By Neil Robinson 15/09/05
In 1953 Denis Compton swept a ball down to fine leg and Brian Johnston, in a voice pitched high and almost cracked with emotion, said “it’s the Ashes! England have won the Ashes!”
In 1966 Geoff Hurst broke through the middle of the West German defence during the Football World Cup and Kenneth Wolstenholme memorably related: “Some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over....it is now!”
At the Oval on September 12th 2005, a sporting occasion to rank with either of the previous two, umpires Billy Bowden and Rudi Koertzen emerged from the pavilion after play was interrupted by bad light to remove the bails in a ceremonious manner, signifying the end of the most dramatic and enthralling Test series in living memory.
As a finale it was rather an anticlimax, and nothing any commentator could say could make the situation any less ridiculous. A fine batting performance by England had long since taken the match out of Australia’s reach, so that when bad light took the players from the field after just four balls of Australia’s reply, it mattered little. But this series deserved better than a conclusion thrashed out in a meeting in the Umpires’ room while the crowd sat and waited. Still, in this summer when new audiences have been seduced by the great game of cricket as never before, perhaps it was as well that those new fans should learn how the game can be charmingly absurd as well as nail-bitingly tense.
At lunch on the final day England found themselves 127 for 5, just 133 ahead and wobbling badly. With Brett Lee breathing fire, and Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath using all their guile and experience, Australia were in with a great chance of bowling England out quickly and setting up a very gettable target. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. On the final morning I swapped emails with the editor of this site, and we both had a feeling that this could be Kevin Pietersen’s day. England’s ebullient rookie came through a vicious spell of pace from Lee either side of lunch, to play a match-saving innings quite unlike any other I have ever seen. Once he had played himself in there was no question of Pietersen bedding down for two sessions of durable defence. Instead he thrashed and crashed like a man setting up a declaration, while Paul Collingwood and Ashley Giles in turn nobly held up the other end with patience and resolution. The Aussies, defiant, as ever, to the last, simply could not break through in time.
From the beginning the fates were with England in this match. For the third match in succession they won the toss and had first use of an excellent pitch in perfect batting conditions. Where Australia’s batsmen for the most part had to toil under heavy skies in conditions well suited to England’s pace attack, England were granted clear blue skies and warm temperatures. And at first all went to plan for them. Trescothick and Strauss got the innings off to another lively start against some indifferent Australian bowling. McGrath, short of match practice, was also short of a length, while Lee lacked rhythm. With the ball coming on to the bat nicely and an outfield like lightning, England’s 50 was up in just 49 minutes amid a torrent of handsome strokes.
There was only ever one man Ricky Ponting was going to turn to, and only one result. Shane Warne was into the attack by the 14th over, and even though Tait was already bowling to just a slip a gully and four men on the boundary, the pressure on England’s batsmen was palpably increased. Although Warne would surely never choose to bowl on a first day pitch, this one was dry as if prepared to his own personal recipe, and while the rough patches were barely discernable, he got enough turn back into the left-handers to cause severe discomfort.
It was Trescothick who fell first, the score at 82 when he played back and edged to slip, where Hayden took a fine catch down by his left boot. Vaughan looked in excellent touch, bringing up the 100 in 102 minutes with a pull to midwicket and a gorgeous drive through cover. But it was one of those days when things perhaps come too easy too quickly for him, and another ball from Warne not quite short enough to pull was clipped into the hands of midwicket. Bell fell for a duck, playing down the wrong line at Warne’s slider, but the real gem was the wicket of Pietersen. Having played watchfully to lunch, Pietersen came out for the afternoon in more aggressive mood, looking to whip Warne through the leg-side. But the leg-spinner out-thought him as much as out-bowled him, going wide on the crease to deceive Pietersen with the angle. The ball was not as far down the leg-side as Pietersen thought, it turned away from his bat and hit the top of off-stump. It was a quite brilliant piece of thinking cricket from Warne, the one man in this Australian side who has retained his aura of invincibility throughout a difficult summer.
Curiously Andrew Strauss, who has struggled with Warne as much as anyone in this England side, was completely untroubled at this stage and batting quite beautifully, defending soundly and waiting for the right ball to tuck away to leg for a single. Flintoff too was batting with exemplary restraint as England rebuilt from a precarious 131 for 4 to a more secure 213 for 4 by tea. By then Warne had gone through a spell of 18 straight overs, his standards only dropping as his shoulder did with the strain towards the end. With Warne and McGrath out of the attack and replaced by Katich and Tait, the momentum made one of those noticeable swings we have seen so often in this series; from two nervous batsmen facing two of the greatest bowlers who have ever lived, to two well-set strokeplayers facing far lesser lights.
So when the master returned to the attack after tea Strauss and Flintoff were far more settled and capable of scoring runs off him. Flintoff brought up his own 50 and the 100 stand with two consecutive sweeps to the boundary, then unfurled a superb straight drive all along the floor. Strauss then on-drove Lee for a boundary to bring up his second hundred of the series, his 7th in his first 19 Tests, which puts him on an equal footing with Herbert Sutcliffe and Viv Richards. At times it seemed as if every run had been nudged either side of square leg off Warne, but when the pacemen dropped short there were some lovely cuts too.
But inevitably Strauss was overshadowed as a spectacle by Flintoff. In this determined mood there is a ruthlessness about his batting, a smooth efficiency and economy of movement. He stands still as a rock at the crease, until a fluid, late movement brings him into position and the gentlest, most subtle of pushes sends the ball rocketing away to the fence.
There was a lucky escape for Strauss on 114, when he got a thin edge to a drive from Lee. But a very half-hearted appeal from Gilchrist convinced umpire Koertzen to let him off (reminiscent of the last Ashes series in Australia when a poor appeal from James Foster saved Steve Waugh at Melbourne.) Another reason for Strauss’s survival may have been his ability to resist the desire to look behind him as the ball flew to Gilchrist; his head remained motionless, as if following the ball all the way to the extra-cover boundary.
Flintoff’s response to his partner’s good fortune was to launch Warne twenty rows back into the handsome new stand at the Vauxhall End. But this was not to be another glorious century for Freddie, as he fell for 72 fencing rather at a wide-ish ball from McGrath. A minor collapse followed. Collingwood, favoured over James Anderson as Simon Jones’s replacement, was unlucky to be judged lbw to a fierce inswinging yorker from Tait which struck him just outside the line. Then Strauss finally fell at bat-pad off Warne, Ponting diving halfway across the pitch to take an outstanding catch. It was the end of a long day for Warne. 34 overs bringing him 5 for 118.
Geraint Jones fell early on day two, a fast straight ball from Lee hitting the top of his off stump. But it was to be a frustrating morning for Australia. Giles and Hoggard reprised their stubborn partnership from Trent Bridge and drove the Australians almost to distraction. It didn’t help them that McGrath still couldn’t seem to find a consistent length. Too often he dropped short, and Giles hooked him with ease. But when he did managed to hit his accustomed spot, the seam movement almost cut Hoggard in half. This valuable partnership nudged England ever closer to the respectability of 350, and when McGrath finally did find the edge, the chance was put down by Ponting. McGrath’s mood was not improved soon afterwards when Giles nicked a cut and umpire Koertzen again gave it not out. A fuming McGrath stormed off to fine-leg without stopping to reclaim his baggy green.
And even when Hoggard chipped a slower ball to mid-off, Steve Harmison came in for a brief but mighty thrash, taking three successive fours of Brett Lee with much gusto if little technique. It was only an iffy lbw decision against Ashley Giles which finally brought England's innings to its conclusion, leaving Australia less than satisfied with their morning's work.
But they were happy enough with their openers for once. Langer and Hayden, whose previous best opening stand in this series was 58, batted through to lunch without trouble, then grafted hard through a testing spell just after the interval to go in to tea well placed on 112 for 0. For Langer it was merely the fulfilment of all the effort, courage and skill he had shown throughout the series; collecting yet more bruises but at last a fitting number of runs to go with them. For Hayden however it was a more significant achievement. Despite his 150 against Essex, his form and fluency was no better than it had been in the first four Tests. But this was a Hayden determined to adapt to his reduced circumstances and work his way back to form.
