Disasters in the drop zone: men who lost England the Ashes (maybe)

Catches have always won matches – and, indeed, spilled ones have regularly lost them. And they don’t come any bigger or important than in an Ashes series. Nigel Henderson looks back on three of the most crucial that went to ground for England against Australia.

Ashley Giles, Adelaide, 2006

In recent generations, England appeared to have cornered the market in left-arm spinners who can’t field: indeed with the selection of the likes of Phil Tufnell and Monty Panesar it’s seemed like a prerequisite. Ashley Giles though bucked the trend, his bucket hands usually reliable at gully. And, positioned on the square-leg boundary in Australia’s first innings in a bid to trap the master puller Ricky Ponting, there was no obvious reason to be fearful. Steve Harmison set up the plan, roughing up the Australian captain with a 93mph bouncer that put him on the floor, so when the less pacy Matthew Hoggard dropped short from the opposite end, the Tasmanian swivelled with lazy grace, lifting the ball invitingly towards Giles in the outfield. England, who had scored 551 for six before declaring, stood a split second away from removing their opponents’ most dangerous batsmen and having Australia tottering on 78 for four. A hush came across the ground, broken only, for those with radio earpieces, by Tony Greig shouting, almost triumphantly: “That’s out.” But Giles, slow to absorb the enormity of the moment, was sluggish in getting off the ground and the chance, just above his head, spilled from his hands. England fans groaned, Australians cheered – and a small but audible chant went up for Panesar, who replaced Giles in the next Test.

Impact: Ponting, on 35 at the time, went on to make 142, and add 192 for the fourth wicket with Michael Hussey. Giles was criticised for being too far in from the rope but assertions that he had dropped the Ashes were wide of the mark: England’s batsmen were more culpable in the subsequent defeat as they capitulated in their second innings.

Fred Tate, Old Trafford, 1902

Fred TateIn 1902, just after he had turned 35, Tate, a journeyman medium-pace bowler, was unexpectedly called up to play for England in the fourth Test. Australia led by 37 on first innings, satisfactory for the home side who had recovered to 262 from a troubling 44 for five. Their mood was much improved when the tourists slipped to 10 for three in the second innings, the game there for the taking. However, everything turned on a fateful decision by fielding captain Archie MacLaren. A single off the penultimate ball of Len Braund’s over brought the left-handed Joe Darling down to face the leg-spinner’s final delivery. Fearing that Darling would hit with the spin, Braund asked for a man to be sent to the square-leg boundary. Lionel Palairet, who fielded in that position to Braund for Somerset, was about to move from the other side of the wicket when MacLaren, thinking there was no point in him changing for one ball, instead sent Tate into the outfield from his regular position in the slips. When Darling obliged by mistiming his swing to leg, it appeared a masterpiece of captaincy, but Tate, in unfamiliar surroundings, was disorientated. He moved to his right only to find the ball curving in the opposite direction and although he got his hands to it, it escaped his grasp to the crowd’s audible disappointment.

Impact: It would have been 16 for four and by the time Darling was out, the score was 74 – crucial runs as England eventually fell three short of a meagre target of 124. Tate was savagely booed by the crowd, labelled “the man who lost England the Test match” and never played for his country again.

George Duckworth, The Oval, 1930

George DuckworthDropping the first three batsmen of any team as a wicketkeeper would be considered a crime, but doing so when those first three are all-time greats, in the deciding rubber of an Ashes series, could be seen as treason. England had scored a creditable 405 in the first innings and with bowlers of the class of Harold Larwood and Maurice Tate – son of Fred – leading their attack, may have thought they were in an impregnable position. They had, though, reckoned without Duckworth, a Wisden Cricketer of the Year only 12 months earlier. He put down Bill Woodfull off Tate when he was on six, Bill Ponsford off Tate when he was on 45 and Don Bradman – you’ve guessed it, off Tate – when he had 82. Woodfull went on to 54, Ponsford 110 and Bradman 232, meaning Duckworth’s blunders had cost England 263 runs.

Impact: Australia ran up a first innings score of 695 and bowled England out a second time for 251 to win by an innings and 39 runs and clinch the series 2-1. It was not the result that Jack Hobbs had hoped for in his final Test.

Adapted from The Worst of Cricket 2: More Malice and Misfortune from the World’s Cruellest Game by Nigel Henderson.