From The Ashes

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Haven’t We Been Here Before?

The dust has settled, the palpitations have died down and another Ashes series is consigned to both the collective memory and the pages of Wisden. Perhaps lacking the national fervour that surrounded the 2005 series, and studiously avoiding all mention of the calamitous 2006/7 tour Down Under, we will not quickly forget the cricketing summer of 2009. