Rare moments of triumph found amid grim reading

IT is the stiffest test of an English cricketer's career.An Ashes series in Australia is the ultimate examination of talent and temperament.

Only four English teams – Len Hutton's in 1954-55, Ray Illingworth's in 1970-71, Mike Brearley's in 1978-79 and Mike Gatting's in 1986-87 – have won the Ashes Down Under since the Second World War.

Brearley's achievement came when the home side were decimated by Kerry Packer's World Series, which meant England effectively beat Australia's third XI.

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Small wonder Huw Turbervill has chosen to call his new book detailing all England's post-war Test series in Australia, The Toughest Tour.

Turbervill, who has been writing on cricket for the Sunday Telegraph since 2000 and the Daily Telegraph since 2007, has crafted a chapter around each of the 17 series – the 1978-79 tour included – in a tour de force of research and reminiscence.

The book, published by Aurum, is a splendidly simple and successful initiative.

It features interviews with many of the surviving tourists, recreating great moments through the words of the players who witnessed them and made them happen.

It does, however, make for pretty grim reading from an English perspective.

For the book highlights how dominant Australia have been in meetings between the teams in their native land, and the size of the challenge that faced Andrew Strauss's players this time around.

The joy of The Toughest Tour, however, is in its rich tapestry of anecdote and nostalgia.

Whether reliving, with the late Sir Alec Bedser, England's dismay at Don Bradman's shock reprieve on 28 in the first Test at Brisbane in 1946 (he went on to score 187); wincing with Frank Tyson as he describes the moment he was knocked to the ground, unconscious, at the second Test in Sydney in 1954 (only to exact deadly revenge); or rejoicing with John Emburey and Chris Broad as they savour England confounding their critics and proving they really could bat, bowl and field during the 1986-87 series, The Toughest Tour is an entertaining romp through Ashes history.

It also shows why the oldest Test rivalry continues to exert such a powerful influence over both countries.

There is certainly plenty for Yorkshire cricket lovers to get their teeth into.

In addition to an informative chapter on Hutton's tour, Illingworth gives his opinions on the 1970-71 series, which England won 2-0.

In particular, he recalls the seventh and final Test at Sydney (an extra Test was tagged on to the six-match series after the third game in Melbourne was abandoned without a ball being bowled).

A 62-run victory at the SCG sealed the rubber after England won the fourth Test at the same venue but was mired in controversy after Illingworth led his side from the field in protest at crowd misbehaviour.

After being dismissed for 184 in their first innings, England were in danger of losing the match – and the Ashes – as Australia followed up with 264.

Defeat would have seen holders Australia retain the urn after they drew 1-1 with England in 1968, and it was towards the end of Australia's first innings that trouble flared.

Terry Jenner, the No.9 batsman, ducked into a delivery from John Snow and was hit in the face.

Jenner was carried off, and umpire Lou Rowan ordered Snow to stop bowling bouncers.

This instruction infuriated Illingworth and the England side, who felt Snow had done nothing of the sort.

The crowd, however, began to target the bowler.

Snow was manhandled by one disgruntled spectator while fielding near the boundary as cans and bottles were lobbed on the pitch.

"Beer bottles were being thrown," remembers Illingworth. "The chap who moved the sightscreen was hit by one and taken to hospital.

"I called everyone into a huddle and we told the authorities, 'Any more bottles and we will not play'.

"Snowie was grabbed by a fan and could have been punched. The Press missed it – they were probably on the gin and tonics by then."

When Illingworth led his side off in protest, umpire Rowan responded by threatening to award the game to Australia.

Illingworth was persuaded to go back out by England manager David Clark and the rumpus eventually died down.

For Illingworth and his men, the episode provided all the incentive they needed to storm their way back into the contest.

The tourists made 302 second time around to set Australia a target of 223.

The home team were going well when Keith Stackpole was at the crease, but some fine bowling from Illingworth, in particular, helped England close out the game and regain the Ashes.

The achievement was all the more remarkable given the age of the England side.

Only Snow, Keith Fletcher, Alan Knott, Bob Willis, Ken Shuttleworth and Derek Underwood were aged under 30 in the touring party, but it made no difference.

"If you looked after yourself – didn't drink too much, take drugs or do anything silly – age wasn't a problem," says Illingworth.

"The only person who shouldn't have gone was (Colin) Cowdrey.

"It took him three weeks to accept the offer of being vice-captain – he shouldn't have been my deputy if it took him that long.

"He showed no interest – sometimes he didn't even turn up at practice.

"Having taken so long to decide, I think his misgivings were such that he should have said 'no'."

The series represented a triumph for Illingworth – even more so given the questionable standard of umpiring.

"We didn't get one lbw decision in all the Tests," he recalls.

"The Law back then was that if it pitched outside off stump it couldn't be given. Australia got plenty, though – yet we bowled them out for under 300 six times.

"We brought back the Ashes – we beat Australia in Australia. It was a fantastic performance.

"We did it in spite of a lot of problems, and I shall always be very proud of that."

Australia batsman Greg Chappell wrote that Illingworth's side were "mentally the toughest English side I played against."

Chappell added: "He (Illingworth) subjected us to mental intimidation by aggressive field placings, and physical intimidation by constant use of his pace attack, ably led by one of the best fast bowlers of my experience, John Snow.

"Winning to Illingworth was something he expected of himself and demanded of his team."

n The Toughest Tour (The Ashes Away Series Since The War), Huw Turbervill, Aurum, 2010.