“In the grip of a highly contagious virus. It’s arrived from abroad, and millions get the bug”
This was commentator Mark Nicholas’s opening lines from the documentary of what is widely regarded as one of the greatest Test cricket series of all-time and not just in Ashes history, which dates back nearly 150 years. Incidentally, it also bears a disconcerting similarity to how things are unfolding around the world in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Yes, the series was evenly contested and captured the imagination of cricket fans world over. It would not be uncommon, at least in England, to find a budding cricketer having taken to the sport after witnessing the euphoria surrounding Michael Vaughan’s side bringing the urn home after 18 years. Public gathered at the Trafalgar Square in London as the English team had an open bus parade that led to 10, Downing Street. The young and old were on the streets, soaking in the carnival atmosphere that was probably seen in the country for the first time since the English football team winning the World Cup in 1966.
This documentary encapsulates the drama, the highs and lows, the animosity between the two teams, and of course, England’s redemption as a cricketing power.
England had sunk to new lows in the 1990s. Conversely, Australia were building towards their best-ever phase during the same time. On English shores, Steve Waugh’s side even lifted the World Cup in 1999, a feat matched by the Australian rugby team that very year. Australia were everywhere and there were crushing teams with an effortlessness that was reminiscent of the great West Indian teams from the twentieth century. Yes, a resolute India stunned them at home in 2001 (in another pulsating Test series) but normal service resumed soon. Australia completed back-to-back World Cup wins in 2003, just months after winning the Ashes for the eighth consecutive time.
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There were murmurs at the start of the 21st century about the need for cricket’s oldest rivalry to be put on the backburner. The mighty Australians were streets ahead of their rivals. After Mike Gatting, Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain suffered heavy defeats, Vaughan was handed over the reins.
The Yorkshireman had a dream series in 2003, despite England being handed a 1-4 drubbing. Vaughan tallied 633 runs against an attack that had Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne in vintage form.
The start of the documentary talks about Vaughan’s approach as a skipper. In the year leading up to this series, England had registered some impressive series wins and were beaten finalists in the 2004 Champions Trophy. In Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones and golden boy Andrew Flintoff, England had a pace attack that could do damage.
England purred in the series opener at Lord’s, with Harmison and Jones hitting the Australian batsmen on the grille. The battle lines were drawn and the contest was riveting. The result was another matter, though. Riding on McGrath’s nine-wicket match haul, Australia romped to a 1-0 series lead. Debutant Kevin Pietersen, drafted in as a last-minute replacement, was the only saving grace with the bat.
England were a tad fortuitous going into the second Test as McGrath suffered a ligament tear after tripping on a stray ball during practice. Flintoff came into his own with the bat and ball in this Test. Australia needed 107 with two wickets in hand on the fourth day but Warne, Michael Kasprowicz and Brett Lee threatened to pull off a heist. With the Aussies needing three to win, it was a wayward delivery down the leg side from Harmison that did the trick. Wicketkeeper Geraint Jones took an athletic catch and series was drawn 1-1. For England, this was a turning point.
This time, though, luck was on Australia’s side as they somehow got a draw in the third Test in Manchester with England on the brink of another win. But inclement weather played spoilsport on day five. Ponting was awarded the Player of the Match for a defiant 156 in the second innings, thwarting England’s chances almost singlehandely. England led the series with one match to go following a three-wicket win. The seaming conditions in Nottingham aided the English pacers. Jones in particular, was devastating. Yet again, though, McGrath’s absence affected the visitors badly.
Pietersen truly stamped his class in the final Test at The Oval. His duel with the tearaway pace of Lee was a treat to watch. The South African-born batsman was adept at spin too and showed Warne, his Hampshire teammate at the time, no mercy.
The spin ace, however, had dream series and finished with a 12-wicket match haul here. But Pietersen, future captains Andrew Strauss and Flintoff as well as rain had put the match beyond Australia’s reach. The England fans packed in the stands roared in delight.
Vaughan’s fighting-fire-with-fire approach had paid rich dividends. England had beaten Australia playing brand of cricket that was very... Australian. The hosts did not hold back while dishing out verbal volleys and made some bold moves on the field, including their use of substitutes which irked Ponting.
The documentary features a wide range of English personalities as well as the players. The win, after all, was a seminal moment in the country’s history. What was sweeter was that it came against Ponting’s all-conquering side. For a cricket fan, this is a must watch:
Watch the full Ashes 2005 documentary here: