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If there has been a more compelling series, history forgot to record it. If there is a better one in the future, you would beg to be there. England regained the Ashes after a gap of 16 years and 42 days, when bad light brought a formal end to the Fifth Test: a series full of extraordinary climaxes and reversals, in the end, just dwindling away in the more usual cricketing fashion to the point where an Australian victory became impossible, even in this summer.
Australia needed 338 runs to win from the 17.2 overs remaining to draw level at 2-2 and retain the Ashes. So 2-1 to England it was, though but for a run here, a wicket there or a catch almost anywhere it could conceivably have been either 4-1 or 0- 4. It is somehow soothing to relate the bare facts and the strangely prosaic conclusion. The contest was gripping from the beginning. As it reached the end, not just regular English cricket-followers, but the whole country and the rest of the cricketing world were in its thrall. It was so intense and played with such purpose that it supplanted football on the back pages and much else on the front pages. Television viewing figures went through the roof.
The First Test was topsy-turvy, but eventually resulted in an easy Australian victory, leading most people - including, crucially, the Australians themselves - to assume their dominance would remain unchallenged. The Second ("The Greatest Test", many thought) produced the first sensational finish and a tworun England win. Australia just held out to save the Third. England clung on to edge the Fourth. And, though the Fifth reached a conclusion more bizarre than thrilling, everyone was so galvanised by the whole affair and, in England, by the impending return of the urn that no one minded. By the halfway mark, a debate had begun about whether it was the best Ashes series of all; it moved swiftly on to whether it was the best Test series ever, with a substantial body of informed opinion thinking it was. At various times, the matches entered that peculiar realm where you could not look away but found it unbearable to keep watching.
But there was another dimension too. The image of England's monumental all-rounder Andrew Flintoff consoling a distraught Brett Lee immediately after England had won the Second Test flashed round Planet Cricket. It seemed to show a world where forgotten virtues of honour, decency, respect and commiseration for your opponent still held sway. After years when every aspect of English cricket had been savaged or mocked, the game was now being reborn in the country where it had been conceived and nurtured, and looking like something with a great deal to teach rival sports and the rest of an often bad-tempered country.
When the series outcome was finally confirmed, after an audacious maiden Test century by Kevin Pietersen prevented Australia from having a decent tilt at the victory they required, there was an outpouring of relief and jubilation. The scenes at The Oval, splendidly refurbished and packed with 23,000 spectators on five successive days, were astonishing enough. There were countless renditions of "Jerusalem" which, like it or not, had become accepted as the team anthem, as well as "Land of Hope and Glory" and "There'll Always Be An England". The little scene when England's captain, Michael Vaughan, planted a kiss on the replica of the Ashes urn brought the house down, in the way that the hoisting of the FA Cup by the winning captain once did. And it was done with the judgment and delicacy of touch that had been apparent in his leadership throughout.
The following day, anything between 100,000 and quarter of a million people lined the streets of London as the triumphant squad and support staff, wives and in some cases children paraded on an open-topped double-decker bus. Crowd estimates are invariably as trustworthy as a dodgy builder's, but there were decidedly more than the two men and a dog Matthew Hoggard said he was expecting. The procession ended in Trafalgar Square, where roughly 25,000 paid homage to the victors - before they went to Downing Street to meet the prime minister.
Had the players known how many would turn up, they might have postponed the all-night bender that led many of them (not least the player of the series, Flintoff) to report for this extra day of duty somewhere below the level of fitness that sustained them through the series. This prompted a heated, though cooked-up, media discussion on the duty of professional sportsmen to observe the proprieties. The majority, if not quite unanimous, response was that the players were fine, just fine: after emerging from such a titanic struggle, they deserved their booze. Indeed, it seemed to endear them to the public even more.
