Eighteen years. Eighteen years we'd waited. An inferiority complex wrapped in a late-order collapse. Rain, warm beer, crap cricket teams. All our national jokes. It's the way you tell 'em, and these gags had long run out of gas.
But hold on. Things had been changing. Under Michael Vaughan's suave captaincy, England had just turned up a series victory in South Africa. It was early 2005, and the win had to date been their grandest achievement, eclipsing even their exploits in winning all seven home Tests in 2004.
It was June 2005. Australia's cricket team were here again. Perhaps this time they wouldn't use the place as their personal playground.
"We were in a great place at the time; we'd gone through the previous summer unbeaten. We'd only lost one in our last 15. When you're on a roll, it's very difficult to get knocked out of that, even if you're up against a great Australian side. " Steve Harmison, England fast bowler
To vanquish the Australia of Warne, Ponting and McGrath, England would need their stars to shine. But they would need something else, something other. Implausibly, they were about to find it: ready-made, skunk-haired, utterly at odds, at first glance more inmate than team-mate. He'd just hit three ODI hundreds in South Africa against the land of his birth. It was figured he could play. We hadn't seen the like. Then at Bristol, in the first pre-Ashes ODI, Kevin Pietersen absolutely nailed it.
"Like so many others, I was converted by Botham in 1981. It left me with a taste for hero-worship, and a capacity for believing that an unexpected England victory might always be round the corner. On June 19, 2005, my brother and I were walking Offa's Dyke. As we came into Hay, we said to each other, 'Wouldn't it be brilliant if we turned the corner, there was a pub showing the match at Bristol, and England somehow won?' We turned a corner, there was indeed a pub showing the cricket, and England, thanks to an awesome 91 off 65 balls by Kevin Pietersen, posted an odds-upsetting victory. We both felt as deliriously happy that afternoon as we have ever felt watching cricket, sharing in the other's joy, and in our sudden hope for the forthcoming Ashes series - which we could sense emerging like a crumpled-winged butterfly from an 18-year cocoon. After years of vainly trying to fill a Botham-shaped hole, we finally - thanks to KP - had our new Ashes hero." Tom Holland, historian
That ODI series would be drawn, a leg bye off Ashley Giles' left pad tying the finale at Lord's. Three weeks later they would meet there again.
Lord's, July 21-24
"It was an unbelievable atmosphere walking through the Long Room that first morning. Normally you'd have a couple of people sitting in the corner thinking, 'Oh no, they've picked him again!' This time it was standing room only. We knew then that this was different. We set the marker down that morning and bowled them out cheaply. Then Glenn McGrath brought us down to earth! But at the end of that first day you just knew - this was going to be an absolute humdinger."Harmison
A marker indeed. That morning Harmison was unmanageable. He hit Langer on the elbow, Hayden on the helmet, and Ponting so hard in the face that his helmet grille ricocheted into his cheekbone and sent him to hospital for corrective work (though only after play had finished).
Australia were all out for 190 and England were padding up before tea. It was McGrath's turn now. When he was finally hauled off England were 48 for 5 and GD McGrath's figures read 13-5-21-5.
Despite the sapping disappointment, England's supporters had seen something. Twenty wickets for a start. And something else, glistening among the debris: a rough, diamante-encrusted natural on debut. As McGrath cut through the top order, Pietersen had gotten massively forward, found ages for his shots, and looked immediately England's best equipped batsman. On the second morning he'd also launched McGrath into the Lord's Pavilion. Normal people just didn't do that kind of thing.
Australia 190 (Harmison 5-43) & 384 (Clarke 91, Harmison 3-54); England 155 (Pietersen 57, McGrath 5-53) & 180 (Pietersen 64*, McGrath 4-29) Australia won by 239 runs
Edgbaston, August 4-7
What happened next will never be forgotten. After a match like this the clichés would arrive faster than a gloved 90mph bumper. It had more untouchable moments - 400 in a day, the great Harmison slower ball, Warne to Strauss, Vaughan's run-out of Martyn, the whole last morning - than any other Test in history. Not forgetting a touch of high farce, when McGrath stood on a ball in the pre-match warm-up and was ruled out with a twisted ankle.
After scores of 0 and 3 at Lord's, Andrew Flintoff had taken himself away for a few days with the family. He'd been tense at Lord's, overwrought. Thereon he'd resolved to play naturally. His captain, Michael Vaughan, saw a different man turn up at Birmingham.
