The 2005 Ashes were seven months away, and they were playing on Michael Vaughan's mind. They were always playing on his mind. Here, as England arrived in Johannesburg at the end of 2004, he could almost touch them.

It had been a record-breaking year for England. They had won 10 of their 11 Tests - Brian Lara's single-minded pursuit of records at Antigua had prevented a clean-sweep - and three successive series victories had moulded a team of attacking batsmen and their best pace attack since the 1950s. England weren't just winning, they were winning with the top down.

Captain Vaughan thought he had a team capable of reclaiming the Ashes. But series victories over West Indies (twice) and New Zealand were no real marker of how his side would play in the forest fire of an Ashes battle. South Africa would tell him. How England played across these five Tests, in a land where only Australia had won since readmission, would, he knew, give him the answer to England's Ashes hopes.

What unfolded was was a staggeringly up-and-down series of monumental individual performances from Andrew Strauss, Matthew Hoggard, Marcus Trescothick and Jacques Kallis, a sit-down protest and one of England's finest overseas Test wins. Its natural home should have been in a boxing ring rather than on a cricket field.

It was brutal, it was beautiful, it was brilliant.


The England camp wasn't happy. Vaughan felt there was a divide between the players who had very recently toured Zimbabwe for a 10-day ODI series - "one of the bleaker experiences of my life," wrote Strauss - and those who had either opted out or been rested. Vaughan picked up on an uneasy relationship between Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff - who'd been rested - and the coach Duncan Fletcher.

Fletcher, who had spent much of his life in South Africa, wasn't feeling settled. "This was an extremely difficult trip for me personally," he wrote in Behind the Shades. "From the outset eyes were trained upon me. The problem was that I so desperately wanted to win. There had been a general feeling in South Africa that I had made a big mistake in taking the England job. So I wanted to prove people wrong."

Trescothick was also feeling the tug of depression for the first time on tour, unable to sleep or eat properly. For once batting in the warm-ups didn't provide a sanctuary, and he took to writing a diary and finishing each entry on a positive note to try and shake himself into feeling better.

England's problems, however, would have been invisible to an outsider. After seven successive wins in the summer, and new boy Andrew Strauss giving the team yet another matchwinner, England were on a high, at least on the field. "I look around at our boys in the nets," said Graham Thorpe after one practice session ahead of the series, "and I think 'yes he's a good player, and him, and him, and him'". Trescothick, Strauss, Vaughan and Thorpe were joined by Mark Butcher (and later Rob Key) and Andrew Flintoff in the top six, with wicketkeeper Geraint Jones adding to a batting line-up that was very much following Australia's naturally aggressive lead.

"There had been a general feeling in South Africa that I had made a big mistake in taking the England job. So I wanted to prove people wrong."
Duncan Fletcher

Then there was the bowling attack. Harmison. Flintoff. Jones. Hoggard. It had come together on the tour of West Indies earlier that year - with Hoggard a surprise inclusion ahead of James Kirtley - and out-bowled and out-paced the home team in the land of fast bowlers.

Let's let Hoggard explain the foursome's merits: "Harmy got a ridonculous amount of pace just by turning over one of those very, very long arms of his," he writes in Welcome to my World. "He got plenty of bounce and bowled a very different length from me with the new ball. Jonah [Jones] was quick too, but from a much more skiddy trajectory, which could be especially useful with the old ball. Fred could bowl decidedly sharpish from the back of a length, hit the seam and was just starting to use his wrist to get the ball to go away from the bat. Meanwhile I was the boring one, who swung the ball for a few overs and then settled down to a good, solid shift of donkey work."

While the personnel appeared in good order, Vaughan was still thinking of the Ashes: "I was conscious of the team's overall make-up and felt that Butch, Harmison and Flintoff all together in the same team might be a bit much," he says in Time to Declare. "There was an element of being too-cool-for-school about this illustrious trio, and while having two of them on board was perfectly manageable, three of that personality type could be a bit of a crowd."

And how about South Africa's health? While they had lost their Test series 1-0 in India in November, they were favourites against England, whose last tour in 1999-2000 - Fletcher's first as England coach - had began disastrously with the infamous collapse to 2 for 4 on the first morning. Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini forged one of the world's finest new-ball attack, while Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis provided world-class batting ballast.

Not all was rosy, though: wicketkeeper Mark Boucher had been left out of the squad for the first Test in order, claimed his supporters, to meet racial quotas, Herschelle Gibbs had personal problems while unproven youngsters AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn - who both made their debuts in the first Test - were brought into a side in transition.

