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England grab back the Ashes at last

Andrew Miller looks back on a momentous year for England

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Starting today, we present you year-end reviews of all Test-playing countries and look ahead to 2006

Have some of that - Freddie is loving regaining the Ashes © Getty Images
Forget the disappointing denouement in Pakistan. As far as England are concerned, the year 2005 will forever be synonymous with the greatest Ashes battle in living memory, and arguably of all time. The narrative of the series became interwoven with British daily life, as for the first time since Ian Botham was in his pomp, cricket ruled the front, back and middle pages - and all for the right reasons.
Though it seems churlish to point it out now, the team was emotionally spent - and justifiably so - long before they set foot in Pakistan. It is easy to forget, at a time when the game is sweeping the BBC Sports Personality awards and breaking all records in the DVD charts, just how much was at stake at the start of this summer. And at Edgbaston on August 7, the line between hope and despair could not have been more stomach-churningly stark.
Just imagine how different the world would now be if Mike Kasprowicz's gloved deflection had been fallen a metre wider of Geraint Jones, and sped away to the boundary for four? Australia would have been 2-0 up before the first ball of the football season had been kicked, cricket's final season on terrestrial television would have skulked into the shadows like a whimpering puppy, and two full decades would have gone by without England laying their hands on, let's face it, the only prize in cricket that matters to all English sports fans.
Could the game have survived such a kick in the teeth? I'd like to believe so, but I do begin to wonder. Until this summer, Botham remained the most recognisable cricketer in the land, a frightening thought given that the great man turned 50 last month. Indeed, no player coming through the ranks at present will even have witnessed him in first-class action for Durham. Happily though, Botham has finally been able to pass the mantle onto his only worthy heir, Andrew Flintoff.
England's year was not all about the Ashes. It began as it ended, with an abject defeat in the New Year Test at Cape Town, but not for the first time, the team rallied with a thrilling victory in their next assignment, at Johannesburg - a match that, in another year, would be rightly held up as an alltime classic.
And then there was the visit of Bangladesh - two facile victories at Lord's and Chester-le-Street, followed by their participation in the most imbalanced triangular series of all time. At the time, it was widely felt that the ECB had sacrificed England's prospects of glory in return for a quick buck. No Ashes Test at Headingley, and no ambushing the Aussies on those early-season greentops either.
Instead, like one of Baldrick's cunning plans, it all came together perfectly in the end. The football season was a full five weeks old before anyone even noticed it had kicked off, the ECB coffers were full with fifth-day sellouts at Old Trafford and, of course, The Oval. And the game's next generation had been inspired by a team of unassuming heroes who even managed to give binge-drinking a good name.
But I still get flashbacks of that final morning at Edgbaston. It really was that close.
New man on the block Liam Plunkett. Just 20 years old, the force is strong with this one. Sturdy and upright in his delivery stride, he has adopted Glenn McGrath as his role model, and seems built to last every bit as long. A maiden one-day fifty in only his second match was an added bonus that had England's World Cup planners salivating.
Fading star Graham Thorpe. The last of the lost generation of the 1990s. Just as Moses was never able to reach the promised land, so Thorpe's 12-year journey ended just as his team-mates embarked on the campaign that will define the rest of their lives. His 100th and final Test came against Bangladesh at Chester-le-Street, of all the obscure and inappropriate settings.
High point Let me get back to you on that one.
Low point The last-day capitulation at Lahore. Losing a series in the subcontinent is no disgrace. Throwing away eight wickets in a session, on the other hand, and all because you can no longer square the rubber, is borderline petulance. Australia would never have allowed themselves to surrender in such an abject manner.
What does 2006 hold? This is the big one. The year is bookended by the two toughest tours of all - India in the spring and Australia in the winter - and victory in one or the other, and preferably both, will confirm that the extraordinary journey of the past two years is only just reaching its climax. Two losses however, and the events of last summer may find themselves fading to sepia sooner than intended.
England in 2005
Matches Won Lost Drawn/ Tied/ NR
Tests 13 5 4 4
ODIs 22 8 10 4

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo