Tempers are often frayed in the heat of Ashes battle but some formidable characters and questionable umpiring meant the 1970/71 series was more fractious than most. Here’s a look-back to the finale of that contest when, with the series on the line, tensions spilled over at Sydney.

England 184 (Illingworth 42; Jenner 3-42) and 302 (Luckhurst 59; Dell 3-65) beat Australia 264 (G Chappell 65; Lever 3-43) and 160 (Stackpole 67; Illingworth 3-39) by 62 runs

Originally published in the 1971 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

Published in 2014

Published in 2014

The build-up

England, captained by the indomitable 39-year-old Ray Illingworth, arrived unbeaten in their last seven Test series and with high hopes of a first Ashes win on Australian soil since 1954/55. They made a lacklustre start though, drawing three and losing one of their warm-up fixtures.

Initially, the series itself wasn’t any more inspiring with largely forgettable draws at Brisbane and Perth preceding an abandoned third Test at Melbourne after a three-day downpour. However, that abandonment unexpectedly breathed life into the series and marked a watershed moment in cricket’s history.

Sensing an opportunity, the MCC and Australian Cricket Board put their heads together and hastily arranged a limited-overs match of 40 eight-ball overs on what would have been day five of the Test. “Our cricket administrators have been caught in the slops,” wrote Tony Larkins in the Melbourne Herald. “But, perhaps, by unleashing this deluge the gods have conspired to save us from the even greater boredom of having to watch another Test grind relentlessly to yet another draw.” A crowd of 46,000 turned up at the MCG to watch Australia prevail by five wickets and One-Day International cricket was born.

“This time there will be a result for sure,” said Australia skipper Bill Lawry ahead of the fourth Test at Sydney. So it proved, although not as Lawry would have hoped, as Geoffrey Boycott (219 runs in the match) and John Snow (eight wickets) took England to a comprehensive win by 299 runs. Two more bore draws followed at Melbourne – an addition to the schedule to replace the abandoned third Test at the same venue – and Adelaide, leading Australian journalist Richard Whitington to decry: “We were watching the crucifixion of cricket with Lawry and Illingworth washing their hands… like two Pontius Pilates.”

Lawry paid the price for his conservatism and became the first ever Australian captain to be dropped mid-series, with Ian Chappell – described by John Arlott as “a cricketer of effect rather than the graces” – brought in to ruffle some English feathers. The fare on offer had done little to set pulses racing but, nonetheless, the series was hanging on a knife-edge as the two sides arrived to slug it out in the final Test at Sydney.

The Report

A very different pitch from that on which bowlers toiled in Adelaide made sure that the final match would reach a definite result. It did so early on the fifth day, the extra day allowed on this occasion not being necessary. On the first day twelve wickets fell. Ian Chappell, Australia’s new captain, sent England in first and the batsmen fell to spin, despite another fine, resolute innings by Illingworth. There was time for Lever and Snow to shoot out Eastwood and Stackpole for 13.

Australia slumped to 66 for four, but England let their strong position slip, largely because Walters was missed three times. He and the stubborn Redpath, who batted over three and a quarter hours, put on 81, and Greg Chappell’s three-hour innings carried Australia to a lead of 80. During the closing stages of the innings, Jenner ducked into a ball from Snow and was hit on the face. Snow was warned by umpire Rowan against the use of persistent bumpers, which led to a protest by Illingworth. The crowd demonstrated against Snow and Illingworth led his side off the field, but returned after being warned by the umpires that the match would otherwise be awarded to Australia.

Edrich and Luckhurst more than countered Australia’s lead with an opening stand of 94, and a series of useful scores finally set Australia to make 223 with the pitch helpful to spinners and not unfriendly to pace bowlers. Snow bowled Eastwood with his sixth ball, but in the fifth over, going for a high hit to long leg off Lever, he broke his right hand on the boundary fencing and was put out of action. Nevertheless, the other bowlers, with Illingworth himself playing a notable part, had half the side out for 96. Only Stackpole, hitting two sixes and six fours, prospered, and he seemed fortunate not to be given out caught by Knott off Lever when he was 13.

On the final day Greg Chappell was Australia’s last hope, and he was winkled out by Illingworth, who pulled out his best to compensate for Underwood being disappointing in conditions expected to make him the match-winner. For England to win without Boycott, their top batsman, and then without Snow at the climax of the game was a great achievement. Australia had recast their side, dropping Lawry and, as stated, giving the captaincy to Ian Chappell. Lawry’s batting was sorely missed. The 35-year-old Eastwood, who was not even in the Victoria side at the start of the season, was no adequate replacement.

I was there

Ray Illingworth, who captained England to their first Ashes victory for 15 years, taking 10 wickets and scoring 333 runs in the series, shared his experience.

“It’s the only time in my life that I felt an umpire was being biased. You can’t use the word cheating. I remember in the seventh Test, at Sydney, there were two of the plumbest lbws I have ever seen. They were hitting middle halfway up and not given. It was just ridiculous. We bowled them out eight times for under 300, not bad going when you think we weren’t given any lbws [literally none, in the whole series].

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“In the same match some cans were thrown on and I called the players to the middle. Snowy [John Snow] walked down to his fielding position when we resumed and the cans started coming again. The fellow that moved the sightscreen was hit on the back of the head with a half-full bottle and he was in hospital. It was dangerous. A half-full bottle – it wouldn’t be a full bottle with the Aussies – can do some damage. I took the players off, went to the dressing room and I told the authorities to make an announcement that the ground would be cleared and we’d go back out, but if it happened again there’d be no play. Our manager wasn’t particularly happy about it, but what I did was right.

“There’s no doubt that winning the Ashes at Sydney was the number one memory of my career. They will never take that memory away.”