Despite these question marks, most of South Africa appeared confident, as Fletcher noted: "I was in Cape Town for much of the build-up, watching and listening to what was being said about the England team," he wrote. "It was not complimentary, with some commentators like Mike Haysman even ridiculing us."

With Fletcher feeling the pressure, a mildly divided dressing room and a hammering in a warm-up game at Potchefstroom, Vaughan wasn't his usual positive self, despite the talent in the squad: "All in all I was fairly pessimistic about the outcome as we headed to the first Test in Port Elizabeth."

It didn't take long for England's fearsome foursome attack to have an impact. While Vaughan noticed that there wasn't a lot of zip in the dressing room, this was a team who were beginning to build the muscle memory of winners - led by the bowlers. All four were quick - Flintoff especially so - and on a batting-friendly surface, South Africa made only 566 runs across their two innings.

This wasn't the same England of the summer dominance, though. Their batting was timid, and rescued by one man: Strauss. Back in the land of his birth, he wasn't feeling the sort of pressure Fletcher was, and had "a sneaky suspicion that one of my new ODI team-mates, Kevin Pietersen, complete with his blue hair, strong Durban accent and three lions tattooed on his arm, would most likely act as a lightning rod as far as the South African public were concerned."

His first-innings 126 was painstaking but vital with only Butcher also passing fifty, and it took Strauss into the record books for being the first England batsman to score a century in his first appearance against three successive countries. A collapse of four wickets in 16 balls let South Africa back in the game, and when they led by 11 runs with eight wickets remaining - with that gnarly duo Smith and Kallis at the crease - things looked ominous for England. But a brilliant diving catch from Simon Jones to get rid of Smith brought back his mojo, suddenly finding reverse swing and taking 4 for 14 in seven overs - including the wicket of Kallis - to set England 142 for victory.

It was over to Strauss again, who removed his first-innings shackles to blaze an unbeaten 94 - including his first Test six - despite losing Trescothick and Butcher for ducks. Even when Vaughan was bowled by an absolute snorter from Steyn to make it 50 for 3, Strauss carried on attacking as the South Africa bowlers kept feeding his back-foot game. Victory was achieved by seven wickets, and Strauss overtook Ken Barrington as England's record-holder for the most consecutive Test wins at the start of a career (later to be beaten by Tim Bresnan).

Vaughan was "surprised" by the win - he felt very few of his players had a good match - but it set England's record for their most successive Test victories, beating Percy Chapman's side of 1928-29, a team vacuum-packed with legends: Hammond, Hobbs, Jardine, Larwood, Tate, Sutcliffe. It was quite some achievement.

What is it people say about teams that still win despite playing badly?

"On Boxing Day my worst fears about our overall situation seemed to materialise," wrote Vaughan. "South Africa had strengthened their team for the second Test and we were bowled out for just 139 and then conceded a near 200-run lead."

At Durban, the experienced Gibbs and Nicky Boje were back for South Africa, while a young Hashim Amla was given his second cap. But it was their two old pace bowlers who found their mojo: on a track that flattened out quickly, Pollock and Ntini blew England away. Even Strauss failed. In just over two sessions Vaughan's worries had been realised, with their first innings of 134 their lowest since 2000.

England's bowlers dragged them back into it by reducing South Africa to 118 for 6, but this was Kallis's time. He even found a rarely seen fourth gear (fifth would be pushing things - this is Kallis after all) and plundered his way to 162, helping to add 214 runs for the last four wickets. The deficit was 193, and England looked certain to end an annus mirabilis on a horribilis note.

But then. Well, that muscle memory kicked in again. "We were almost perversely good for the last three days," wrote Vaughan, and my goodness he was right.

Much credit for the turn-around must go to Fletcher. Trescothick had been struggling with the bat and had gone to the coach to tell him he was feeling unbalanced at the crease. After Trescothick fell for 18 in the first innings, Fletcher took him to the nets and watched him bat for five minutes. "Then he brought practice to an end," Trescothick wrote, "walked over to me and said: 'Just relax your right arm, and slightly open your shoulder so are you a fraction more front-on to the bowler'. I did as he advised, the bat started to come down and through the ball much straighter and I found I was absolutely smoking it."