"Captaining Fred, I wanted him to be right for that moment on the pitch. I wanted him to arrive on the Thursday feeling good. I wanted him feeling like he had someone who was supporting him, someone who was going to allow him to play with freedom, attack the opposition and just enjoy his cricket. You didn't need him to be thinking too much, you just needed him to deliver, so lob him the ball get a wicket or two. Tell him which length, he'd do it. Bowl to the field, he'd do it. Go out to bat and whack it, he'd do it. He got the crowd going. There's not many players who could get the crowd going like he could and that's what happened at Edgbaston." Vaughan
Flintoff began by playing with dash and daring as England smashed 407 on the first day. Other runs were plundered by Trescothick, Strauss and Pietersen, but Fred's audacity stole it.
"It was a nice pitch to play on. I hit five sixes that day. Lee bowled a couple short and I pulled him twice for six - blind at one of them, didn't even know where it was. I used to have a technique of getting deep in my crease and to someone like Lee it works well because it puts you directly into his trajectory. Sometimes, the biggest sixes, you're not really trying." Flintoff
On day two, the summer's other poster boy, The Blond, watched his side's top order bat complacently, and caught the mood with a shocking heave himself. Australia finished 100 behind.
England were 25 for 0 when Warne took the ball. Going round the wicket to Strauss, he rags a looping, revolving bomb so far outside Strauss' off stump that he goes to leave it, but it grips and rips past his leg on the outer side, going behind his body and crashing into his leg stump. The Ball Of This Century.
"The way we attacked them on that first day was brilliant, and we'd had to because of that man Warne. The more press coverage, the more electric the atmosphere, and the increasing profile of the series all meant that one man was going to get better. That was Warne. He ended up getting 40 wickets, but he got them at over three an over. We didn't nullify him, but we did compete." Harmison
Warne galvanised the baggies, and as day three took its absurd shape - let's call it Mad Saturday - Edgbaston loyalists were coming to terms with an England collapse of vintage proportions. At least Fred was still there.
His second knock showed his class. England were 131 for 9 with a shaky lead of 230 when he was joined by Simon Jones. The width of Flintoff's bat stood between Aussie victory and the sad tragicomic capitulation of English cricket. No pressure then.
When Warne finally got him for 73, Flintoff had hit four more sixes, making it an Ashes record nine in the match. His breathtaking straight six off Lee went fizzing over the BBC's commentary box. The next highest score in the innings was 21. Fred was starting to dictate the course of the match, to bend it to his will, as only the greats can.
To the evening session. Chasing 282, Australia had cruised to 47 for no loss off 12 overs when Flintoff was summoned. "I'd just got 70-odd and I was asking Vaughany every minute to get me on to bowl. I was flying and I just kept saying, 'Get me involved, get me involved…' I just felt I could get them out."
England went to work. As the close approached Australia were seven down, 107 shy. Only Clarke remained, magnificent in the murk.
"I'd thrown everything at him. Every question I had asked of Michael Clarke, he had answered them. I thought I should try something different." Harmison
"It turned the game. Harmy, he's got this slower ball and he keeps wheeling it out, you can see it from slip when he's going to bowl it. And I thought, 'Here we go'. Because he comes up and his fingers are split on the ball. 'Slower ball!' It's the best one he's ever bowled, it was perfect, it's even faded in to bowl him. It was amazing, amazing." Flintoff
Sunday, August 7, 2005. The packed house settled back to watch the procession. How quickly the mood would change. Through Warne and Lee, warriors both, pilfered runs were nabbed - stolen singles, spliced boundaries, thick edges - until, with 62 needed and the crowd hushed, Warne bizarrely back-heeled his stumps. Last man Kasprowicz joined Lee, who wasn't going anywhere.
"Everything seemed to be going against us, especially when Simon Jones dropped Kasprowicz. And Lee was unbelievable that day - every part of his body got hit but he still had the courage to stay there and try and see them home." Harmison
Suddenly, imperceptibly, when Lee edged one past leg stump Australia were one hit away. Harmison ran in again. Short one. Kasprowicz, who's looked immovable, ducks underneath it but can't drop his hand in time, the ball kisses the glove (detached from the bat handle!) like a slobbering drunk and loops to Geraint Jones, who pouches it inches from the turf. Cue pandemonium.
"The old press box at Edgbaston was a tin-pot affair, small and sweaty. It could mean a good atmosphere, though. In many instances, the old canard about journalistic impartiality was cast aside when Harmison won that lucky caught-behind shout against Kasprowicz. And the Aussies working to impossibly tight deadlines for the other side of the world could finally press send on one of the three versions they'd been preparing. The whole thing was pure electricity." Lawrence Booth, Wisden Almanack editor
Amid the chaos Flintoff (seven wickets; 139 runs; immortality) locates Lee, on his haunches away from the hub, and offers him a word. It would remain between the two of them, and yet heard around the world. A thick edge from oblivion, but now England were flying.
