During the 90’s, English cricket truly died. Characterised by batting collapses and embarrassing losses, they slipped to the bottom of the world rankings. Something remarkable needed to happen – and it did!
The end of the 1980’s, through the 1990’s and the start of the 2000’s were dreadful times for English cricket. From being one of the most respected teams in the world, they sunk right to the bottom of the world rankings. Match-winners, respected top order batters and feared bowlers retired, and although the likes of Stewart, Atherton and Gough came in – the lack of depth was clear. Unfortunately for English fans, this coincided with the domination of Australia. Unsurprisingly, this meant that every Ashes series from 1989 to 2002/03 was won by the team from down under, with most being completely dominated by them. Taylor, Border, Hughes, Hayden, Waugh, Ponting, McGrath, Gillespie, Gilchrist, Warne were just some of the talents utilised in this period. One Australian superstar was seemingly always replaced by another; the talent seemed to be almost endless during these years – with few players fielded by Australia considered poor!
Dominance in sport comes and goes, no team or individual can dominate forever. For people of a certain generation, ie mine, it appears that Manchester United will dominate English football infinitely however this can’t and won’t happen. Eras come and go, much like Michael Schumacher’s in F1 and the great West Indies team of the 1970’s. This Australian team can be mentioned in the same breath as Schumacher, West Indies, Sir Alex Ferguson, Federer, Nicklaus – however great these champions were, they all had their time and stopped being so dominant. English fans clung onto the hope that the Aussies would meet the same fate sooner rather than later. In 2005, an Australian side arrived in England, as usual, full of confidence and stars. This was the final hurrah for the likes of Warne, McGrath, Hayden and Langer in England and they wanted to go out with a bang. They were met by Michael Vaughan’s England – a recovering nation from the embarrassment of the past 10 years. The two sides would take part in a most wonderful series which would dictate the course of the next decade, and lead the charge in Britain’s Golden Generation of sport stars.
Very few people don’t know the story of 2005; when cricket overtook football in the hearts and minds of the average sports fan in England. To describe it as David slaying Goliath would both be too dramatic and too demeaning of Vaughan’s England for they were full of match-winners. History has digested it as a surprise result because of how good Australia looked on paper as well as the pessimism that had swept this country before even a ball had been bowled. Instead of being the swansong of the Aussie greats, it ended up being a fillip for English cricket. To carry on the over-dramatic theme, without this series – England cricket could have stuttered and continued to live in mediocrity instead of it being the rallying cry to leave the depths behind and head up, looking at that coveted number one spot which it became. In many ways, 2005 was not simply an Ashes series. It was the future of cricket, played out in 5 wonderful tests. Other nations watched on with a mix of envy and excitement, for India and South Africa were also starting to realise that Australia were not invincible and if England could beat them, then so could they!
It’s fair to say that the glorious summer, and the rest of the decade, could have gone very differently. Lords was dreadful for England as Australia won by 239 runs inside 4 days. Despite two fifties for young star Kevin Pietersen, the rest of the batting had been dreadful and after a promising start with the ball, the bowling wasn’t up to scratch either. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were also both painfully good, with the English batters looking like rabbits in the headlights. The optimists winced, the pessimists grinned as for some reason in this country we love nothing more than being right about how bad a sporting side we have. England looked truly ordinary, Australia looked anything but. Lords was a battering, Edgbaston was the complete opposite. As I’ve already written about in this “Prime Memories” series, the test at Edgbaston was a remarkable display of cricket – it really was the sport at its finest. As a reminder, Ponting won the toss and elected to field on a belter of a pitch. England cashed in, making 400 and then the next day got to work, chipped away at wickets and managed to get a lead of 99. Some massive sixes from Andrew Flintoff later, Australia required 282 runs to win and after Flintoff got two wickets in an over, England started the charge that ended the third day with Australia 8 wickets down and still 107 runs short. The fourth day was a remarkable day of cricket as first Warne and Lee, and then Lee and Kasprowicz took Australia to within 3 runs of victory when Harmison got Kasprowicz to glove behind to Geraint Jones. On the face of it, this was an amazing match with a thrilling conclusion and, from the English perspective, the right result however it was much more important than that. Pause it for a minute as Kasprowicz gloves it. If that goes over the keeper for four, or if Bowden doesn’t give it out then Australia would have gone on to win and be 2-0 up in the series. We wouldn’t have won the series from there – would we have won in 2009, 2010/11 or 2013? I think not!
