The Ashes: The Greatest Series Review
England vs Australia. The Ashes. It's one of those traditional sporting events that occasionally rises to capture the public's imagination, and in 2005 we were lucky enough to witness what many (including, naturally, the publishers of this DVD boxset) are calling 'the greatest series ever'. For once, it's not that ambitious a claim... the cricket of the past summer was a real rollercoaster ride in terms of nerves and anxiety, spirit and determination – and let's not forget that most important of ingredients – skill!
For the curious, the name 'The Ashes' comes from a satirical obituary in The Sporting Times of 1882. When Australia beat England for the very first time, the obituary stated that English cricket was now dead, the body cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. The small trophy is reputed to hold a burnt set of cricket bails and was presented to the English captain Ivo Bligh by a group of Australian women. While the little trophy symbolises the series, it's always kept at the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) Museum at Lords. There's another trophy that's actually given to winning teams. (But enough talk of trophies.) The exciting thing about this year's Ashes series wasn't merely that England regained the Ashes; I think what caught the public's imagination more was the fact that both sides showed such rugged determination and spirit, which led to some fantastic cricket.
The First Test really showed off the class of the Australian cricketers, with the emphasis on bowling as Glenn McGrath took 9-82, taking his 500th Test wicket and giving Australia the first blood in the series with a win by 239 runs. It seemed like the summer was down to a traditional start of England collapsing quickly despite a promising start. However, the Second Test changed all that and was one of the most exciting Test matches I've seen for a very long time. Australia needed 2 runs to win, surely a no-brainer, until Harmison delivered the narrowest win ever in an Ashes series.
From the Second Test onwards the Ashes series was electric and the media were quick to get on-board and promote the sport and England's achievements widely. Another nice feature of this DVD boxset is that it presents a history of the media front pages that were published around each Test Match. The excitement that followed was surely one of cricket's finest hours in the UK. People with no previous interest suddenly sat up and paid attention – and even learned some of the rules of the game. For those of us who are hopeless cricket addicts it all added to the warm fuzzy feeling of seeing such great games of cricket as the Ashes delivered. Not just because England was winning, but because each side was so evenly matched and the teams' spirit seemed more of a determining factor than ever.
Let's start by saying this DVD is definitely one for the cricket fans out there, or perhaps for those who got caught up with England's success in the Ashes series of 2005 and who want a way of remembering all the highlights of the action. This is a highlights-only affair, as (unlike a football game) there's no chance that the entirety of the Test matches could be shown. Nonetheless, the highlights are well put-together and help to contextualise each Test match in turn - including an introduction that explains what the players did just before the Test started, how their form was, what the pitch was like, etc. I've never really watched a cricket DVD before, but it seems like this one was put fairly well thought-out, despite being released quite soon after the series itself concluded.
Given a generous anamorphic widescreen (16:9) presentation well-suited to the panoramic camerawork on these 3 DVDs, The Ashes' video transfer is no slouch. As you might expect from such a recent event, the picture is clear and crisp throughout with no real issues. Colours are precise and skin tones are perfectly natural. As you can probably imagine, there's a lot of fast movement going on here, but despite this there didn't seem to be any serious ghosting issues to contend with. The many close-ups on the faces of the various team members in play are always sharp as a tack and give a nice feeling of 'being there' with them in the thick of it.
The sound is provided via a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack which is adequate for the commentaries and the match action itself. There's some left/right directionality and ambient crowd noise, but not really all that much stereo imaging going on during playback. To be honest, this isn't really the area where I expected this boxset to shine, so that's hardly a serious issue. Commentaries are clear and audible throughout and that's really the main thing here.
Extras, Menus & Packaging
The boxset is made up of 3 DVDs, each packaged in its individual Amaray case with the trio fitting nicely into a cardboard sleeve to keep them together. The spines of the three cases, when placed together, show a picture of the Ashes trophy.
Menus are pretty good for a sporting disc, with good captures of the players adorning them. For each Test match there's the 'day selection' option, so you can choose just one day of the Test to watch highlights from, or you can watch the whole game… well, the highlights, anyway – putting the whole game on DVDs would require a much larger boxset!
Disc 1 (which includes coverage of the First Test at Lord's and the Second Test at Edgbaston) also includes The Ashes Introduction, which is a small feature weighing in at around 3 minutes that gives some context to where the players were just before the Ashes series began. It covers the England vs Bangladesh series, the England vs Australia one day matches, Bangladesh beating Australia and also some county matches as a glimpse of form and mental state before the big series commenced.
Disc 2 covers the Third Test at OId Trafford and Fourth Test at Trent Bridge, with no additional extras.
Disc 3 includes the bulk of the extra features presented here, and also holds footage from the Fifth Test at the Oval.
Extras on the final disc are:
The Ashes Finale. This looks at some of the media coverage the team received on regaining the Ashes, and also shows footage of the victory parade. The footage runs around 5 minutes in length.
The Analyst. Simon Hughes takes us through his analysis of each Test, highlighting on key moments and players' form at the time, also decisions made at the toss. This takes around 15 minutes and forms one of the chunkier extras.
5 Great Performances with the Bat. Minimal footage which shows some of each player's best shots while racking up their impressive totals. The performances highlighted are Michael Vaughan's 166 at Old Trafford, Ricky Ponting's 156 at Old Trafford, Andrew Flintoff's 102 at Trent Bridge, Andrew Strauss' 129 at the Oval, and Kevin Pietersen's 158 at the Oval. There's no real commentary here, just the odd 'good stroke' comment.
5 Great Performances with the Ball. As above, the footage is quite brief and highlights some of the great wickets falling to the bowlers featured. They are Glenn McGrath's 5-53 at Lord's, Shane Warne's 6-46 at Edgbaston, Simon Jones' 6-53 at Old Trafford, Shane Warne's 6-122 at the Oval, Andrew Flintoff's 5-78 at the Oval.
Commentator's Moments of the Summer. Gathering together the commentating team of Simon Hughes, Mike Atherton, Richie Benaud, Tony Greig, Michael Slater and Geoffrey Boycott, Mark Nicholas chairs this chat which allows each commentator to pick their moment of the summer (ranging from selection at the toss to some brilliant performances). The commentators also get to talk about one another's selection, so what follows is a fairly entertaining look at the series and some of its defining moments. This is the longest of the extra features at around 20 minutes and luckily, it's also the most interesting.
Scorecards, Stats and Facts. Pretty much what it says on the box, scorecards for each Test and for the overall series (including batting and bowling averages as well as each innings' play). Facts included deal with length of partnerships and other pieces of statistical trivia that are always fairly interesting to know.
Richie Benaud's Goodbye. After 42 years commentating in the UK, Richie Benaud retired this summer, as the Ashes series drew to an end. This clip shows the last 7 minutes of his commentating, including his short goodbye speech and was a nice addition to the set which highlights how much commentators add to the sport experience.
The best of 4sight. Tells us it's using 'Song Without Words' by Mendelssohn as the background music and then launches into some of the shots taken using the 4sight camera – a high-speed camera that films the action at two-thousand frames per second and slows down the replay to the normal twenty-five frames resulting in some truly amazing shots of the play taking place. Lasts around 3 minutes.
It was no doubt a great summer for cricket, and one that will be remembered for a very long time. This DVD boxset does a good job of encapsulating the excitement of the 2005 Ashes series, with a well put-together package of contextualised highlights and interesting, though not essential, extras. If you enjoyed the Ashes, then this is a good way to have a keepsake of all the action.