The perfect match is not the crushing win, an exhibition in complete domination, nor even is it the one where you scrape home by the skin of your teeth. The perfect match is the one you almost win. The one you reminisce about years later as the one you nearly pulled off. There is no basking in the glory of victory, instead a pride, a belief instilled by heroic failure. Perhaps it’s the sole custody of lower league football fans and followers of English cricket, where domination and tight triumphs are in short supply amidst a staple diet of failure and embarrassing collapses. The ‘almost’ games encourage you to believe that this side might be different and sometimes, only sometimes, they really are a sign of something new.
What made 2005 so brilliant was the sheer range of emotions it thrust upon us throughout; from the agonising, familiar, crushed expectations of Lord’s to the much less familiar sense of complete delirium at the Oval. For the most part, though, the Tests themselves followed patterns we had experienced before. At Edgbaston and Trent Bridge England spent half the match getting into a position of supreme strength and then the other half desperately trying to mess it up, while at the Oval the attempt to mess it up began almost from the off. Old Trafford was different because it was new; England played all the cricket in Manchester and were in control for the entire five days. England never did that to Australia. Yet despite their domination they couldn’t quite put the old enemy away, just as they had almost failed to do in Birmingham and how they had failed to do many times over the preceding 16 years. As an England fan that summer the feeling that, ultimately, it would all be in vain was never far from your mind.
After Edgbaston, Ashes Fever was gripping the nation. A rare strain of Ashes Fever, too, as it seemed to inspire positivity and excitement in those afflicted, rather than the usual panic, fear and despair. Australia had a very bad game in the second Test and were clearly rattled, as they rushed back a patently not fit Glenn McGrath in place of Michael Kasprowicz. England, meanwhile, again felt no need to change anything and kept the same XI for the third Test running. How times change.
In the barren spell between Ashes victories, England sometimes found themselves in a similar position to this before normal service was resumed, their pathalogical desire to drop everything kicked in and Australia won. This time something happened; Adam Gilchrist started shelling catches like particularly troublesome peas before Michael Vaughan, one of the beneficiaries of Gilchrist’s butterfingeredness, celebrated his let-off by losing his off stump to a McGrath no-ball straight away. These sort of things never usually went in England’s favour. Luck, cricket’s fickle mistress, was turning.
Vaughan went on to make a beautiful hundred, the first of the series, whilst almost everyone else contributed as well. Even rubbish, pre-2009 Ian Bell made a half-century. Something really was happening, and this strange phenomenon wasn’t finished yet. England’s bowlers took up the baton and plunged it into the heart of Australia’s batting; Bell took a stunning catch at short-leg to get rid of Justin Langer, Ashley Giles castled Damien Martyn with a magic ball and Simon Katich shouldered arms to a delivery very much not there for arm-shouldering. As the follow-on loomed large, both sides seemed to suddenly realise who, and where, they were and Shane Warne, either side of an ultimately significant rain delay, combined with the bugger who cut a hole through the middle of Geraint Jones’ hands to claw Australia back into the match.
Normally, this would be the point at which it all went horribly wrong for England. Instead, despite Warne’s best efforts, they still managed to finish up with a first innings lead of over 100 and came out all guns blazing second time around. Andrew Strauss was walloped on the head by Brett Lee but fought on bravely, like the true English lionheart he is, to make a blistering century as England made 280 in double quick time despite the fact both Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff were completely useless. Bell made his second 50 of the match and Papua New Guinea’s finest smashed a quick 27 to speed up the declaration.
It was all set up for the final day: Australia had to bat through to save the game, England needed 10 wickets. While most of the home support would have been watching in assorted pubs, homes and massive fan parks around the country, one or two were taking it all in while on holiday in South Africa, scouting the next generation of English stars. At Edgbaston, the tension had been ferocious for a short period of time, at Old Trafford it lasted all day. Neither side could seize control; Australia lost wickets at regular intervals but Ricky Ponting stood firm throughout and their tail wagged again. In the final session the intensity reached its crescendo. The game looked like it was slipping away from England but at the last possible moment they clung on and kept it within their grasp. Michael Clarke, the crucial wicket in Birmingham the week before, looked again to be the one as, dodgy back and all, he and Ponting began to build a potentially match-saving partnership. And then…
Wallop. Breakthrough. Have that.
The next over Jason Gillespie disappeared as well and suddenly the momentum was with England. All over? Not a chance. Shane Warne held England up for more than 20 overs and hope was evaporating again until, with less than 10 overs to go, he edged Flintoff into what should have been the hands of Andrew Strauss for an easy catch. He missed it. It hit his knee. Then, as if in slow-motion, the ball looped up and from nowhere swooped Jones, like a mighty eagle, to grab it. The place went mental, Tony Greig went mental, everyone believed again.
Still the drama wasn’t done. The family of said England fan watching in deepest Cape Town returned from their trip up Table Mountain to find a nervous wreck of a man, rocking back and forth in the corner, engulfed with terror. Brett Lee was fighting again. With five overs to go, Ponting managed to glove a truly rubbish delivery down the leg side and Edgbaston exploded once more. McGrath and Lee vs Flintoff and Harmison, the only way Australia could be saved was if the latter bowled a whole heap of utter filth. Ah.
In the end, after nearly 100 overs of to-ing and fro-ing, it came down to the final over. Harmison seized the moment, and then promptly hurled it under a tram. His six balls were a horrible mess of full tosses and wide tripe and Australia had done it. Their balcony celebrated a rain-affected draw like they had won the Champions Trophy; imagine having to sink so low as to do that.
England would go to Trent Bridge still level in the series, but Old Trafford represented a serious moral victory in that they had totally dominated the game and had Australia clinging on for a draw. Back in those days things like that never used to happen. Surely the tourists would hit back…