Yesterday, we commenced our all-time Ashes XIs by naming our Australian opening pair. Today, it is the turn of their English counterparts.
A number of great English openers have graced Ashes encounters stretching all the way back to the good Doctor himself in the Victorian era. This left us with a lengthy initial long-list comprising the aforementioned WG Grace, as well as Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Len Hutton, Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch, Michael Atherton, John Edrich and Michael Vaughan.
Gooch and Atherton were quickly discounted as despite both being very good batsmen, they met their respective nemeses’ when facing the Australians. Atherton probably still wakes up with the sweats when Glenn McGrath features in his nightmares and the same is probably true for Gooch when the grinning face of Terry Alderman appears. As such, Gooch only averaged 33 in Ashes encounters and Atherton a touch under 30.
Grace was also discounted as by the time test cricket came around, the good Doctor was arguably a bit past his peak and in any case he saved his best for the Gentlemen versus Players matches, which probably were considered more important in his era.
Vaughan was ruled out too as he only had one series as an opener against the Australians. That said it was a phenomenal one with three hundreds and 633 runs at 63.33, which is why he deserves mention. But the others remaining have far more lengthy legacies. Finally, we considered that Edrich fell into the ‘very good’ rather than ‘great’ category, so he is missing from our final short-list too.
That leaves us with four English openers that certainly fall into the ‘great’ category – Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Hutton and Boycott. Along with Walter Hammond, Hobbs is arguably the greatest English batsman ever, so he has to be one of the two names. Certainly, The Master’s record against Australia was superlative with more runs (3,636) and more tons (12) than anyone else and with an average in the mid-fifties. So, who should join him?
One of our earliest memories was of Boycott scoring his 100th hundred in the Headingley test of 1977 and he certainly has a decent enough record against the Australians. But the fact that more often than not self came before country as evidenced by his decision to opt out of the 1974/75 Ashes, rules out the opinionated one on this occasion.
That leaves a choice between Hutton and Sutcliffe. This is a very difficult decision. On the one hand there is Hutton, who captained England twice to Ashes glory, hit the highest score ever in Ashes battles at the Oval in 1938 and who averaged over 56 against England’s greatest foe. Then there is Sutcliffe, who averaged a phenomenal 66.85 against Australia, hit eight centuries in 27 Ashes tests and who formed perhaps the greatest opening partnership of them all with Hobbs.
And it is this last point that tips the scales in Sutcliffe’s favour and sees him reunited with The Master in our all-time England Ashes XI. One only has to look at their opening stand of 105 on a treacherous wet wicket at Melbourne on the 1928/29 tour to see the benefit of pairing these two together. It may have not been their biggest stand in terms of runs, but it was probably the best century partnership in Ashes history given the state of the pitch. On this occasion, Hobbs was out first for 49 and Sutcliffe steered England to within touching distance of their victory target of 332 before falling for a stupendous 135.
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