England 407 (Trecsothick 90, Pietersen 71, Flintoff 68, Warne 4-116) & 182 (Flintoff 73, Warne 6-46); Australia 308 (Langer 82, Ponting 61, Flintoff 3-52) & 279 (Lee 43*, Flintoff 4-79) England won by two runs
- BALL 1: Flintoff to Langer NO RUN
- My first ball was so important. The crowd were up, and the first ball had to be on the money. I knew it was gonna be half-quick - I don't do warm-ups. I'm picturing the ball I'm gonna bowl. In my head he's nicking it to slip. I came in round the wicket and it just offered to go away on the reverse. It was pretty much where I wanted to bowl it; I just thought he'd nick it!
- BALL 2: Flintoff to Langer OUT! JL Langer b Flintoff 28
- This one was meant to be the same as the first, to nip away and take the edge. It held its line and smashed off his elbow onto the stumps. I had a bad shoulder, but I was feeling nothing at this point. Just adrenaline.
- BALL 3: Flintoff to Ponting NO RUN
- It had just started reversing. I wanted him lbw first ball. The thing with Ponting early doors was he'd get across his stumps and his head would go across, but it was also a strength of his. This one was just a touch too high, but it was coming in beautifully now.
- BALL 4: Flintoff to Ponting NO RUN
- Same again, nipping back into him, it's really reversing now. It's the 13th over and it's going already.
- BALL 5: Flintoff to Ponting NO RUN
- Now I'm thinking I'm gonna get him. He's looking to hit it and you can see from the previous two that his feet are nowhere. It hits him on the pad and it's not out because he's got outside the line, but he's feeling for it, he's feeling.
- BALL 6: Flintoff to Ponting NO RUN (no ball)
- This is the first one where I turn the ball around in my hand to get it going away from him. It goes a little bit, but from wide and he's able to leave it alone.
- BALL 7: Flintoff to Ponting OUT! RT Ponting c †GO Jones b Flintoff 0
- As I run up, all I've got in my head is a picture of what that ball is gonna look like, all the way - I reckon when I was bowling well I could just about do it with my eyes closed. It was reversing both ways by now and I was looking to take it away from him. It pitched and left him and that was that. I was flying…
Old Trafford, August 11-15
Michael Vaughan had told us he was in good form with the bat. His critics pointed to the three times in four knocks that he'd lost his off stump as evidence that he wasn't. Glenn McGrath had already trimmed him up at Lord's, and now Pidge was back, hobbling through a match that had clearly come too early for his busted ankle. On the first day the two would square up again. After a nip-and-tuck start and with Vaughan on 41, McGrath got one to nip back and clatter into his poles for the fourth time in the series. But wait…
"What a moment. McGrath bowled Vaughany, and then for it to be given a no ball, that was brilliant, wasn't it? McGrath came back for that Test match - he shouldn't have played. It was more through desperation. And Vaughany went on to get a great hundred and set it up for the rest of us…" Flintoff
Vaughan's 166 laid the foundation for his bowlers to extract sufficient reverse swing from a scuffed surface, as Simon Jones left Australia scrabbling to avoid the follow-on. Only Warne's eye for a ball prevented his team being asked to have another go for the first time in two decades.
With a chunky lead already, England took the game away from Australia chiefly through Strauss' first Ashes hundred (there would be more). It left Australia 10 overs and a full day to bat out the draw.
On that final Monday the gates at Old Trafford had to be closed at 8:30am. Queues snaked around the ground, thousands deep. Those turned away trudged back home to join the 7.7 million people watching on TV.
"Look, it's one of the all-time great series that's ever been played. I remember being here and seeing what sort of impact it had on the whole country. I remember driving to the ground at Manchester for the last day of that game, when we had to bat out the day to save the Test match, and the streets were lined for kilometres with people around the ground who weren't able to get in. They're memories of things you don't see every day." Ricky Ponting, Australia captain
"My greatest Ashes memory is seeing 20,000 people locked out of Old Trafford. I thought there was a bomb scare when I arrived at Old Trafford on that day. I arrived at 9.30, went on the balcony and the ground was full. As I said to the boys, 'This is special'. We went out of the dressing room just to warm up and the whole ground lifted and stood to their feet to cheer us. Vaughan
It was a day of tough cricket, and England were relentless. When in late afternoon Clarke fell to a booming inswinger from Jones and Gillespie went for a duck, Australia were seven down. Warne joined Ponting and was able to hang around for an hour, while Ponting, with his Ashes scars and his raging spirit, would not budge.