Hayden had just 32 to Langer's 75 by the break, but he was fighting a successful battle with his own technique as much as with England's bowlers. He made a definite effort to play straight and avoid planting his front pad down the line of the ball, and when he came forward at last his weight really did go forward. But still the old power and fluency came only in fits and starts. The only signs of real aggression came from Langer, trying to hit Giles over the top as soon as the spinner came on, but he too was forced to abandon the assault once Giles switched to the Vauxhall End where the longer boundaries could be protected.
As tea approached there were the first signs of reverse swing from Flintoff, and the first signs of appraching rain in the sky. When the players emerged after the break, the umpires immediately offered the light, and to everyone's surprise the batsmen took it. Two years ago England's Trescothick and Butcher earned a wigging for accepting the offer of light against South Africa. That was a slightly different situation, for England were tonking South Africa all over the park at the time, whereas here Langer and Hayden were about to resume after tea. But still, by accepting the light the Australians set a benchmark for the umpires which would be used against them later in the match, and displayed an uncharacteristic insecurity.
They probably were not expecting that there would be no more play that day, losing 45 overs from the match. And Saturday too was to be a half-day of frequent interruptions. Langer was lucky to survive a strong lbw shout from Hoggard first ball and it was clear that more hard graft, under unyieldingly leaden skies, would be the order of the day. An hour was lost to rain in the morning, and Australia had crept up to just 157 by lunch. At 185 England finally earned a breakthrough, an over of very fast, aggressive bowling from Harmison forcing Langer to play on. But even before Ponting could reach the crease the rain returned.
When play resumed again Ponting did his best to keep the game moving, helping a more comfortable Hayden add another 79 in 20 overs before he too was surprised by extra bounce and fended Flintoff to slip. And, despite all the interruptions, when the light was accepted once again Australia were just 96 runs adrift with eight good wickets in hand. Few people would have expected anything less than for them to overtake England, forge a big lead and then put the hosts under pressure on a dramatic final day. It would not turn out quite like that.
It is hard to know why England did not make such good use of good bowling conditions on day three, but on day four they put that right with an outstanding performance which saw Australian wickets tumble. Flintoff and Hoggard did the damage, pitching the ball up and making it swing round corners. It was conventional swing too, not something for which Flintoff is normally renowned, proving once again his capacity for developing his game.
Damien Martyn fell early, getting cramped going for a pull off Flintoff and lobbing the ball gently to Collingwood at square leg. But for a while Hayden and Clarke held off the assault and Australia made slow progress. There had been a suggestion overnight that Ponting might declare well behind England, in the hope of using the favourable bowling conditions to dismiss the hosts cheaply. But the light on Sunday was far too gloomy, and England would soon have been given the chance to leave the field. Whatever else they did, the Aussies had to keep England on the field now, at all costs.
It was a superb ball from Flintoff that got rid of Hayden in the end; pitching middle and moving back to hit off. The rousing ovation the big Queenslander got for his 138 off 303 balls was still virtually ringing around the ground when Clarke flashed wildly at Hoggard and came within a whisker of holing out to Bell at deep backward point. Katich was next to go, snared by Flintoff in the same fashion as Hayden, then Gilchrist smashed a quickfire 23 before Hoggard swung one back into his pads just before lunch.
The collapse continued after the interval. Clarke, having survived a chance to the keeper off Hoggard, was trapped lbw by a ball from the same bowler which nipped back a touch off the seam, then Warne top-edged a hook to mid-on. McGrath edged a Hoggard outswinger to slip, and then Lee, going for broke, hit Hoggard hard down to deep midwicket where Giles held a good catch. Australia had gone from 323 for 3 to 367 all out. Their last five wickets had gone down for 11 runs. It was the sort of thing we used to expect from England. And a tribute here to Flintoff, not just for bowling with great skill (as did Hoggard) but great heart too. He was unchanged from 5.52 on the Saturday evening until the close of the innings at 1.44 on the Sunday afternoon. No doubt he would have kept bowling during the rain and all through the night had his captain asked it of him.
