October 17, 2013

The Fantastic Four

Remembering the glorious summer of 2005, when Hoggy, Harmy, Jonah, and Fred carried England to a rare state of euphoria

There is a small cupboard in the corner of the living room at home. Here, old newspapers gather dust and sepia. It is a cupboard of reminiscence. And here it was, upon the retirements of Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison, that I searched for the story of early September 2005.

It was a broadsheet that I came to first, with the front page of the sports section dedicated to a remarkable scene at Trafalgar Square less than 24 hours after the Ashes had been won by England for the first time in 16 years. Michael Vaughan has formed a line with the men who brought the urn home - "Hoggy", "Harmy", "Jonah" and "Fred" are there, worse for wear. This was a pace quartet without compare in the storytelling of English cricket and it had drunk deep from the cup of joy.

In a tabloid hidden beneath the broadsheet page, Andrew Flintoff ("Fred") looks rather worse than worse for wear. Simon Jones ("Jonah") looks little better. The tales of dusk till dawn get taller with time - no sleep (of course), a lad's wife hurriedly dressing a limp body for the start of the open-top bus tour, a crate or two of beer on the roads around the centre of London, a wee in the garden at No. 10 (it's not new, then), calling the PM a knob for asking a daft question and so on. And that's just these four. Do not assume that Ashley Giles, Kevin Pietersen or Vaughan himself were angels at the christening.

Because this is what those exaggerated celebrations were about, the rebirth of English cricket. The huge crowd knew it, perhaps better than the players knew it. The drubbings had worn thin. The Ashes had lost its magic. But when the umpires called time at The Oval, the reality of beating a fine Australian team with a fine team of England's own began to permeate across the land. So Trafalgar Square was full to the brim. Four huge sculptured lions kept a careful eye on some 20,000 people who cheered their heroes beneath the sweet summer sun. Above them one colossus of a man, Horatio Nelson, kept watch on another, Freddie Flintoff, whose series it had been.

There are newspapers in this cupboard that show Andrew Strauss raising the replica urn to the sky at The Oval in 2009, and again at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2011. Soon Alastair Cook's moment will be logged there too. But 2005 was different altogether, in part because it was unexpected and in part because of the wonderful cricket that led to it. Three of the matches were among the greatest ever played and the other two had heart-stopping moments within. The thrill, tension and turmoil were matched by a combination of fear and fun. When they come together, as with pain and pleasure, a rare state of euphoria can be achieved.

So much so that the Queen was moved to write a note to the captain that evening. It said, "My warmest congratulations to you, the England team and all in the squad for the magnificent achievement of regaining the Ashes." As ever, she reflected the nirvana found by her subjects.

Vaughan admitted that it had been a long time in the planning.

"I probably lied when I said I wasn't thinking about the Ashes 18 months ago because we were planning this series a long way ahead. We were trying to get the right formula and the right personnel, and we talked in depth about how to play Australia. We needed the right body language and we needed to hit them hard early on. I talked down the T20 contest at Southampton (which England won at a canter in front of a boisterous, nationalistic crowd) but I knew how important it was that we hadn't let ourselves be bullied. I always felt that a young team with no scars would be a key factor, so even when we went one down at Lord's, we didn't think 'here we go again', we just continued to believe in ourselves and what we had been achieving."

And in a nutshell, that is it. Self-belief and planning driven by an outstanding captain who got the most from a talented group of cricketers. In the previous year, England had played especially well to smash West Indies at home and beat South Africa away. This run of form had parallels with the rugby team at Martin Johnson's command that won the World Cup in Sydney in 2003. Their form prior to the tournament had been spectacular, to the point of beating New Zealand on their own turf. In both cases, intelligent yet uncompromising leaders allowed talismanic players a long rein, while coaches with an eye for detail - Duncan Fletcher and Clive Woodward - took care of the kind of minutiae that separates one team from another.

To appreciate what those bowlers achieved in that series we must recall how England wallowed in the misery of those previous 16 years; how English cricketers lost the will to live when Australians touched down

Both victories were against Australia and, for better or worse, meant more because of it. England created these games before Australia adopted them and beat their backsides at them. The passion for sport in Australia remains undimmed but priorities have changed so that other pursuits share the stage. Beating the Poms still matters but these days you can go to the theatre to get over the shock of failing to do so.

Only three of the players from the summer of 2005 now remain. Pietersen and Ian Bell in England colours, Michael Clarke for Australia. To appreciate what those bowlers achieved in that series we must recall how England wallowed in the misery of those previous 16 years; how English cricketers lost the will to live when Australians touched down. Remember, Australia always won. Think hard of Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and all those 5-0 predictions by Glenn McGrath. Before Vaughan, England's finest couldn't look these extraordinary fellows in the eye.

Which is pretty much how the Tests began in 2005. Sure "Harmy" hit Ricky and hurt him at Lord's and then helped bowl them out cheap. But they came back like the Roman army - a powerful and confident talent, winning easily to put the little pretender back in his box. Same old Poms, everyone said, except Vaughan, who said "keep believing". Then Ponting won the toss at Edgbaston, chose to bowl, and his world fell apart. Sensing the flatness of the pitch and the insecurity of a first-day attack missing McGrath, England slugged for all they were worth. Four hundred in the day before the hounds were let off the leash.

Flintoff touched greatness; Harmison bowled fast and aggressive but will be best remembered for the most brilliant slower ball in history, to Clarke; Jones used the old ball like he was Waqar Younis, and Hoggard niggled away, predominantly and to best effect at Hayden, who found himself shackled, drawn and unable to give his team the barrel-chested starts to which they were accustomed. The dynamic of the series had changed beyond aspiration. With a last gasp of air, England got over the line at Edgbaston and over the hurdle that was Australian cricketers.

For six weeks of one English summer, a team and some of its players touched greatness. None of the bowlers matched it again, though Flintoff was there in 2009 to seal the Ashes with the stump-shattering run out of Ponting. But England cricket matched it again, and again, and again. Thus, Cook's team head for Australia as favourites. Thanks be to Vaughan and his warriors. Thanks be to to the four fast bowlers who took all England to heaven during the glorious summer of 2005.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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