His 156 - the only chanceless hundred of the series - was a masterclass of its kind, and when he was finally strangled down the leg side, he could barely summon the strength to drag himself off. McGrath and Lee were left with four overs to survive.
But England were spent. Back-to-back Tests had exhausted them. Those final six balls from Harmison were easily negotiated, and for Lee, indomitable at Edgbaston, this was sweet redemption.
In the chaotic mix of emotions that met the finale, Michael Vaughan gathered up his players. Amongst them was Stephen Peters, a sub fielder for most of that last afternoon.
"Vaughan called everyone in to a huddle on the pitch and he said to everyone - I'll never forget it - he said, 'Look at that balcony over there celebrating a draw. They'd never have done that in the past. We go to Trent Bridge and we'll turn them over there.' From that moment on I knew we were winning that series. You could see the belief in the team. It was great to be part of it, if only very briefly." Stephen Peters
England 444 (Vaughan 166) & 280-6dec (Strauss 106, McGrath 5-115); Australia 302 (Warne 90, Jones 6-53) & 371-9 (Ponting 156, Flintoff 4-71)
Trent Bridge, August 25-28
Vaughan was right. England would dominate Nottingham, right up until the death, when Warne - who'd asked for 170 to defend and got 128 - nearly ripped up the formbook.
Andrew Flintoff made his first Ashes hundred here, and when he quietly raised his bat to the terraces - who needs fanfares when you can hit balls into the road - it seemed to announce the arrival of a great cricketer. The innings was relatively un-Fred-like, his 132-baller containing just the one six. His time at the crease with Geraint Jones, who arrived at 241 for 5 and saw Fred depart 177 runs later, was perhaps the pivotal partnership of the series.
"Freddie and I had an incredible connection when we were batting. We were good mates and I think the way we played connected well. Freddie was very strong driving down the ground. You knew about it when he hit it back at you! Whereas I was more square of the wicket, cuts and pulls. We complemented each other and that probably allowed us to get a few more balls in areas we liked. When we got into it we were pretty fluent." Geraint Jones
Australia may have got away with it at Manchester but Nottingham was not so forgiving. Jones claimed another five-fer, and this time the follow-on was enforced.
Second time around Australia were going well at 155 for 2 when Martyn dropped one into the covers and called Ponting through for the single. It was a tight one, the cover fieldsman swooped and Ponting was caught short.
Emerging from the mob of Englishmen and hoisted skywards was a Durham reserve called Gary Pratt, sub fielder extraordinaire and the unlikeliest hero of the summer, not that Punter thought so, labelling England's regular use of a sub an "absolute disgrace" and shouting his mouth off at the England dressing room as he stomped back to the pavilion. Duncan Fletcher, England's inscrutable coach, was moved to remark: "You want to take a run to a cover fielder and get run out, whose fault is that?" England required just 129 to win. No gimme.
"I was batting with Kevin, under control and Lee came on and just did us for pace. My bat was here and off stump was cartwheeling back. In hindsight and through the clarity of not being in the position I was in then, we were going to win but we just got a bit carried away. We were seven down. We only needed 10 runs, and then Hoggy went out there and played a blinder. He hit that cover drive off a full toss! And then Giles just turned one to win. I couldn't watch, I think I was punching Straussy, just to vent something... " Flintoff
"I've worked professionally as a sports journalist for 14 years. Only once have I been unable to read my notes afterwards because my hand had been shaking so much: the Trent Bridge Test. It was the only Test I covered that summer and even then on the Saturday I had to report on West Brom v Birmingham. On that sunny Sunday evening, it seemed I was witnessing yet another England capitulation as Warne transformed the unspoken niggle of 'They could mess it up, I suppose' into the full-blown panic of 'Not a-f***ing-gain'. But then came the proof that this was a different England, a side with backbone and spirit, that did have the guts to edge over the line. When Giles squeezed that two I was almost weeping with relief. I've never dared look up the copy I filed."Jonathan Wilson, Blizzard editor
England 477 (Flintoff 102) & 129-7 (Warne 4-31); Australia 218 (Jones 5-44) & following on 387 (Langer 61, Katich 59, Harmison 3-93) England won by three wickets
The Oval, September 8-12
And so, after 24 days of the greatest battle in sport, it all came down to the last afternoon of the last day of the last Test. Four acts of riotous drama fell to this. England needed to bat out the final day and the Ashes would be theirs. Australia had to take ten wickets by late afternoon and knock off the deficit. It was that simple.
Fred on the night to end all nights...