Old Trafford was symbolised by the two captains at the time and one future one, who all hit magnificent centuries which were important in their own way. Michael Vaughan’s 166 was the mainstay of the first innings which saw England post a bigger score than 400 for the second match in a row. Australia narrowly avoided the follow on and then their tail wagged so England needed Andrew Strauss’ 106 to set Australia a competitive target. After a day of rain on day 3, the final day was as dramatic as Edgbaston had been. At one point during the day it looked like Australia could win, the next it was certain to be a draw. Then, in one final twist, England had to win. Ponting held them up, making a wonderful 156, but he got out – leaving Lee and McGrath to face 24 deliveries to hold out for a draw. This time, Australia managed to avoid defeat and the series remained at 1-1. A Flintoff century, his first against Australia in tests, propelled England to another score over 400, this time 472 at Trent Bridge. Australia followed on for the first time in 17 years and after their second innings, set England 129 to win. Struggling at 57-4, Pietersen and Flintoff steadied the ship before Giles and Hoggard saw England home by three wickets. England needed to avoid defeat at the Oval to win the Ashes, which they achieved thanks to a wonderful 150 from Kevin Pietersen in England’s second innings. The Ashes, against all odds, had been regained. Flintoff was the undisputed man of the series for England, although Kevin Pietersen had announced himself on the international stage and Simon Jones plus Michael Vaughan had excellent series. For Australia, only Shane Warne could consistently produce the magic of old.
While the 2009 series didn’t have the same drama as 2005 however it was important, given the 06/07 disaster and it was still hardly short of excitement! This excitement started as early as the first test in Cardiff where Australia batted England into submission, with centuries for Katich, Ponting, North and Haddin. England collapsed, except for Paul Collingwood who showed his class by occupying the crease almost throughout the final day. When he fell for 74 from 245 balls, it was left to Panesar and Anderson to bat out an agonising amount of time to rescue a draw. Unbelievably this happened and Strauss’ men headed to Lords without being behind, where they were terrific. First, Strauss and Cook shared a 196 run partnership, where Strauss went on to score 161. Eventually, after some good bowling from Anderson and Onions – Australia were left to chase a world record 522. They finished 115 runs short, thanks to Andrew Flintoff’s brilliance on the fifth morning, running through the final wickets to achieve a five wicket haul. There wasn’t much to talk about in the Edgbaston test, as most of the first day and all of the third were rained off. Despite flashes of brilliance from Anderson, Onions, Flintoff and Clarke, the two sides played out a fairly meaningful draw that benefited England more than Australia.
Headingly was where the series came alive, as a rampant Australia destroyed England within three days. The only positive for England was Broad taking a 6-wicket haul and showing that he can bat. The negatives were overwhelming. If the batting was woeful then the bowling was becoming a liability. In 2005, England bowlers limited the amount of centuries scored by the Aussies to 3. At the end of Headingly, Australian batters had scored 7. Heading into the Oval, England needed to win to regain the Ashes whereas Australia could afford a draw. Jonathan Trott made his debut, replacing Ravi Bopara and looked assured on his way to 41 in the first innings. Having made 332, England bowlers were once again stuttering, until Broad came into the attack. From 72-0, Australia collapsed to 160 all out, of which Broad got 5 of them (including Ponting, Hussey, Clarke and Haddin for single figure scores). As England batted again, Trott made his first century and they declared on 373-9 setting Australia 546 runs to win. With Ponting looking good on 66, Flintoff produced a moment of magic on his final test, throwing down his stumps to leave Ponting short of his ground. Despite resistance from Hussey, the side were bowled out for 348 – which meant that, as the Guardian put it, “England back in paradise”! The Ashes were won, thanks mainly to Strauss and Broad who both produced moments of genius throughout the series. For Australia, Clarke scored the runs but without Hilfenhaus’ bowling; the series would have been a lot easier for England. Hilfenhaus rarely gets credit yet had Strauss and Bopara’s number the whole series.
In past years, English teams had arrived in Australia underprepared and not good enough – to leave with red faces and crushing defeats. This was never more apparent than in 2006/07 when the Ashes holders left with nothing but a 5-0 thrashing to talk about. Strauss and Andy Flower, England head coach, weren’t going to let that happen in 2010/11. Playing proper warm up matches and taking a squad ready for every occasion, they arrived at Brisbane raring to go. A bad first few days, saved by half centuries for Cook and Bell but defined by Peter Siddle’s hat-trick and Hussey’s and Haddin’s partnership looked to have taken the match away from England. What Australia, or indeed the rest of the world, forgot to factor in was a certain Alastair Cook. With the vultures circling about his place in the side, he had scored a career saving 110 against Pakistan earlier on in 2010. He seemingly picked up his bat from then and carried it to Australia, as he made 235* in the second innings at Brisbane. Supported by Strauss and Trott, who both scored centuries as well, England made 517/1 when they declared. Cook both saved the match and showed Australia that the weak link in the batting wasn’t so weak after all! That man was at it again when he scored his second century in a row at Adelaide, where England won by an innings and 71 runs. It started perfectly when Katich and Ponting were out in the first over, and it didn’t get much better for Australia! Cook’s century, Pietersen’s double century, Anderson and Swann’s bowling were the main highlights for a match which served as an example to just how dominant this England side could be. Like all things that are good, this dominance couldn’t last and Mitchell Johnson blew England away at Perth – leading to a 267 run defeat.
Instead of firing Australia to regaining the Ashes, all this did was wake England up. England had started the series with a pace attack of Anderson, Broad and Finn. With Broad injured and Finn expensive, Tremlett and Bresnan came in – which led to another innings victory, this time at Melbourne. On boxing day, England bowled Australia out for 98 (5 for Tremlett) and then the openers both scored half centuries as England finished day 1 at 157-0. The second day belonged to Trott as he got a century before Bresnan got to work on the batters, picking up 4 wickets and confirming one of the biggest defeats Australia had suffered in recent history. The final test was played in Sydney and after England bowlers once again fired, Bell and Prior followed their vice-captain Cook to a century, which was Cook’s third of the series as he passed 700 runs in the series. When Chris Tremlett bowled Michael Beer on the morning of the fifth day, England had won the Ashes 3-1, with the 3 defeats all being by an innings. As Pietersen, Trott, Bell, Strauss, Prior and Cook all hit centuries, English batting was unprecedentedly good during this series, a far cry from the 90’s, however the series could only ever belong to one man. Alastair Cook scored 766 runs at an average of 127.66 and set many records along the way. Cook’s Ashes? You bet ya! Although, Michael Hussey had an exceptional time too!
The 2013 Ashes were a bit of an enjoyable farce. The amount of DRS referrals and controversial decisions made it feel like it dragged on longer than it should but England fans, this one included, will look back on it with pride. We won 3-0, featuring wonderful batting from Ian Bell, who didn’t quite emulate Cook but still managed to score 562 runs including 3 centuries, to truly come of age. Swann, Anderson and Broad bowled well, as did Harris for Australia, but it was a lot closer than many expected. I will write an article when Australia leave, detailing what happened in every match they have played over here since the first test but as a reminder, England won in Trent Bridge after Haddin and Pattinson nearly snatched victory away. What followed at Lords was a complete annihilation before the Aussies restored pride at Old Trafford through their captain Clarke, however rain stopped their inevitable victory.
Without Katich, Ponting and Hussey, Australia’s batting looked very different to how it had but, after starting the series slowly, they were growing in confidence while chasing a record score to win at Chester-Le-Street. However, they were still conducive to batting collapses, as Bresnan started in that match and England went 3-0 up. At the Oval, Australia dominated for 4 of the 5 days until an England fight-back meant that they were going to win the Ashes 4-0. This was stopped by bad light, a decision that has been ridiculed many times since. In truth, Australia would have been hard done by to lose 4-0 but England deserved to win 3-0. There was only one team who were able to deal with pressure situations and they weren’t the ones who left England without the urn, for the third time in a row.
Over time, beating the Aussies has become more and more of a factor in my mind. You start to realise how arrogant some of them can be, which just means beating them becomes more special. More than that though, some of the cricket in these series has been exceptional. Who can forget Flintoff steaming in at Lords, bowling through the pain barrier – knowing it was his last series but wanting something so bad that pain doesn’t matter? Who can forget Strauss, Cook and Trott batting Australia into submission in Australia? The Barmy Army chanting “he bowls to the left, he bowls to the right” as Mitchell Johnson bats at Sydney? How about all the memories that 2005 brought – one of my favourite images being Flintoff celebrating as he dismissed Katich LBW and the stand in the background rising as one? These are memories that I will never forget – and so are a perfect advocate of this blogging series.
Favourite series: I’ve written in this article a lot, possibly too much, about 2005 – this is because I believe the most important however my favourite has to be 2010/11. My favourite cricketer, ever since I first heard about him (before I even saw him play!) in 2005, has been Alastair Cook. During his bad patch, I always defended him – leading to a few arguments with people. No-one has questioned my judgement since he conquered Australia. However, that series was more than just him. Strauss wrote his name amongst the greats, and he belongs there, Tremlett caused more problems than we could have possibly imagined and Ian Bell finally shred the Sherminator tag. It was English dominance at its brilliant best. I’m fully aware that we will never have it as good again, but it was most definitely worth it!
Composite England XI: Picking my composite England XI was fairly easy, a lot easier than I initially thought. Strauss, Cook had to open – Trescothick was a wonderful batter but didn’t score a century across these 4 series and didn’t captain England to victory – both Strauss and Cook did both of those. Vaughan or Trott at 3 was the toughest decision to make however I went for Trott given his continued success. Pietersen, Bell, Flintoff and Prior all had to be included so it made sense to fit them in that batting order. Broad gets the nod ahead of Hoggard because when Broad is on a roll, he’s the best in the world and he has got on such a roll more times than once against Australia. Swann and Anderson are better than Giles and Harmison respectively and with a nod towards Tremlett, Onions and Bresnan I’ve picked Simon Jones as my fourth seamer. His bowling during the 2005 series was truly exceptional.