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As an Ashes series beckons, England's greats recall The Toughest Tour


Having broken Australia’s stranglehold on the Ashes with two consecutive home wins, England’s cricketers will board the long flight Down Under this Friday confident they can return in the New Year with the famous urn still in their possession.

Much newspaper space will be given to assessing the relative strengths of the rival nations between now and the first Test in Brisbane on November 25th but in terms of raw statistical history England’s prospects are easily measured.

Based on results in the 16 Ashes series completed in Australia since the war, England’s chance is one in four.

Four wins in 16 attempts -- an uncomfortable record that demonstrates why the title chosen for Huw Turbervill’s history of England’s post-War adventures in Australia is only too apt.

The Toughest Tour, published on October 26th by Aurum Press, charts the story of all 16 Ashes series -- as well as the extra non-Ashes Tests of 1979-80 -- through the eyes of those who took part.

As is inevitably the way, the book is the culmination of many hours of labour by the author, albeit pleasurable ones. For Daily Telegraph journalist Turbervill, whose fascination with Ashes history is matched by his love of writing, it was a welcome opportunity.

“In my present position, I don’t get the chance to write about cricket as much as I used to so,” he said.

“I always enjoyed doing interviews with players, past and present. Indeed, much of my writing for the Telegraph, Express and Wisden Cricket Monthly had been pieces about players.

“No one had really done a book about every Ashes tour in the way I had in mind and I knew I would enjoy tracking down and talking to players about their tour memories. I still had the numbers of many players I had interviewed previously and I decided I’d see where I could go with the idea.”

One of those precious numbers belonged to Sir Alec Bedser and his decision, logically taken, to start at the beginning was timely. Bedser was the only survivor from the 1946-47 series and passed away in April this year at the age of 91, shortly after becoming England’s oldest living Test cricketer.

“I’d interviewed him three years earlier when he had still been quite sprightly,” Turbervill said. “This time he had some health problems and he was fairly frail, although mentally he was still incredibly sharp and had clear recollections of that tour, as well as the 1950-51 and 54-55 tours.

“Given that, sadly, he passed away only six months or so later, I was so glad I caught him. I think it was the last interview he gave.”

With Bedser’s memories in the bag, Turbervill presented his sample chapters to publishers Aurum Press and was delighted to be given the go-ahead to write the remainder.

By the end of the project, he had interviewed 23 players, from Trevor Bailey and Frank Tyson of the early touring parties to Nasser Hussain and Ian Bell of the more recent England sides. Finding current players with time and inclination -- not to mention contractual freedom -- to talk about teammates, was one of the more difficult parts of the process but the England and Wales Cricket Board allowed access to Bell.

“It meant a six-hour round trip for a few minutes with him at Loughborough (home of the National Cricket Performance Centre) but it was worthwhile in the end,” Turbervill said.

Imposing deadlines on himself to complete each 3-4,000-word chapter, Turbervill wrote for three to four hours each day before going to work at the Telegraph. Working on the production side of a daily newspaper at least means that his day job is effectively a night job, with shifts starting in the late afternoon.

“I loved doing it,” he said. “The ex-players who agreed to speak were very good. Brian Close, who is 79 now, remembered things that happened when he was 19 with remarkable clarity.

“Geoff Miller (England’s chief selector) was excellent. So too were Dean Headley, John Crawley, Angus Fraser… and Chris Broad was superb on the 1986-87 tour, which was the last time England won.

“And it was not just talking about cricket where their memories were so fascinating. After the war, for example, players were amazed at how plentiful food was in Australia compared with at home, where rationing was still in force.

“And while modern players think nothing of long flights, there were deep reservations when the tourists travelled the full distance by air for the first time in 1965-66.

“It was thought that the long sea passage the players had to embark on previously was important in allowing them to acclimatise more gradually to warmer conditions and there was a mistrust of aeroplanes as posing a risk to health.

“A number of maladies suffered by the players in 1965 -- colds and stomach upsets, for example -- were grandly labelled as ‘virus diseases’ and blamed on the flight.

“There were several tours I did not really know a lot about, so the research was a learning process for me. I hope that people who read the book will have a similar experience.”

Follow the link information on how to buy The Toughest Tour: The Ashes Away Series Since The War.

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