Glorious grabs, sensational snaffles, paradisiacal pouches – Jo Harman and Phil Walker present the best catches from Ashes history.
First published in 2015
10. Wunderbar McGrath
Fast bowlers with spindly limbs and chips on their shoulders aren’t in it for the fielding. They’re meant to graze, sulk, get riled, and reluctantly employ ‘the big size 12’ when forced into action. Australians don’t work like that. At Adelaide in 2002, the previously flaky Michael Vaughan was in the midst of some weird English dream where everything he struck turned to boundaries. He was on 41 in the second dig after a first-innings 177 when another effortless pick-up off the hip seemed arrowed for the rope. But the might of McGrath’s outstretched dive, bucket hands and horribly competitive spirit combined to pluck the ball millimetres from the singed, godless Australian turf. England collapsed, and England lost.
9. Phillips Given The Boot
Wayne Phillips buries his face in his gloved hands and tries to hold back the tears. It’s the dying embers of Edgbaston in 1985 and Australia are close to saving it. Phillips whacks Phil Edmonds off the back foot, the ball ricochets off Allan Lamb’s instep, and David Gower, standing insouciantly close at silly-point, pockets the ballooning ball. Gower enquires, and the umpires happily oblige, despite having next to no clue whether it’s bounced. No matter, this is Gower’s summer. The Ashes fall into his palms soon after.
8. Damn Fine Dilley
In the first Test of the 1981 series, beleaguered England skipper Ian Botham shelled two chances in the slips. Australia won by five wickets and captain Beef was honest enough to admit England would have won if they’d caught their catches. A few transformative weeks later at Leeds, Gatting was tumbling, Taylor was bouncing, and Botham himself was grabbing them off his bootstraps. Then the big one: Willis, around the wicket to the lefty Rod Marsh, the top-edged hook and a back-pedalling Graham Dilley at fine-leg clasps it in front of his face, his feet prancing balletically inches from the little wooden pickets. Beautiful.
7. Boot Hill Boony
The Blond’s hat-trick victims at the ‘G in ’94 may have lacked a bit in the quality stakes, with Dev Malcolm following Gough and DeFreitas, but David Boon’s diving grab off Dev’s glove followed by that kitchen-sink celebration is worthy of our list.
6. Clem’s Bally Fluke
It’s 1902, and we’re at Old Trafford. England are floundering in pursuit of a modest target and need eight more with two wickets left when England stumper Dick Lilley launches the ball out to square-leg. Clem Hill, who’s riding the boundary, picks up the story. “I raced after the ball with not the slightest idea of bringing off a catch, but with the full determination of saving a fourer. Almost on the boundary, after having run the best part of 25 yards, I threw everything to chance and made a dive at the leather. No one was more surprised than myself to find the ball stuck in my hand. Poor Dick Lilley passing me on the way to the pavilion said, ‘Oh, Clem, what a bally fluke!’ For appearance sake I had to reply, ‘Never on your life!’ But the England wicketkeeper knew the truth and spoke it.” Australia went on to win by three runs to take an unassailable lead in the series.
5. Miller Saves Tavaré’s Blushes
Fast-forward 80 years, to the fourth Test of the 1982/83 series at the MCG, and this time it’s Australia chipping away at a target when a grab at the death wins the day. The Aussies should already have been dead and buried at 218-9 chasing 288 but Allan Border and Jeff Thomson refuse to give it up, nurdling their way to within four of the target before Beefy sends down a wide long-hop. Thomson can’t resist a nibble, guiding a gimme into Chris Tavaré’s mitts at second slip, only for the ball to burst out. Luckily for England, and to Tavaré’s eternal relief, Geoff Miller’s on hand to run round from first slip and scoop up the rebound. The celebrations begin, and Tavaré’s buying first drinks at the bar.
4. Wally’s Grab
Old Trafford, 1961, and England need 256 in three-and-a-bit hours to take a 2-1 lead in the series with one to play. Ted Dexter fancies it’s on and rattles along to 76. At 150-1 the hosts are cruising when Aussie skipper Richie Benaud pulls a rabbit out of the hat. With a damaged shoulder affecting his ability to spin the ball, he comes round the wicket to the right-hander – then unheard of for a leggie – and focuses on hitting the rough outside leg stump. The plan’s perfect as Dexter attempts to cut a delivery that’s a little too close to him and nicks it through to the great Wally Grout, who snaffles a stunner. England fold, Benaud finishes with 6-70, and Australia take what proves to be a decisive lead in the series.
3. Langer’s Premature Exultation
Oh, how they wanted this one. After the blip of ’05 the mangled mongrels of Australia were hot for revenge in ’06, and at Brisbane Flintoff ’s England were immediately up against it, Ponting’s redemptive century framing the early stages until Colly and Pietersen dragged the game late into the fourth day. Colly’s dismissal brought Fred out, and after a couple of bunts, a short one from Warne is gut-churningly miscued to long-off, where lurks Justin Langer and his black belt in arrogance. Just before the pill descends into his cruel and calloused martial-artist hands, the preening maniac awards himself a clenched fist celebration before actually catching the thing. It has a kind of Mourinho-like magnificence, provoking vast and deep swathes of hatred and love all at once. You’d have him in your side any day, the swine.
2. Bert Cataract
Having bloodied the Aussies with the ball, Harold Larwood started slapping them about with the bat in the final Test of the 1932/33 Bodyline series, giving it some long-handle after coming in as nightwatchman. The Notts quick raced along to 98 until, on the threshold of a first Test century, he spooned the ball to long-on. To any other fielder it would have been a dolly, but underneath the ball was Bert ‘Dainty’ Ironmonger – a 51-year-old missing a forefinger who, if he were still around today, would make Monty look like Jonty. Old Bert wasn’t missing this one though, clinging on at ankle-height to deprive Larwood of a ton in what would prove to be his final Test. “The Australians clapped him all the way back to the pavilion,” wrote Denzil Batchelor. “Either that, or they never stopped clapping Ironmonger for holding almost the only catch he ever held in his life.”
1. Famous Strauss
We all know it, but so what? No moment better captures the utter otherworldliness of that summer than Andrew Strauss and his Newton-defying salmon-leap of faith. It was Fred from around the wicket, it was Gilchrist fencing away from his body, and it was Brocket staying late in the office again, and the godlike Patrick Eagar behind the lens. You can keep your Jones-Bowden-Richie heartstopper; this was perfection.
First published in 2015