Ashes: Ian Botham, David Gower, Bob Willis, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain on first tours
Last Updated: 17/11/17 9:31am
There's nothing sweeter than winning the Ashes - particularly in Australia.
As England prepare to defend the urn they regained in 2015 - and atone for their 5-0 whitewash in Australia in 2013/14 - former captains David Gower, Sir Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain give an insight into the conditions and the challenges they encountered on their first Ashes tour, including plenty of flak from the Aussie fans...
Bob Willis, 1970-71: Australia 0-2 England
An extraordinary series as England, under Ray Illingworth (below right, with Bill Lawry), regained the Ashes after 12 years. It was an odd tour because we had the ultra-professional Illingworth as captain and the extreme amateurs Colin Cowdrey as the vice-captain and David Clarke, the farmer from Kent, as the manager. It's fair to say that those individuals didn't get on. The manager was quoted as saying after the second Test, which like the first was a draw, that he would rather we lost the series than have to sit through any more boring cricket!
The next match at Melbourne was washed out and then I got my opportunity in the fourth Test when Ken Shuttleworth got injured but it was John Snow's match - he won it by bowling fast on a pretty spicy pitch. He hit Terry Jenner on the head, which led to crowd trouble and Illingworth led England off the field, but to my mind it wasn't a bouncer at all - it was a short delivery that Jenner ducked into.
However the umpires, who were very biased against us (in six completed Tests they didn't give us a single lbw), made a great fuss and said it was intimidatory bowling; the crowd didn't like it and threw cans onto the field, while one spectator grabbed Snowy on the boundary. It all died down pretty quickly but umpire Lou Rowan, a retired policeman, behaved like he was still in active service and said he'd award the match to Australia if we didn't return to the field which we duly did once the outfield had been cleared.
Back then bay 13 at Melbourne was a pretty colourful place! They chanted 'Willis, weak as p***' all the time and when I got down to the boundary there were cries like "hey Willis, you take ugly pills - I think you're hooked on them!" To calm them down you took the proffered can of lager but you were never quite sure if it was beer inside...
Anyway, two more draws followed before we returned to Sydney for the seventh Test and this time the spinners did the damage in the second innings. The whole series depended on that last day, which began with Australia needing 100 with five wickets in hand to level the series and keep the Ashes, but Illingworth and Derek Underwood bowled them out fairly quickly on that morning and we enjoyed a fairly comfortable series win in the end.
David Gower, 1978-79: Australia 1-5 England
This wasn't the first time I'd played cricket in Australia because I had one season of club cricket with Perth behind me. That season introduced me to the Australian psyche, which was invaluable; in four months I learnt a lot about the atmosphere, the rivalry and the amount of sledging that I could expect in an Ashes series in Australia.
The first couple of State games we played on that 78/79 tour reinforced what an important experience that was and gave me more exposure to Australian pitches. The 1-5 result suggests it wasn't a classically close series - which is perhaps not surprising when you consider how many players Australia lost to World Series Cricket - but this was no easy ride.
You only have to look at people like Rodney Hogg (above), who bowled at the speed of light and was an absolute handful as 41 wickets, to realise that. There is no such thing as a genuinely bad Australian side and this one wasn't at full strength - but it still received immense, partisan support as Bob, or anyone else who went near the infamous Bay 13 at Melbourne, will happily tell you!
It was pretty much guaranteed that you would get plenty of flak. There was no singling out - anyone was fair game. It was just a question of how you dealt with it; you either absorbed it and smiled or gave some back. Botham used to give the crowd the handcuff sign as he was walking back towards the southern end at Melbourne, just to remind them where they'd come from! Of course, the perfect antidote to this very strong rivalry was to play very good cricket. I found that even when you lost the crowd would respect you for the good cricket you played; and if you won, they'd say 'well played mate', and slink off.
Sir Ian Botham, 1978-79: Australia 1-5 England
There is no point playing for England - or Australia for that matter - if you don't want to play in an Ashes so I couldn't get to Australia quick enough, particularly as I'd already tasted success against them in a couple of Tests the summer before. Our preparation for that tour was far superior to the garbage we witnessed in 2006/07 when England rocked in and played a couple of beer games, thinking that would be enough to take on the smarting Australians who had been planning to regain the Ashes from the moment they lost them at the Oval in 2005. They might as well have just handed them back to Australia - it was amateurish at best.
