June 30, 2013

Where were you that Sunday in 2005?

In the stands? Glued to the telly? Or on a train, waiting for texts from your mum?

Could it ever get better than Edgbaston 2005? © Getty Images

My dad always said that football was never quite the same after the 1973 FA Cup final. As a Sunderland fan, he'd lived through the post-Second World War years of decline, known the pain of a first relegation, the ignominy of one of the early giants of the game adjusting to their reduced status in the second flight. And then, 28 years after his first game, he witnessed the greatest underdog story in English football history, as Sunderland, having been sixth bottom of the second division in the December, rose under Bob Stokoe to beat Manchester City and Arsenal before overcoming the might of Don Revie's Leeds in the final.

The problem was it was almost too perfect. My dad always said that even as the final whistle blew at Wembley that day, he felt a sense of sadness that that was it: that was the pinnacle and there was no way football could ever be that good again. Sunderland fans effectively took out an emotional mortgage that, 40 years later, they are still paying back. Perhaps the feeling isn't quite as intense - England winning back the Ashes after 16 years wasn't quite as implausible as Sunderland winning the Cup - but I suspect most England fans feel something similar about the summer of 2005, and particularly about the Edgbaston Test. How, after all, could anything ever be quite that good again? Since then, how could any other cricket be anything but a weak simulacrum?

That was the Test that made the greatest summer. It wasn't just that it was a brilliantly close game, full of astonishing individual feats; it was the stakes that were being played for, not in terms of money but in terms of history. Imagine if England had lost. The summer would, almost certainly, have become yet another procession for Australia, and who knows what the consequences would have been. The boom in cricket's popularity in England might not have happened, England would almost certainly never have risen to No. 1 in the world and, eight years later, it might have been possible to turn on a light entertainment show on Sky without seeing Andrew Flintoff.

Everybody has their story about that Test. My favourite concerns my mate Dave, who had tickets for the Sunday. He set off early from his home in Mortlake in west London but, after a few minutes driving, he had a sense something was wrong. He pulled over to the side of the road, checked his bag and his pockets and the glove compartment and realised his tickets were nowhere to be found. With a mounting sense of panic, certain he'd picked them up before he left the house, he turned back. Remarkably, the space where he'd parked was still vacant. He pulled in, got out of the car and there, vivid on the pavement, were the tickets, having lain undisturbed for almost half an hour. As he bent to pick them up, his mate Bill came jogging round the corner. He stopped to say hello and, as he did so, saw the tickets. "Look," Bill said, pointing. "Some idiot's lost their Ashes tickets. Should we go?"

Me? Well, I missed the whole thing. One of the aspects of sports journalism nobody tells you about is that you miss an awful lot of sport. There's no surer way to cut down the amount of World Cup football you see than to cover a football World Cup: there's far too much time spent in press conferences, at training grounds and travelling, and far too little spent gawping at the television. And there's little more galling than listening to a flat translation of a dull manager saying banal things when you know that South Korea v Nigeria is on the telly next door and might be a classic.

On the Saturday, I'd been despatched to Wycombe to cover Carlisle United's return to league football for the Independent on Sunday. I was one of only three journalists in the post-match press conference and made the mistake of suggesting to Paul Simpson, the Carlisle manager, that his side might have been slightly fortunate to get away with a 1-1 draw.

"What do you mean, lucky?" he asked.

"Well, they did hit the post three times."

"And do you get a goal for that these days?"

The urge to tell him I really didn't care about his fourth-flight paranoia and would much rather be watching Ashley Giles whittling away at Australia was only just resisted.

If I remember rightly, the train-line had been in some sort of landslide caused by the construction of a new supermarket, so I had to take a taxi for the first part of the journey. The driver was a Pakistani who aggressively hated cricket but, after much wild-eyed pleading, agreed to let me listen to TMS. So I experienced Steve Harmison's slower ball to Michael Clarke to a background grumble that all sport was part of a neo-liberal conspiracy to distract the masses.

The next day, I had to go to Cardiff for the Community Shield. England, you may remember, led by 106 while Australia had two wickets remaining. Knowing I'd be on the train for pretty much the whole of the morning session, I asked my mam, deciding she was the least likely of my acquaintances to be hungover or in the pub - to text me when it was over, assuming, as everybody surely did, that it wouldn't take more than a few minutes. At ten past eleven, I put my phone on the table, anxious to ensure I didn't miss the message. By half past eleven, I was sure my mam had gone out into the garden and forgotten.

When she did finally text to say Shane Warne had been out hit wicket, it came as a terrible jolt: the game was still going on, she was watching it, and Australia, the bastards, were making a fight of it. Each subsequent minute was agony, knowing Australia must be creeping closer to victory, but not knowing how far away they were. And then finally, just over the Welsh border, the message came - and, credit to my mam, she got in first: after my phone had beeped, there was a sudden flurry of beeping throughout a packed carriage.

"Eng win 2 runs," her message read. Which was accurate, if not quite the full story.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here