The transformation was worthy of Doctor Who, and Trescothick's confidence soared. Evidence was immediate. "From the start I was timing the ball better than ever before. Early on I recall playing an off drive against Shaun Pollock and it was almost like I had played the most perfect shot of all time. Instantly I wasn't thinking about my troubles on or off the field, I was once again back online with the Vaughan principle of searching for victory in the wreckage of almost certain defeat."

As Trescothick drove and swept, Strauss matched his pace with pulls and cuts. South Africa were being battered, with Steyn and Boje hammered for 50 runs in a five-over spell on the third morning. By tea they'd both reached their centuries - Strauss's fourth in nine Tests - and the lead was 30. When Trescothick finally fell, the partnership of 273 was England's biggest for an opening pair since Colin Cowdrey and Geoff Pullar's 290 against Australia in 1960.

There was no respite for South Africa. Thorpe responded to a mini collapse by making an unbeaten 118 - his last hundred for England - and Flintoff and Geraint Jones both hit fifties. That 193-run deficit had turned into a 377-run lead in only 173 overs when Vaughan declared on the fourth evening.

South Africa lost Smith early and were four-down by lunch on the fifth day. Admirable resistance from Jacques Rudolph, Martin van Jaarsveld, de Villiers - scoring his maiden Test fifty - and Pollock kept England at bay. But when Pollock was finally run out for 35, England needed just two wickets.

South Africa were saved by darkness, which prevented a ninth-successive win. As de Villiers and Ntini hurried from the field upon being offered the light, England sat down on the outfield in protest at what they believed was good enough light to play in.

They felt aggrieved at South Africa getting out of jail but, truth to be told, England had also done their own spot of prison-breaking after the first two days.

A new year, and it was like the last 365 days had never happened: South Africa won by 196 runs at Cape Town. No England batsman passed fifty. Wearied by their efforts to seal a win at Durban, England's attack was barely a carbon copy of the real thing, with Harmison especially poor - with the exception of one scorching and now-forgotten opening over to Kallis, he had one of those Tests in which his satnav kept taking him over a cliff.

England's insistence on attacking cricket and moving the game along at speed - which had brought them so much success and would bring them more in the following summer - counted against them this time, as South Africa slowed the pace down and frustrated them. England had no idea how to react, and duly folded. As ever, the greatest exponent of playing at his own, London-bus pace was Kallis. His first-innings 149 - "bloodlessly brilliant", Wisden called it - set the tone for the Test.

England's response to South Africa's 441 was old-school: a messy collapse. The only positive was again Strauss, who top-scored for the fifth time in five innings. That he made 45 told the story of a sorry innings (and No.11 Harmison top-scoring in the second innings with 42 told an even sorrier tale). Charl Langeveldt - half man, half baby elephant - took five wickets on Test debut, despite a fractured left hand sustained from a Flintoff bouncer, as England were stampeded over for 163, and with that the match was gone.

When England finally went down - attacking, obviously - by 196 runs, Vaughan addressed things immediately with a clear-the-air meeting. "I said to them that I still thought there was an element of hangover from the Zimbabwe trip. Several players had their say and I demanded that we should finally draw a line under that whole issue. This time it seemed to do the trick."

It certainly did.

And so to the scene of the crime. England's last visit to Johannesburg is one of the few Tests to be known by a scoreline: the 2 for 4 Test. There were ghosts to be laid to rest, which only added another level of intrigue to a match that would twist, turn, jerk and somersault into a modern classic.

South Africa had strengthened, with Boucher recalled. But Vaughan called correctly at the toss for only the seventh time in 23 Tests and the one man who hadn't left Cape Town ashen-faced - Strauss - set about bringing the England of 2004 into 2005. His astonishing form continued, and even though South Africa's bowlers had finally learned to pitch it up to him, he was in such supreme touch that anything full was driven back past them.

His 147 set up England's 411 for 8 declared. Vaughan had expected cloud cover to stay and aid his bowlers, but they were greeted by bright sunshine on the third morning. South Africa took advantage of the change in weather, with Gibbs tucking into a bowling attack ravaged either by injury (Flintoff) or waywardness (Harmison, Hoggard and James Anderson, who'd come in for Jones in the forlorn hope he'd swing it). South Africa managed a first-innings lead of eight and the Test - and series - was in the balance.

"I can honestly say I did not care whether we lost or drew this match and therefore the series, I just wanted to have every chance of winning it," Vaughan wrote. "So before we went out for the second innings I gave the instruction that we were to go all out for victory, and that the batsman should not hang around."

When Strauss - shock, horror - fell for a duck, things didn't look good. At 197 for 5 at close of play on the fourth day, the draw or a South African win were favourites. But Trescothick was still there, unbeaten on 101. The next morning, he knew exactly how he was going to approach it. "The Vaughan principles came into play," he wrote. "Of expression and positivity, of backing your ability and of looking to win at all times, no matter how lousy the view." In other words, he started tonking it. When Geraint Jones fell early, it just invited to Trescothick to fling his arms even more. "Marcus Trescothick has just gone up a gear," said Nasser Hussain in the commentary box.

"I had a blast, running down the track to hit Pollock over extra-cover for four and launching left-arm spinner Nicky Boje out of the stadium with a massive slog-sweep," he wrote. "More, more, more."

He was aided by Giles, who hit 31 from 43 balls, and Trescothick was the ninth wicket to fall, for 180 match- and mind-altering runs. At which point Vaughan, always sensing an opportunity and a means to win, marched onto the balcony and did what he calls his "traffic-policeman impression" and declared. South Africa would need 325 in 68 overs to win.

Then came Hoggard's moment. The fearsome foursome's most unheralded bowler, Vaughan couldn't mention him without talking about sweeping floors and Fletcher was never quite sure about him due to his inability to bowl 90mph. He hadn't been looking forward to the Wanderers, because the two times he'd played there for Free State he had - in his own words - "bowled a pile of poo."

This day would be different: "As soon as I started bowling, I felt able to put the ball exactly where I wanted it, at a good pace and with a decent amount of swing," he wrote. "I can't explain how or why it happened, it was just one of those things." De Villiers was lbw, Rudolph was castled and then came the biggie: "Next ball came a dismissal I will always be proud of. Kallis is a fine player and he'd been in fantastic form that series, but he got a ball with his name on it and was caught at first slip by Tres. He had to play, he came forward, covered the line and didn't push at it, the ball swung a touch and he snicked it to slip. He didn't do much wrong, but I'd got him out."

Kallis gone first ball, South Africa 18 for 3. Hoggard was unstoppable, swinging the ball both ways, and he took the first six wickets to fall. His next and seventh would be the final wicket: with the dark descending, he found Steyn's edge and Geraint Jones took the catch. Remarkably, Hoggard had 7 for 61. Remarkably, South Africa - stubborn, granite South Africa - had collapsed to the floor in the Bullring. Remarkably, England had won.

And so to the scene of another crime. Five years earlier, Centurion had been the setting for a tempting declaration from Hansie Cronje, motivated by greed and a leather jacket. There would be another last-day declaration, but this time there would be no Englishman interested in chasing a target.

With the first day washed out by rain, it was always going to be difficult for South Africa to force a series-levelling win. It looked even less likely when four wickets apiece for Flintoff and Jones, and fifties for Thorpe, Flintoff and Geraint Jones gave England a first-innings lead of 112 (Flintoff and Jones were making a nice habit of combining for vital lower-order runs).

Centuries from de Villiers - his first - and Kallis - his 20th - gave South Africa a sniff, but instead of going for broke on the fifth morning that old South African conservatism - so effective at Cape Town - was their undoing as they went along at only four an over, when double that was needed. When Smith declared, they had given themselves only 41 overs to bowl England out.

"I do not think that I have ever been as nervous as I was on the final afternoon in the fifth Test," wrote Fletcher. He had just cause to be worried for the first 15 overs, as England lost their top three for 73 runs. It was captain Vaughan to the rescue, scoring 26 from 86 balls - "unquestionably one of the most important little nuggets of my career" - as England held on with the loss of just one more wicket. The bruising series had its last blow, and England had won.

The result was taken very badly in South Africa. "It was as dispiriting a defeat as South Africa have suffered in the modern era, wrote Neil Manthorp in The Guardian. "While England celebrate, as they deservedly will, they will probably have no idea of how much hurt they have inflicted on such a fragile team. The effects may last well after Michael Vaughan and his men have left these shores."

For Fletcher it was a sweet victory, vindication of his decision to take the England job. For Strauss, who made 656 runs at 72.88 in the series - it was further evidence that he belonged at Test level. For the pace attack it was proof they could succeed against some of the world's best batsmen.

For Vaughan, it was the proof he needed. England could win the 2005 Ashes. He was certain of that now.

Daniel Brigham is a sportswriter and editor. @dan_brigham