England's great joy at their sudden revival was tempered by only one thing, the improvement in the light which meant they had to bat. Despite having earned a narrow first innings lead, the side most likely to win remained Australia. There was not enough time left in the game for England to build a total they would be confident of defending, but there could well be time enough for Warne and McGrath to bowl England out cheaply and Australia to chase down the runs.
Now it was all about the weather. No sooner had England come out to bat than the light began to worsen. The umpires made it clear to Ponting that Warne must bowl rather than Lee, and what a bonus for Australia when the master had Strauss held at short leg for a duck. In the stands the England fans were holding up umbrellas and chanting “it's so dark it's unvelievable!” Their Australian counterparts were stripping off their shirts as if to sunbathe.
The offer of light came soon enough, and the roar of the crowd as the players walked off was as great as any that greeted Australian wickets that morning. An early tea was taken, after which Ponting and his men showed good humour by emerging into barely improved gloom all wearing sunglasses. But this light relief was almost the last entertainment of the day and soon the darkness descended once more.
So it was down to the last day. A cloudy morning gave way to sunny spells and it was clear that the weather would disturb the series no more, unless it went down to the wire and beyond. And no-one dared predict what might happen. In a series where anything was possible, everything was now expected. A capacity crowd at the beautifully renovated Oval, not an unusual thing in itself, now saw that it was not alone in its view of the game, for all around, on every rooftop, out of every window, people clambered to get a view. People clung to chimney pots, threaded their arms through railings, dangled legs precariously over balconies just for a glimpse of the cricket.
On the pitch Vaughan and Trescothick appeared impervious to the pressure of the situation. Vaughan looked in splendid touch once again, displaying a cover drive the like of which has not been seen in this country since the days of Gower. Positive running between the wickets was another feature of the stand, as it always is between these two. But Glenn McGrath too looked in something like his best form; with the score on 67 he found extra bounce from that length he seems to have copyrighted, the ball took the shoulder of Vaughan's bat and flew to the vacant first slip area, where Gilchrist dived across to take a stunning catch.
Worse was to follow for England. The very next ball had Bell trapped in the crease and edging an easy catch to Warne to complete his pair. McGrath, on a hat-trick now, steamed in and bowled an absolute snorter; short of a length it reared up, Pietersen tried to fend it off, it took a huge deflection and looped gently to slip. The appeal was loud and confident and all England feared the worst. But the eagle eyes of Billy Bowden (not infallible in this match) had spotted that the ball missed the glove by a fraction of an inch and hit Pietersen's shoulder.
The pressure was really on now. In the very next over Warne found Pietersen's edge, but the ball took a slight deflection off Gilchrist's gloves taking it out of Hayden's grasp. A few minutes later Warne produced one of the great balls of his career, pitching in the rough almost three feet wide of Trescothick's off-stump and fizzing back low and fast into his pads. Another huge appeal was denied on the grounds that Trescothick had been hit outside the line. Then when Pietersen had reached a careful 15, a very full ball just outside off stump from Lee (the sort of ball which had caused him problems in the previous two Tests) found the edge and flew head high to Warne at slip. The great bowler, and usually great catcher, inexplicably shelled it. The irony that Pietersen, who had shelled so many himself in this series, should benefit in this way, was lost on no-one.
Pietersen's response was to slap Warne over midwicket for 6 in his next over, not once but twice. But there would be two more blows for Warne before lunch. Another big spinner thundered into Trescothick's pad, this time winning umpire Koertzen's assent, then Flintoff was induced to play a full-length ball straight back to the bowler. 126 for 5. So it was, one run later, that England went into lunch. So it was that not many lunches were eaten in England that day.