- "Look at that! It's like a beer garden at Wetherspoons! I'm flagging there. Unbelievable night-day. Bizarrely I remember most of it. We stayed at the ground until about 11, just drinking in the dressing room with the Aussies. It was one of those nights where you didn't want it to end. I remember eight o'clock in the morning there was people signing off one-by-one and I was having a gin and tonic with Mike Gatting. Talking to Gatt over breakfast, a beautiful sight. And then Phil Neale came down in his finery and said 'Go on, go get ready, we're going on this bus'. So I went to my room and knocked on the door and my missus said, 'Where've you been?' 'Just been downstairs all night'. So she said, 'Right come on' and got me in the bath, bathed me and dressed me and put me on a bus. It was like school! So we got on the bus and we did the parade and they gave us champagne on the bus which was a nice touch. We went to 10 Downing Street, and the Trafalgar Square thing was amazing. People were hanging out of windows and even now people say 'I was there for that'. Then at Lord's we started to get a bit tired. Sat down, and then I started nodding off. Fell asleep on the bus on the way back to the hotel. That's when Harmy wrote on me - permanent marker. We got off the bus and Harmy was really concerned about me and I said 'What's wrong?' He put his jacket over my head like I was Michael Jackson and he shepherded me in and I got back to my hotel room. He's come up with me and he's going, 'I'm sorry, Rachael, I'm sorry'. I've looked in the bathroom and gone, 'What's that? There's something on the mirror!' Looked across my head and it said Cant - except without the 'A'. It was in the Sun the next day. My mum was so proud."
Such a day deserved something special. Australians casting glances at Warne's slashed spinning finger saw him stroll out on that final day, custom-made flares billowing over his red-striped tenpin-bowling boots, with 35 wickets already in the series.
"Make no mistake, 2005 was great for Australian cricket as well; everything about it. It was the kick in the backside Australian cricket needed. The whole series did a lot to take Ashes cricket to another level." Ponting
The day begins edgily. Strauss had already been Warned the day before, and after a skittish start Vaughan nicks off. With Ian Bell following next ball, Kevin Pietersen rocks up with the score 67 for 3.
The hat-trick ball from McGrath is a brute that KP's gloves dodge by the width of a diamond bracelet. Not out. Three overs later, Lee bowls Pietersen a full one that he edges to first slip where Warne, who hasn't dropped a catch all summer, grasses a simple chance.
At the Vauxhall End Warne has hunkered down for the day. To his first ball after the drop, Pietersen hits Warne for six. Four balls later, same over, he does it again, same place over mid wicket. This is outrageous behaviour.
But for all his audacity England are in strife at lunch. KP is still there on 35, somehow surviving a fearful pre-lunch assault from Lee, but England are five down and only 133 ahead.
The game is so finely balanced that one false move tips it inexorably the other way. So this is what happens: Lee bowls three overs in his post-lunch spell, of which Pietersen faces 13 balls. Those balls are dealt with thus: 2, 2, 0, 6, 1, 0, 2, 6, 4, 4, 0, 4, 4.
In six overs since lunch KP moves from 35 to 76. One of those fours is executed by flat-batting a rising thunderbolt from outside off stump straight past the scarpering umpire at waist height. It should be defended. It really should be blocked. Yet it's returned faster than it had arrived, which was, incidentally, 96.7mph.
"It was the perfect, bizarre, unconventional innings for that stage of the game. Watching it, I felt entertained, but I was also thinking, 'What you doing?' Going for a draw, pulling them past the umpire! Sometimes when the ball gets faster your bat gets faster and everything gets faster. You start hitting, you just go for everything, out of fear, out of adrenaline. I think that's what was happening with Kevin that day. He was unbelievable. He started to get going and once he'd started he couldn't reel it in. I was counting it down, but you just didn't know what was happening…" Flintoff
It's an unhinged masterpiece. His hundred comes up in 124 balls, and at tea England are almost there, seven down and 227 ahead.
It's almost party time. When Pietersen launches his fifth and sixth maximums, the ground takes on a carnival feel. The players relax, Pietersen hits another - make that seven - and gets out, Giles plods a happy fifty and the crowd chant "We wish you were English" to Warne, who doffs his floppy white to the four corners of London town. It's all rather surreal.
Australia face four balls, take the light, the umpires dither and the crowd sings on oblivious - after two months of heart-wrenching drama the bathos works just fine. Finally. At around 6:30pm on September 12, 2005, Michael Vaughan walks gingerly over to that funny little urn, smiles, and screams.
Fred, meanwhile, went off to find a beer and cigar…
England 373 (Strauss 129, Warne 6-122) & 335 (Pietersen 156, Warne 6-124); Australia 367 (Hayden 138, Langer 105, Flintoff 5-78, Hoggard 4-97) & 0-0 Match drawn
England win the series 2-1