If English cricket had seen the like before, nobody was alive who could remember. The England and Wales Cricket Board, derided before the series for staging it to compete with the start of the football season, knew precisely what it was doing all along - or at least got away with it. Cricket, played like this, could stand on its own two feet. Indeed, it was variously the new football, the new rock'n'roll, the new everything. Since this also coincided with cricket becoming the new sport that was disappearing from live freeto- air TV, the autumn brought widespread recriminations about the ECB's deal with Sky, signed a year earlier. Cricket's absence would now undoubtedly be noticed.
England's coach Duncan Fletcher said later he had not expected to reclaim the Ashes this time round. The team was in place and he expected his men to harry Australia in a way England had failed to manage in the past eight series. But he saw it as a trial run for the next series down under, in 2006-07, when a young team would have reached maturity. Australia were clearly taken by surprise. The verbal skirmishes at the start of the tour largely centred on the margin by which the world champions expected to prevail.
In keeping with his customary practice of foretelling the outcome, to keep the press amused and no doubt get up the pipes of the opposition, Glenn McGrath originally said his side would win 3-0. He upgraded this to 5-0 on arrival, once he gained a little confidence in the English weather. There was an element of good old-fashioned gamesmanship in this but - truly - nobody in the Australian camp thought they could actually lose. The assumption was that England's run of victories against weaker opposition could be safely disregarded.
But this time the luck turned against Australia. McGrath missed two matches through injury: the two they lost. With other bowlers in decline or not quite up to the task, it was left to their other champion, Shane Warne, to try to establish winning positions. Warne was playing against the backdrop of a turbulent private life (the subject of continual newspaper revelations) and the break-up of his marriage on the eve of the series. Any suggestion that his playing performances might be affected was quashed by what he achieved.
Warne took 40 wickets in the series, became the first bowler to reach 600 in Tests, bamboozled another generation of English batsmen and also scored 249 runs. England were not entirely subjugated by Warne, scoring 3.1 runs an over off him, whereas he had conceded 2.6 per over in his career overall. It was a minute difference, but then it was a series of slender margins.
Too few other members of the world's No. 1 team (that was Australia at the start and still Australia at the end, according to the official ICC rankings) lived up to their billing. The batting line-up failed throughout when it mattered. Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, who since forging their alliance on the previous Ashes tour had piled up more runs together than any opening pair in Test history except Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, never gave their team a strong enough platform until The Oval.
Just as crucially, Adam Gilchrist, whose batting prowess and prodigious wicketkeeping had made him the world's leading all-rounder, was kept unusually quiet. He was the most regular quarry of England's carefully laid snares, and his glovework suffered too. There was often desperation in the middle order, with Vaughan blocking off favourite scoring areas as though he were setting a police cordon.
Vaughan had learned much of his strategy from studying videotapes, but he seemed to have total recall of them, and thus England's tactical supremacy could not be entirely credited to Fletcher, his ally back in the pavilion. Vaughan was always willing to spring another trap with a sudden bowling change. He allied instinct to deliberation, and towards the end his counterpart, Ricky Ponting, was imitating his field settings.
Before the Tests, Australia had already proved vulnerable. True, they had taken a wicket with the first ball of the tour: Lee surprised the New Zealand captain, Stephen Fleming, with his pace and bounce in a Twenty20 curtainraiser against an international XI at Arundel. Those witnessing it - 7,000 arrived at this exhibition match determined to get a look at the team hailed as the best ever - assumed that it meant business as usual.
But then Australia showed their fallibility by losing four times in seven days. A Twenty20 defeat by England, although heavy, was probably forgivable, though it was later seen as a significant milestone. Losing to Somerset two days later was unexpected, but it was engineered by centuries from two star overseas recruits, South Africa's Graeme Smith and Sanath Jayasuriya of Sri Lanka.
Australia's opening match in the one-day triangular tournament, however, was truly calamitous. They were beaten by Bangladesh, fairly and squarely, a giant-killing act of extraordinary proportions. Ponting contributed to the defeat by batting first, against prevailing conditions and precedent; it was not the last time he was to choose wrongly. Something was happening all right. The next day, Australia lost to England again, and Pietersen first stamped his mark on their psyche by scoring a match-winning 91 from 65 balls.
