Monday, September 26, 2005

Ashes 2005: God is an Englishman (the moments that swung it)

The key moments that led to England's momentous victory over the seemingly unbeatable Australians.

Before the series: Twenty20 bouncers
‘It’s only a bit of fun’, laughed the Aussies, as England crushed them by a startling 100 runs in the first international Twenty20 game between the two sides. They weren’t laughing so much during their batting innings, when Harmison and Flintoff bombarded them with aggressive short-pitched bowling.

It should have been clear to the Aussies then that these were not the usual Pommie pushovers.

Before the series: Gillespie and Pietersen at Bristol
In Gillespie’s first over in the first one-day game against England, he bowled four leg-side wides and a no-ball to increasing jeers from a baying Bristol crowd. In the next over, he misfielded horribly at fine leg right in front of the noisiest section of that crowd . In that moment, his long and fine international career was effectively over. I was there, and I’ve never seen a professional sportsman so visibly go to pieces.

Eventually he was dropped, and the Aussies great three-man attack became a two man attack. That was enough at Lords, but then when McGrath was injured, even Warne couldn’t make a one-man attack do the job, though he came pretty close.

The other crucial element in that game was Pietersen’s dashing 91 not out to win the match. He earned himself a place in the Test team, and Graham Thorpe retired.

Three great Harmison deliveries
Steve Harmison, previously considered England’s only strike bowler, ended up being the least effective of the four seamers, but he still played a key part in swinging the series England’s way.

On the first morning at Lords he bowled a spell of sustained aggression, the like of which the Aussies had rarely seen before. He hit Langer and Hayden several times, but the most brutal delivery was saved for Ponting, leaving the Aussie captain with blood pouring from his cheekbone. The great Aussie batting order was out for 190 by tea, and only England’s nervous start, and McGrath’s excellence, won the game for Australia

The two other key Harmison balls came at Edgbaston: a slow one to bowl Clarke on the last ball of the penultimate day, leaving Australia with a mountain to climb, and of course the bouncer that Kasprowicz gloved to Jones, mere inches before they reached its impossible peak.

Edgbaston: Stray balls and balls-ups in the hours before the Test
After England won this series-levelling match by 2 runs – the narrowest margin in Ashes history – Channel 4 rushed out a DVD called “The Greatest Ever Test”. The unbearably tense finishes that followed at Old Trafford and Trent Bridge made that title look premature, but now we can see that, in the context of the series, they had it right.

Australia had won the first Test easily, with McGrath wiping out the England batsmen. But warming up on the first morning before the second Test, he stood on a stray cricket ball, damaged his ankle and had to be replaced by Kasprowicz.

Then followed the worst captain’s decision since Hussein inserted Australia in the first game of the previous Ashes series. With his key seam bowler out and a decent batting pitch, only sheer arrogance can have persuaded Ponting to ask England to bat first. They duly did, walloped the remains of the Aussie attack to all parts of the ground, and made 407 in one day.

Edgbaston: Flintoff becomes a national hero
He made 0 and 3 at Lords, later admitting that he was too anxious to play his normal game. Then at Edgbaston ‘Freddie’ imposed himself on the national consciousness with a display, including 141 runs and six wickets, that makes him a dead cert to win the 2005 Sports Personality of the Year.

Three key moments: Flintoff and Simon Jones make 51 for the last wicket in the first innings, including some brutal sixes; Flintoff bowls an unplayable over of swing to remove both Langer and Ponting; and Flintoff creates the image of the series by consoling Lee after Australia agonisingly fail to snatch the unlikely victory.

Hoggard and Giles see England home at Trent Bridge
Every man in the country was a gibbering wreck on the final day of the Fourth Test, as England – or rather, Shane Warne and Brett Lee – made the molehill run chase of 129 look as easy as climbing Everest in a diving suit. Warne looked like getting a wicket with every delivery.

When Geraint Jones holed out to deep mid off with a stupid slog to make it 116 for 7, it became unwatchable torture. But then the two least sung of England’s heroes, Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard, held their nerve and calmly knocked off the remaining 14 runs to give England a 2-1 series lead.

Nothing epitomised England’s emphasis on the team over the individual better than the fact that it was these two workhorses who saved the day.

Warne’s drop at the Oval
A dreadful irony, that Shane Warne, who was virtually playing England on his own for much of the series, should be the one to spill a straightforward catch when Pietersen was on 15. KP went on to make 158, the match was saved and England won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years.

The crowd baited the great bowler with chants of “Warney dropped the Ashes”, but then immediately showed their appreciation for him in his last Test on English soil with bursts of “There’s only one Shane Warne” and “We only wish you were English” that left him visibly moved.

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