But England's best option, now as throughout the series, was to attack. Just before lunch Brett Lee had bowled one of the fastest spells seen in this country since the heyday of Malcolm Marshall. Three successive balls had Pietersen in all sorts of trouble. The first was up into his armpit and came off glove and rib to where a leg gully should have been. The second, almost indentical, hit him in the chest again. The third, a little further to off, reared up and took the glove, looping up over slip and forcing Pietersen to fall backwards and almost into his stumps. Lee continued this assault for three overs after the break, but this time Pietersen was up for the challenge, taking 37 runs off him. One six in particular looked as if it might clear the famous gasholder. At the other end Collingwood blocked calmly away, earning an ovation each time he got bat to Warne. By the end of Lee's spell England had raced to 171 for 5, and Australia were starting to figure runs into the equation as well as overs. All across the land calculators were out as people worked out likely combinations of runs and overs for an Aussie run chase.
McGrath came back to join Warne and the runs dried up somewhat. There was a nervous moment for Pietersen when he swept Warne onto his boot and up to Hayden at slip, but another good decision revealed that the ball had grazed the ground as well as the boot. And then, just when England were contemplating safety, a blow for Australia. Collingwood's 69 minutes of unruffled, immaculate defence came to an end with a bat-pad catch off Warne. Twenty minutes later Tait slung a thunderbolt through Geraint Jones's defence and sent his off-stump cartwheeling.
But if ever there was a man to join Pietersen in this crisis it was Ashley Giles. Feeding off the confidence gained in his match-winning 7 at Trent Bridge and his 32 in the first innings here, he never looked in the slightest trouble. With tea approaching Warne began to hurry through his overs as he sensed time running out. An early moment of celebration was reached when Pietersen thumped Tait through cover on the up to reach an astonishingly well-time maiden Test century, and by the time tea was taken the party was already beginning in the stands.
Two brutal flat sixes from Pietersen seemed to signify the end for Australia; one pulled off Lee, another straight hit off Warne. That took England 256 ahead with less than 40 overs left. The body language of Ponting's men began to suffer as they saw their dreams evaporating. Even Warne seemed to accept this with good grace, but tearing in from the other end Brett Lee was quite a different matter. Lee continued to rage against the dying of the light, a look of pure anger and frustration on his face as he gave everything, everything he possibly could to avert this intolerable fate. This admirable cricketer rose higher still in my estimation at this moment.
Slowly, slowly the England players emerged onto the balcony, out of their self-imposed superstitious purdah as the realisation that they had done it grew. The rooftops of London seemed to house still more eager onlookers, while those in the ground had long since given themselves over to drinking, singing and dancing the conga. Ashley Giles even saw fit to celebrate by driving McGrath through cover off the back foot. But even once hope had gone, sheer professionalism kept the Australians on their game. McGrath ended Pietersen's fine 158 with one that pitched middle and hit the top of off, then some time later Warne bowled Giles round his legs for 59 and cleaned up Harmison for a duck to finally dismiss England for 335 and claim his 12th wicket of the match.
Then came one of the nicest moments of the summer, as the crowd forgot for a moment its partisan feelings and applauded two of the game's greatest stars and servants, Warne and McGrath, as they walked off the field, arms around each other's shoulders, for the last time in a Test match in England.
Perhaps it should have ended there, on that rather bittersweet note, for it was little short of an absurdity that the players emerged again to go through the motions of Australia's second innings. By now the light was closing in with a mutually agreeable solution, and after four fast and nasty balls from Harmison, the umpires made the offer. And so ended the 2005 Ashes series, not quite with a bang, certainly not with a whimper, but with a continuous roar from a very happy crowd while some players were off the pitch wondering whether it was all over. And then it was.
England 373 (Strauss 129, Flintoff 72, Warne 6-122) & 335 (Pietersen 158, Giles 59, Vaughan 45, Warne 6-124)
Australia 367 (Hayden 138, Langer 105, Flintoff 5-78, Hoggard 4-97) & 4-0
England won the series 2-1 and regained the Ashes.
Man of the Match
Men of the Series
Shane Warne (Australia) & Andrew Flintoff (England)