It’s an unexpected romance. Causing me more highs – and lows – than I care to admit, cricket has long been my first love. But it hasn’t always been this way. Like many fans my age, I was first shown the beauty of the game through the nerve-jangling yet equally euphoric 2005 Ashes. The greatest series of recent years in my opinion.
Sport can – on occasion – offer incredible rapture for all its fans. For me, cricket offered this in 2005, utterly transfixing mine – and the nation’s – imagination for an entire summer. This epic marathon took over my psyche for 9 weeks. Across 22 days, 6 hours a day, I was hypnotized by the game I saw before me. Looking back now, I know this was the starting point of a long love affair with cricket.
Context is everything. When this series began, England was without a win in the Ashes for 16 years and 8 successive series. There was some feeling in this time that an England win was a growing impossibility, with Australia coming to causally assume victory before the tournament even started. The Ashes were proving to be England’s white whale.
Captained by Michael Vaughan and coached by Duncan Fletcher, England went into the series with hope. Our recent good form had led them to win 7 series in a row, but the odds were still against them. Australia was the number 1 team in the world, with more talent on their team than other test nations can dream of. Looking at their team now, and that 2005 line-up, remains a who’s who of greats of the game, starting with Shane Warne and embracing Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting. To win the Ashes against this team of all-time greats would certainly require giant-killing – and England’s capability of doing this was somewhat doubtful.
Australia’s dominance was clear from the off, but so was England’s fighting spirit. Setting the tone within the opening minutes at Lord’s, Australia was given a taste of the strength they were up against as Stephen Harmison felled their opening batsman, Justin Langer. It was fast, brutal and – for an English fan – incredible. Although Australia went on to win that Lord’s Test, there was no doubt about it – the game was on.
Then came the second test at Edgbaston. And what a game that was. Often looked at as the turning point in the campaign for England, this was the moment when England came out to bat and laid down a template as they fought to a lead of 118 runs. This was the moment England showed their strength.
As the match reached its climax, tension reached a fever pitch. As Australia edged ever closer, England needed one wicket for what seemed like an incredibly long time. When all hope seemed lost, English prayers were finally answered. That wicket came.
In that moment of victory came that iconic image which defined this series: Freddie Flintoff, immediately offering his condolences to his vanquished competition, the not out batsman Brett Lee. Flintoff crouched down and put his arm on Lee’s shoulder. Here was one of the reasons I fell in love with cricket, the beautiful image to me seemed the essence of proper sport distilled. No matter how fierce the rivalry, the heartwarming sportsmanship remained.
No contest was ever so unreadable, so tense for such a long period of time. It always felt like celebration would be followed by heartbreak, yet give all you needed for the perfect series. Great performances by players at their peak, outrageous endings to matches and unexpected twists made for great viewing. The 3rd Test ended in a draw, the 4th an England victory, all on narrow margins. As it stood, England led the series 2-1 going into the final match. It was all to play for – and what a match it was.
Taking place at the Oval, I – and everyone else in England – waited with baited breath and a great deal of hope to see how England would fare. Previous heartbreak had told us not to count on a win too soon, as Australia always seemed to step up to a challenge.
But to the contrary, it was Australian nerves that seemed to break. Flintoff was at the height of his power, showing why he is one of the greatest all-rounders of all time. From a strong batting spell to world-class bowling, he was in fine form. Vaughan’s complex fielding plans were still working. But still, the match existed on a knife point, ready to fall at any moment.
Then it finally fell. Having not contributed much to the series so far, Kevin Pietersen stepped up to bat. Encouraged by the strength of his team, Pietersen gave perhaps his most memorable performance. His innings of 158 will stay imprinted on my mind forever. With this decisive and strong performance, it was over – England had done it. Securing victory in the final test match to end it 3-1 overall, the Ashes were finally back in England.
Never before had sport moved me the way the Ashes did in 2005. From the tense, razor-close matches to the determination of both teams, it is perhaps the greatest series of all time. Quite simply, it is cricket at its best. It’s power to thrill, antagonise and influence us. For 9 weeks, all of England came together in hope. With such skill and sportsmanship on show, it was enough to captivate and inspire me for a lifetime.