Even back then we realised that a touring team has to have time to acclimatise to the different conditions - otherwise there's a real danger that you go into that first Test under-cooked and under-prepared. We all went there in 1978/79 eager to play and we made the most of the time we had to adjust to the weather, the conditions, the heat, the pitches, the Kookaburra ball and, quite importantly, the Australians themselves! We hit the ground running and won at Brisbane by seven wickets, which set the tone for the whole series to be honest.
What people don't often realise is that when you walk out in an Ashes Test - even in Australia - you are walking out into YOUR stadium. If you don't thrive in that type of gladiatorial atmosphere and the hostile banter - and enjoy giving it back - then in all honesty you are not going to last long in Australia. We've seen that plenty of times before. I didn't give some back just to appease 100,000 screaming Australians, though; I did it as much, if not more, for me because it all helped to fire me up.
Michael Atherton, 1990-91: Australia 3-0 England
There was a sense of tremendous excitement rather than trepidation when I went on my first Ashes tour. In 1990 Australia weren't the dominant force they were a decade or so later and it was a different type of tour in those days; you landed in Perth and had a week's practice there and then four weeks or so travelling around playing State sides. I reckon we were probably out in Australia for five weeks before we played a Test!
I remember the fee, which was £20k, and that Wayne Larkins (below) spent most of that and more on phone calls home! Hotel phone rates cost an absolute fortune back then. Wayne opened the batting with me in the first Test (because Graham Gooch had picked up a hand injury) even though he had an abscess on his tooth and wasn't feeling very well at all! I wasn't in very good form at the beginning of the tour, which didn't help much either, but I did go on and get a hundred at Sydney - all be it a very slow one - which was quite an achievement. As it happened I also played pretty well in the Adelaide Test too, putting on 203 with Gooch.
Overall, though, we were well beaten and took our fair share of stick. I found the Australian media to be very one-eyed and hostile and Australian supporters pretty basic in the sense that they respected you if you were doing well and gave you a bit of stick if you weren't. This wasn't the happiest tour I've been on as there was unrest between Gooch and Gower and we lost the first Test in about three days on what was a very green and damp pitch at Brisbane. We then had a massive collapse in Melbourne when we were level on first innings in the second Test. Although we redeemed ourselves a bit at Sydney and Adelaide, we got thumped in Perth, so we copped some flak.
Australia were a more mobile, fitter side than us and we were lampooned as a kind of 'Dad's Army' outfit. Tuffers, Devon and Eddie Hemmings were singled out in particular because their fielding was so poor. I remember Steve and Mark Waugh ending up at one end in a one-day international in Sydney and all Tuffers had to do was take off the bails at the other to run one of them out. The ball came into him but even though it was a loopy throw it pinged off his hands as if they were made of iron and rocketed about 15 yards away and the chance vanished. After that he got a merciless flogging from the crowd.
Nasser Hussain, 1998-99: Australia 3-1 England
I felt more pressure playing in an Ashes series at home because we build it up so much here and you really get the sense that the whole country is watching you. Of course England players do get a lot of stick in Australia, where the media can be ruthless and the fans worse. "Oi Tufnell! Lend us your brain, we're building an idiot," was one of the best I've heard over the years. I remember Alan Mullally got a whole load of stick too, as did Ronnie Irani (below) in the 2002/03 one-dayers until he started doing his Merv Hughes impressions on the boundary. It's all about how you take it - if you get flustered and start losing your cool, even a little bit, then you've pretty much lost the battle.
You go somewhere like Lilac Hill expecting a warm-up game and you arrive to find a hostile crowd who have had a few jars and a side that includes five or six gun superstars; it's a definite wake-up call and if you are not careful you can find yourself labelled as the worst England side ever after a week. Then it's up to you to prove everyone wrong.
I was established in the side by the time I went on my first Ashes tour and was full of confidence leading into it because I had got runs against Australia the summer before. What's more, Australia is a great place for any batsman to go, whether you're a first-time tourist or have played there before. All the pitches are good - I can't remember ever playing on a bad one, to be fair; there's usually good pace, good bounce and you get value for your shots.
The net facilities are abundant and of the highest quality, while the hotel and the grounds are outstanding, as is the knowledge of the people on the peripheries of the game. It's fair to say that I loved both of my Ashes tours to Australia, even though we suffered very badly with injuries in 2002/03 and had to take risks with our best players because we were essentially an unfit side.
We played a lot of good cricket on that 1998/99 tour and could arguably have come back to draw it 2-2 at Sydney if a few more decisions had gone our way. We beat them in Melbourne thanks to the efforts of Dean Headley and Darren Gough and I've always felt that was one of the better sides we've sent to fight for the Ashes; the series as a whole was much more even than many that we witnessed around that time.