Andrew Flintoff had waited seven years and 48 Tests for his first slice of Ashes action, and when it came it was all too brief. Scores of 0 and 3 in the 2005 series opener at Lord's were the prelude to a thumping 239-run defeat, and suddenly all of England's pre-season optimism had been deflated in the blink of an eye. If ever the need for a hero had arisen, it was now.
At Edgbaston ten days later, Flintoff answered the call with a performance of unparalleled conviction that will echo down the ages. Moments before the toss, Glenn McGrath stood on a cricket ball and wrecked his ankle, and England seized the psychological high ground by clobbering 407 runs in a single day. Marcus Trescothick top-scored with 90, but it was Flintoff's 68 from 62 balls, in partnership with Kevin Pietersen, that really took the wind out of Australia's sails.
Round one was emphatically England's, but Flintoff was only just getting warmed up. He grabbed three wickets when Australia's turn came to bat, including consecutive inswinging yorkers to wrap up the tail, as Australia conceded a first-innings deficit of 99, but when Shane Warne skittled Andrew Strauss before the close with one of the biggest legbreaks in history, it was clear that this match had plenty twists to come.
On the third day, the clash of the Titans reached its crescendo. Brett Lee blitzed the top order and Warne whirled his way towards the tail, as England crashed to a catastrophic 75 for 6. Of the batsmen, only Flintoff remained, but for much of his innings he was hampered by a trapped nerve in his shoulder, and when Warne grabbed Ashley Giles and Steve Harmison in the space of two balls, England's lead was a mere 230 with one wicket standing. It was nowhere near enough.
And so Flintoff did what he had to do, and exploded out of his shell. Kasprowicz was belted for two sixes in his very next over, as was Brett Lee soon afterwards, as England's lead grew and grew with the determined Simon Jones clinging on at the other end. Eventually Flintoff fell for 73 to give Warne his tenth of the match, as Australia set off in pursuit of 282.
He had given his all in every discipline of his game, but still his country demanded more. At 47 for 0 after 12 overs, Australia were progressing with ominous ease - the time was nigh for Freddie to enter the attack. With a feverish crowd bellowing him to the crease, Flintoff's second delivery bludgeoned through Justin Langer's defences to nudge the off stump, while his seventh (a bonus courtesy of a timely no-ball) was an outswinging snorter that reared off the edge of Ricky Ponting's bat.
Still Australia weren't finished, however. Flintoff returned to extract the obdurate Jason Gillespie for a duck, before forcing Warne to tread on his stumps on a nail-shredding final morning, but Lee and Kasprowicz carried Australia to the very cusp of glory, only to fall short by an agonising two runs. As Edgbaston was engulfed by euphoria, Flintoff's final act was arguably his finest. He broke away from the celebration to console with the crestfallen batsmen. It was the very mark of the man he had just become.
What he said at the time
"I'm Andrew Flintoff, and this is the way I play," declared the man himself at the close of the pivotal third day. "I went in to bat at a tricky time, but that was an important stand with [Simon] Jones, as it shifted the momentum back into our dressing-room. I was probably still on a high when I bowled, buzzing from the batting. That's probably the best first over I've ever bowled."
How the media reported it
"Mr InFredible!" screamed the headlines of The Sun and The Mirror, as Ashes fever engulfed the nation. Cricket was the new football and Flintoff was the new Botham ... official. All the papers, tabloid and broadsheet alike, were united in their belief that the greatest match in the history of the game had just been witnessed
If anything, the significance of Flintoff's performance grew in stature as the summer progressed. England reclaimed the Ashes after three more excruciating nailbiters at Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and The Oval, but without Edgbaston, there would have been nothing to fight for. Had Australia secured a 2-0 lead with three matches to play, it is inconceivable that the series could have panned out as it did.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo