Eight years ago, on September 12, England pulled off the biggest cricketing heist by upstaging old rivals Australia to secure the Ashes urn for the first time since 1987. Prior to the commencement of the series, there were suggestions from Down Under that the Kangaroos would win by a 5-0 margin.
In fact, seamer Glenn McGrath conceded that this was a distinct possibility, given the fact that Australia was the dominant force in world cricket at the time.
What followed would eventually become one of the closest series ever played on the field, and it was notable for the extremely high standard of cricket on display for all five matches. Australia, for once, were on the receiving end against fine swing bowling, while their bowlers also went for runs aplenty during the entire tour.
The visitors even lost the psychological battles, the mind games that they were known to play before the start of any series. The Edgbaston win by the Poms stands out as a true contest. It was about the only time the Aussies looked like they would deliver on their 5-0 vow. It was also a reflection of how neither side gave an inch to the other.
All the games were keenly fought right until the very end, despite threats from the weather gods.
Special Mentions: A bloody start, a majestic innings and a magnificent run-out
Less than an hour into the opening session of the first Test at Lord’s, Durham fast bowler Steve Harmison let loose a vicious bouncer at Australian captain Ricky Ponting.
The batsman attempted a pull shot, but the ball struck his helmet, and the metal grille jammed into his right cheek, drawing blood. The skipper was rattled, and so was his side.
Though Australia went on to win the match by over 200 runs, England had set the tone for the series with their aggressive approach – and succeeded in bringing home the sacred urn.
At Old Trafford on August 11, the inconsistent Michael Vaughan made all the critics eat their words with a sublime knock of 166, mastering the Aussie bowling attack on a pitch that offered little help in terms of movement. Primarily scoring his runs on the off-side, he put each bowler through a lot of misery, peppering the covers with powerful drives both off the front foot and the back foot. He ripped apart the hapless Jason Gillespie, for whom the entire tour turned out to be one big nightmare, and his century laid the platform for England’s eventual first-innings total of 444.
Gary Pratt became the darling of the English masses after a superb piece of fielding found Ponting well short of his crease in the fourth Test. Angry, Ponting lashed out at coach Duncan Fletcher over their use of substitute fielders in order to keep their bowlers fresh. However, Pratt was on for the injured Simon Jones, and his effort won him a place on the open-top bus parade accorded to the victorious squad.
In the following page is a list of the five best performances from that memorable series.
5. Justin Langer hits the right note (394 runs)
Veteran Aussie opener Justin Langer was one of the few batsmen to emerge from the tour with his reputation intact, finishing as the highest run-getter for his side as they surrendered the urn that had been in their possession for sixteen years.
The then-35 year old left-hander was the only one to pass 40 in Australia’s first innings at Lord’s – the same match where Ponting was left bleeding by Harmison’s brute of a delivery. Langer, too, had been at the receiving end of the Durham pacer’s furious bouncers; one struck him painfully on the elbow. He was also tested by Ashes debutant Andrew Flintoff – the burly all-rounder took his wicket in his first over, making it a memorable start to his own Ashes career.
The southpaw drew on all his years of playing experience in order to frustrate the opposition in the now-famous second Test at Edgbaston, unleashing the powerful square cuts, pulls and booming drives that characterized his batting.
For all his talent, however, he fell victim to the large amount of reverse-swing generated by Simon Jones. In the second innings, Flintoff once again caused his downfall, bowling what was later described as the ‘over of the series’, as England leveled the series.
Langer scored a century in the final Test, singling out left-arm spinner Ashley Giles for special treatment as he unleashed some blistering drives in his 105-run knock, though England escaped with a draw to secure the Ashes.
Nevertheless, the Western Australia batsman was able to finish his career on a high, as Australia reclaimed their prize in the return series.
4. Shane Warne, the all-rounder (249 runs and 40 wickets)
The blonde leg-spinner had a phenomenal outing in the 2005 edition of the Ashes, performing exceedingly well with both bat and ball. Time and again, Warne delivered the goods during a hotly-contested series as he foxed batsmen with his subtle spin variations, but it was his heroics with the bat that brought him into the limelight.
Warne unleashed his magic in the second innings of the first Test as England struggled to chase a record 420 for a win. He used a combination of the top-spinner, the leg-break and the zooter – all delivered with phenomenal accuracy – as he winkled out four English batsmen in quick time.
For most Australian fans, the clock seemed to have turned back to 1993, when the rotund slow bowler made his memorable debut. Only Kevin Pietersen stood firm amid the ruins the leg-spinner left in the wake of his mesmerizing web.
He also made telling contributions with the bat – after taking 10 wickets in the second Test, he defied the English bowlers for 79 minutes, putting on valuable partnerships with the tail, and hitting a couple of huge sixes.
His dismissal by Flintoff was the turning point as Australia ended two runs short. At Old Trafford, he went through an agonizing heart-ache after missing out on a maiden Test hundred by ten runs, while in the fourth game, his quick cameo could not prevent England from taking a 2-1 lead after his side were forced to follow-on.
Nevertheless, he took another 12 wickets in the last game to end his tour on a personal high.
3. Kevin Pietersen – A memorable Ashes debut (473 runs)
When your adopted nation plays host to cricket’s oldest ever rivalry, you begin to dream of playing in that exciting five-match series and do well in the process. It becomes a double delight when you end up making your Test debut in that very biennial tournament. Also, when your team secures the Ashes urn, you feel you’re on top of the world.
Kevin Pietersen certainly felt the same when he was handed his Test cap for the 2005 edition of the Ashes against Australia. He rescued his side from a precarious position in the first game, scoring his maiden half-century in a controlled innings – mixing caution with aggression.
At one point, his free-flowing style gave England 21 runs in just seven balls. Of particular interest was the way in which he handled both Warne and McGrath, treating the leg-spinner with some disdain as he tonked him all over the park. Despite an unbeaten second half-century during England’s chase in the second innings, Australia managed to win by a large margin.
He carried his rich vein of form into the second match at Edgbaston, pairing up well with fellow Ashes debutant Andrew Flintoff in the first innings, but his fielding left a lot to be desired; he dropped catches at an alarming rate, frustrating his team to no end.
He redeemed himself with some more reasonable performances with the bat, and capped a great debut with a magnificent century in the last Test, thus finishing as the leading run-scorer in the entire series. What a smashing debut!
2. Simon Jones swings it for England (66 runs and 18 wickets)
Glamorgan pacer Simon Jones exhibited superb control over the art of swing bowling as he troubled the famed Australian batting line-up time and again. But for injuries to his bowling side and ankle, he would easily have added more to his final tally of wickets.
Bowling in tandem with Flintoff, Jones responded to his captain’s call with a fiery six-wicket haul in the third Test. He generated prodigious amounts of reverse-swing, notably troubling the trio of Hayden, Ponting and Clarke in the four matches he played.
Jones provided vital runs down the order, showing that he was no mug with the bat. However, an ankle injury ruled him out of the final Test and, subsequently, his international career was put on indefinite hiatus.
1. Freddie’s Ashes (402 runs and 24 wickets)
Twenty-four years after Ian Botham inspired England to Ashes glory, another young all-rounder took centre stage during yet another five-match battle against Australia.
Lancashire cricketer Andrew Flintoff (‘Freddie’ to his teammates) displayed his prowess with both bat and ball as he single-handedly led his team to a 2-1 win over the Kangaroos, ending a sixteen-year wait for the urn. The victory was made all the sweeter because it was the first time the burly all-rounder had been selected for the Ashes.
Freddie’s first over in Ashes cricket was a wicket-maiden: he took out Justin Langer with a short delivery. He did little with the bat as Australia secured a huge win, but in the Edgbaston game, he came into his own in grand style – scoring 68 in the first innings, and then bowling the ‘over of the series’. He castled Langer with his second ball, had an LBW appeal turned down off the third and fifth balls, before taking out Ponting with the seventh (the previous one was a no-ball).
At one stage, during England’s second innings in the same game, Ponting had nine men on the boundary, but Freddie smashed a six over them too, and another landed in the roof as he made 73. Perhaps the most poignant image of the entire game was Flintoff consoling the despondent Brett Lee after England scraped through by two runs – a gesture that was widely praised by fans, players and selectors alike.
His century in the fourth Test was the cornerstone of England’s eventual three-wicket win, and he rounded off a great series with an excellent five-wicket haul in the final game.
In summary, this was perhaps England’s greatest ever Ashes victory, even better than the recent one.