Ah! Test Cricket. If one were to romanticize, Test cricket is the finest lady in the land. Like a graphic novel, a Test match encapsulates a story. Every session is a chapter, each bowling spell brings a twist, and every partnership contributes to the climax.
Few series leave you completely enamored by the action on the field. The 2005 Ashes is one of them. What makes the series stand out was the sheer dogfight we witnessed across the duration of five Tests. No team was willing to give an inch.
Moreover, the series was special for more than one reason. It was July 2005, and cricket took centre stage after the English football season came to an end. The football had its own share of turnarounds, with Chelsea winning the crown after 50 years, and Liverpool's 'great escape' in Istanbul, an act even Houdini would have been proud of.
As the focus shifted to cricket, the anticipation for a turnaround stayed on. And why not, the England team was on a roll, they had made short work of West Indies (4-0 home & 3-0 away), New Zealand (3-0 home), and South Africa (2-1 away) in the recent past. With the old enemy visiting, and an 18-year Ashes drought to erase, cricket was the flavor of the season, with cricket pundits going into overdrive.
It was a new look England team, with 'skunk' hair (Kevin Pietersen) and new talent replacing wrinkled faces. Oh, wait! There was also the King of Spain, Ashley Giles. The Aussies on the other hand had quite a few players who were in the twilight of their career. The preceding one-day matches were keenly contested affairs that helped generate ticket sales and hype for the Ashes.
Shane Warne downplayed the buzz at a press conference ahead of the first Test, saying "They have always said we would win, they have been saying it for the last 18 years". It spoke volumes of the Aussie mindset. The Aussies landed in the British Isles with an envious record of not having lost a series in four years. And, just to assert they meant business, they won the first Test match at Lord's, even after a chaotic first day in which 17 wickets fell.
1-0 down and with history against them, England found themselves at a crucial juncture. They needed someone to step up, someone to inspire the whole team and beat the Aussies, the best team going around, at their own game. Enter Andrew Flintoff.
There are few series which go on to define a player, and Ashes'05 was the series that made Andrew Flintoff a legend. His first seven years were a bit start-stop, with various injuries plaguing him along the way. But, he was always in the reckoning thanks to his big, burgeoning 'bombardier' bowling and slogging skills. For a major part of his career, he used a bat which resembled a fantasy sword. So narrow was the blade that it left no margin of error when playing through the line. With minimal footwork, he used to scoop the ball, giving away his wicket cheaply. This led to criticism in various cricketing circles.
But, 2005 was altogether a different story. It was sometime during the third day's play at Edgbaston, when Flintoff came in to his own. He etched out a feisty innings of 73 runs, which included a 51-run tenth wicket partnership with Simon Jones. That innings helped England set a target of 282. But, Freddie wasn't finished for the match. He took four important wickets to seal the deal for England. One might remember how he got under the skin of Michael Clarke, for the latter to lose his poise and then his wicket to Steve Harmison in the following over. It was a crucial wicket, considering the margin of victory (2 runs). The squatted handshake with Brett Lee proved to be the defining moment of the series, as if Flintoff were saying, "Party's over, Brett. We will take it from here".
Freddie became a national hero overnight. The talisman was finally living up to his name. Just as he picked up Ian Bell on a shoulder while celebrating the fall of a wicket, so he had picked up the nation's hope of Ashes glory. The Ashes-starved people of England were rejuvenated and the team sensed Aussie blood.
Throughout the remaining Tests, whenever the Australians forged a partnership and looked to run away with the match, Michael Vaughan called upon Freddie to work his magic. He either contained or picked up wickets. Matthew Hayden and Simon Katich proved to be Freddie's bunnies, with Flintoff getting them out five and four times respectively.
Justin Langer found it difficult to fend off Flintoff's short bowling. Ricky Ponting was left clueless in one over, finally succumbing on the final ball for a duck. Flintoff's customary wicket celebration, with both arms thrust in the air after stopping mid-pitch, became regular scenes throughout the series. Adding to his bowling exploits, Freddie hit a timely century at Trent Bridge.
At the end of it all, there was absolutely nothing to choose between the two sides. Warne's 40 wickets were matched by the efforts of Jones,Harmison,and Hoggard. Players from both teams conjured up runs with equal pace. But, it was Freddie's all-round performances which clinched it for England.
In popular cricket folklore, the '81 Ashes is known as the Botham's Ashes. The 2005 edition definitely belonged to Freddie. England cricketers are never known to have long careers, Flintoff retired when he was 31, because of a busted knee. But, here's one Englishman, the world would have loved to see more of.
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