There followed a process of recovery. While Australia and England tied the NatWest Series final, overwhelming wins in two of the three superfluous one-day internationals that followed suggested Australia had righted the ship. The First Test at Lord's further indicated they were firmly back on course. The early alarms had been just that, no more.
Australia were dismissed cheaply in their first innings but McGrath, taking gleeful advantage of the slope, undermined England as though he would, single-handedly if necessary, ensure the accuracy of his prediction. England looked as if they had no notion of how to repel his precision and sharp movement and, with Warne almost as incisive, normal service seemed to have resumed. Flintoff, in his first Ashes Test, was largely out of sorts, apparently overwhelmed by the occasion.
There was some succour for England. Fast bowler Steve Harmison regularly gave the Australian batsmen the hurry-up, hitting both Langer and Ponting in his opening salvo of the series. Harmison was never to be as prolific again in terms of wicket-taking, but he had delivered a message both sides would remember.
Before the Second Test at Edgbaston, Vaughan gathered his men before him. Modern teams are always having meetings like this. Most are forgotten; but if they work they are seen as seminal. This one worked. Vaughan told his players not to forget how well they had done in the previous 18 months and to remember to express themselves.
Three things then happened in quick succession, all pivotal. During practice an hour before play was due to start, McGrath stepped on a stray ball, turned his ankle and was ruled out of the match. This did not prevent Ponting from fielding on winning the toss, a decision which seemed to suggest that Australia assumed they were too good for England, with or without their best seam bowler. If it was arrogance, it was misplaced. And immediately, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss went on the attack. That, not Lord's, was to be the template for everything that followed.
There were any number of key points in the series, moments on which innings and matches might have hinged. Yet, if there was one above all, it was that swashbuckling batting. By the close, England had made 407, the first time they had scored 400-plus on the opening day of a Test for 43 years. But the match will for ever be recalled for its climax. On the morning of the fourth day, Australia looked to be well beaten: 107 needed, two wickets to go. The loss late the previous evening of Michael Clarke to a slower ball from Harmison, a masterful piece of deception, appeared to have done for them. But gradually, seemingly inexorably, they crept towards their target.
Then, with three runs wanted, one wicket left and a country pacing up and down, Harmison sent down a bouncer. Geraint Jones took the catch off the valiant Mike Kasprowicz's glove. England were in raptures, and it was precisely now that Flintoff, who had stormed back to form with seven wickets and two fifties, established his model for sportsmanship by offering Lee his sympathy.
Television eventually decided Kasprowicz's hand was not on the bat handle at the moment of impact, which meant he should not have been given out. But it took several replays to make the point, and even then they were not quite conclusive. Australia did not complain. Throughout the series, the close umpiring decisions often seemed to go against them, but these have a habit of levelling out, and England had suffered in the past. The universal law of sport was being invoked: fortune favours the winning side.
With no time to draw breath, the teams were at Old Trafford. England again set the tempo of the match, and at last the series had the century it had been lacking. It was a handsome one, from the bat of Vaughan, and it enabled him to do what he was asking of his team: express himself. Even though McGrath (against all predictions and possibly against common sense) was back in the team, the doubts instilled at Lord's were now finally vanquished.
The bowlers, including the maligned left-arm spinner Ashley Giles, were operating as a potent, complementary unit. There was something for everyone in their mixture, and Simon Jones appeared to supply the missing constituent. It had taken all this time for him to regain full fitness and confidence after the horrific knee injury he had suffered in Australia in 2002-03. With much of his former pace restored, he also mastered the mysteries of reverse swing.
