending 23 years of hurt down under, with Cook top-scoring after amassing 766 runs in just 5 Tests.

4. Mark Butcher 173* – 4th Test, 16-20 August 2001 (Headingley, Leeds)

When the star studded Australian line-up came to England in 2001, a damaging defeat was something even the most optimistic of England fans were dreading. After suffering 3 extremely heavy losses in the opening 3 fixtures, the hosts had already passed up the chance to regain the Ashes and were heading towards their own pre-series fears. However, Headingley – as we’ll see more throughout this piece – seems to produce magical Ashes moments and 2001 was no different.

With Australia yet again dominating, they made an early declaration in an attempt to win a rain effected Test. Still, England were chasing an unlikely 315 to win the Test, a total they had failed to compile throughout the whole series. Mark Butcher came to the crease with England 8-1 following the dismissal of Michael Atherton. Under huge pressure due to his personal form in the series, Butcher produced one of the great Ashes innings.

He anchored the England innings, scoring 173* from just 227 balls against the fearsome bowling attack of Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. It was a breakthrough moment for Butcher, and one that ensured England would be spared the embarresment of being whitewashed in the series, certainly deserving of a place in the top 5 Ashes innings’.

3. Ian Botham 149* – 3rd Ashes Test, 16-21 July 1981 (Headingley, Leeds)

An Ashes cricket blog wouldn’t be complete without a mention for England hero Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham. The all-rounder became an iconic figure for the national team and his breathtaking innings in 1981 did absolutely no harm to his reputation. In fact, the 3rd Ashes Test of the series was one of the most memorable games in recent English history.

With England 1-0 down in the series heading into the 3rd Test, losing would almost certainly spell the end for their hopes of retaining the Ashes. With England being required to follow on after being dismissed for a miserable 174 in reply to the Aussies 401, the hosts found themselves in deeper water at 105-5 when Ian Botham walked to the crease. ‘Beefy’ produced a special innings and one that is still discussed today. He counter-attacked his way to 149*, smashing 28 boundaries in the process, which set up a minimal target of 130 to Australia to reach for victory.

However, England miraculously bowled their way to victory, largely thank to Bob Willis who took 8-43 as the Aussies were bowled out for just 111. Botham’s knock will long be remembered for setting up a crucial Ashes victory, levelling the series at 1-1. England went on to win two of the three remaining tests and retain the Ashes. Botham’s crucial innings was seen as the turning point in the series and is more than deserving of a top 3 place on this list.

2. Kevin Pietersen 158 – 5th Ashes Test, 8-12 September 2005 (The Oval, London)

The greatest Ashes series of all time, and one that certainly put cricket back on the map in the UK. For a decade, the Ashes had been a foregone conclusion… an Australia win by a distant margin. In reflection, the teams were totally mismatched as the Baggy Greens had arguably the most feared side of all-time. However, in 2005 there was a sense of optimism that England could pull off a real shock and claim back The Ashes for the first time since 1987.

After being hammered in the opening Test at Lord’s, that ‘sense of optimism’ was quickly diminished. However, dramatic victories at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge earned England a well deserved 2-1 leading heading into fifth Test at The Oval. With the hosts only requiring a draw to regain the Ashes, Australia tore through England’s top-order on the final day to leave the score at 67-3 when Pietersen arrived at the crease. Knowing that both batting time and scoring runs were important, ‘KP’ produced one of the most devastating counter-attacking innings the game is likely to see.

Pietersen faced a barrage of bouncers from Brett Lee, who was bowling at 95mph, but continuously carted the bowler for six runs over square-leg in a breathtaking passage of play. With the series on the line, the England batsman took the game away from the Aussies after scoring 158 runs which included 22 boundaries. It was the birth of not only a national hero, but the game of cricket on English shores once more after the nation was completely encapsulated in the ‘greatest series of all time.’

1. Ben Stokes 135* – 3rd Ashes Test, 22-25 August 2019 (Headingley, Leeds)

Many pundits and former cricketers alike have commented in the aftermath of England’s dramatic and crucial Test victory on Sunday, that Ben Stokes 135* was the best innings they had ever witnessed. It can of course always be debated, with no real way to quantify ‘the best ever innings’. But certainly, Stokes’ incredible knock against the Aussies will live long in the memory given the match situation and the pressure he was under.

England were chasing a mammoth 359 to keep the series alive and started their reply in decent fashion reaching 141-3 before Stokes walked to the crease. After building a solid partnership with Jonny Bairstow, England reached 245-5 before wickets started to tumble. Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad all departed in quick fashion with England still needing another 73 runs to keep the series alive. In reality, there was little hope of the hosts reaching the target with just one wicket remaining and no.11 Jack Leach in the middle.

However, Stokes expertly navigated the strike and reduced the target with a series of devastating blows including hitting Josh Hazlewood for 19 in one over. With the all-rounder swinging from the hip, he rode his luck after being dropped by Marcus Harris and surviving an LBW and run-out scare with England needing just 2 to win. In typical fashion though, Stokes saw his side home after cracking Pat Cummins through the covers for four and levelling the series 1-1. It was a scarcely believable innings which had power, craft and a high degree of skill, deserving of top-spot on the list.

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Image Credit: Feature Image - Trent Bridge Test Match 1981 - Alderman to Gower by John Sutton