It was all Australia's struggling batsmen needed. They already had enough difficulties with Flintoff, who had reached the top of his game at the best possible time. The week before his first Ashes began, he had mused on its significance to his life and the fact that, no matter what he had achieved before, he would be judged on this series. Never mind carpe diem, Flintoff was seizing the year. The manner in which he played and conducted himself made him a natural hero. The nation took up his dressing-room nickname, Freddie, borrowed from the cartoon character Fred Flintstone, from the town of Bedrock. And Flintoff really was England's bedrock.
He could not quite force victory on his home ground. Ponting, under increasing pressure because of his unimaginative captaincy, batted for almost the whole of the last day to save the match. He was ninth out, with four overs to go, renewing hopes of a home victory, but McGrath helped to deny England. At the other end, again, was Lee, and nobody could begrudge him this moment after his gallant attempts to win the previous match. His smile in the face of adversity, like Flintoff 's appealing manner, illuminated the summer, even if he was too expensive and wayward as a fast bowler to be a durably reliable leader of the attack.
England had to avoid defeat in the Fourth Test to retain the possibility of reclaiming the Ashes. They did better than that, winning to go into the lead. By now, the nerve-tingling climax was merely part of the routine. The Flintoff century which preceded it had also been coming. He and Geraint Jones shared England's highest partnership of the series to take them to a firstinnings total that was enough to force Australia to follow on. Jones's contribution temporarily hushed the doubts about his wicketkeeping, which had grown from whisper to clamour.
Injury to the other Jones, a cruel blow considering his previous ordeals, might have imperilled England's chances of victory. But Hoggard, embodying the team ethic, prised out two key wickets just before and after lunch on the fourth day. Even then, Warne, spinning it at will, and Lee, bowling extremely fast, nearly won it for Australia. That would have meant they could not lose the series, and the Ashes would have stayed with them yet again.
Giles had already come through several crises, not least after the Lord's Test when he reacted publicly and sensitively to harsh criticism. In the tied triangular final, which was just the start of the nation's nerves being shot to pieces, he had been batting at the end. At Trent Bridge he was there again, joined by Hoggard, whose batting had improved immeasurably. There might have been a more important eight not out than Hoggard's, but nobody was bothering to do the research.
So to retain the Ashes, Australia had to draw the series by winning the Fifth Test. Their chances of doing so increased when McGrath, who had missed the Fourth, this time with an elbow injury, was declared fit. Meanwhile, England's prospects seemed to decrease: Jones's right ankle failed to recover. They had to make their first change of the series and played safe by introducing Paul Collingwood, a batsman who could bowl if required, for his first home Test. Only once, in 1884-85, had England gone through an entire five-Test series - and that was the first - using the same 11 players. Tickets for the match changed hands for huge sums; so, reputedly, did five-day leases in flats overlooking the ground. But the cheer when Vaughan won his third toss of the series seemed dangerously premature, supposing as it did that England would take advantage of good batting conditions to build a total which would put the game out of Australia's reach.
Although they started briskly, with Trescothick and Strauss sharing a halfcentury partnership for the fifth game out of five, Warne pegged them back. Strauss's second hundred of the series and Flintoff 's fourth fifty took them close to respectability. In reply, however, Hayden and Langer unearthed some form at last, with an opening partnership of 185 that appeared to spell grave danger for England. But a combination of the weather, English self-belief and that rare commodity, Australian self-doubt, helped England take a sixrun first-innings lead. In its way, Flintoff 's long unchanged spell on the fourth morning matched McGrath's at Lord's.
All (all!) England had to do to get their hands on the prize was to bat sufficiently long or to score enough runs to prevent Australia having a chance to press for victory. It was wholly in keeping with what had gone before that the final day should be full of twists. Warne and McGrath went to work together, probably for the last time in England, and when Flintoff was out just before lunch England were 126 for five, only 132 ahead. By then Pietersen had been dropped on nought by a combination of Gilchrist and Hayden, and then on 15 by Warne, who shelled a regulation chance at throat height.
It was nonsense to say, as some did, that Warne, after all he had done, had dropped the Ashes. But it was perhaps the least timely of the 42 missed chances that were logged (25 to the home side, 17 to the tourists) during the series. Pietersen went on to play a bewilderingly spectacular innings of 158 which at long last ensured the urn would change hands. In line with modern convention it was rapidly proposed that it was the best of all England-Australia centuries, to be ranked above the 483 that had preceded it. It was pretty good.
Ponting graciously conceded that England deserved their success. At Trent Bridge, when he was run out by a substitute fielder, Gary Pratt, Ponting's exhibition of displeasure had shown that the horrible prospect of becoming the Australian captain who surrendered the Ashes was beginning to unnerve him. But when the prospect became grim reality and The Oval was bursting with patriotic fervour, he was composed and dignified.
Perhaps Ponting had been lacking in adventure, but he was also at the mercy of his bowlers. The decline of Jason Gillespie had been signalled earlier in the year, but it progressed at a rate that could not have been foreseen. He took just three wickets, at 100 runs each, and the fact that the second was his 250th in Tests only underlined how he had fallen away. Lee, restored to the Test side after a break of 18 months, was invariably good value, but his constant bravery under fire as a batsman could not conceal the fact that his bowling went for more than four an over. That tended to balance out the 20 wickets captured by his pace.
With Kasprowicz also failing to find his rhythm (or perhaps not having a chance to) Australia were forced to blood Shaun Tait, who had been included in the squad to gain touring experience. He was far from the finished article. England's quintet of bowlers all made invaluable contributions at various times, though it was Flintoff, like Lee frequently propelling the ball at more than 90mph but with greater accuracy, who finished as the team's leading wicket-taker.
If England, from Edgbaston onwards, appeared to win the majority of sessions and full days, it was still a rubber of fagpaper-thin margins. Their average number of runs per wicket was 31.8 compared to Australia's 31.6; England scored at 3.9 runs an over, Australia at 3.7. Largely because their second innings at The Oval lasted only four balls, Australia lost fewer wickets (89) than England (93). They also took wickets more quickly, one every 49 balls compared to one every 51. But crucially, England three times passed 400 in their first innings, Australia never did.
England effected four run-outs, Australia none, which was another thing that could not have been predicted. In a series replete with no-balls, England sent down 120, Australia 102, which is 102 more than their cerebral coach, John Buchanan, said he would tolerate. Buchanan suffered by comparison with England's coach Duncan Fletcher. It was clear that Fletcher had spent long hours with Vaughan watching videos, trying to spot small weaknesses in Australia's batsmen and coming up with areas where his own batsmen might score against the opposition bowlers.
Buchanan might have tried to do likewise but he also regularly came up with offerings that bore all the hallmarks of cod psychology. For instance, just before the Test series, when Australia had lost a few one day-matches, he said: "We could choose to make it a problem, but I think the calibre of this side will choose to make it a challenge."
Buchanan is a student of ancient Chinese philosophy, and has sometimes adapted the sayings of the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu. Coaches always tread a fine line in publicly supporting their charges, but Buchanan may have been the first to make himself a hostage to fortune cookies. "Opportunities multiply as they are seized," as Sun Tzu once put it. But the more down-to-earth Duncan Fletcher understood that instinctively - and got his men to do the seizing.
Match reports for
Match reports for
PCA Masters XI v Australians at Arundel, Jun 9, 2005
Leicestershire v Australians at Leicester, Jun 11, 2005
Only T20I: England v Australia at Southampton, Jun 13, 2005
Somerset v Australians at Taunton, Jun 15, 2005
Leicestershire v Australians at Leicester, Jul 15-17, 2005
Worcestershire v Australians at Worcester, Jul 30-Aug 1, 2005
Scotland v Australians at Edinburgh, Aug 18, 2005
Northamptonshire v Australians at Northampton, Aug 20-21, 2005
Essex v Australians at Chelmsford, Sep 3-4, 2005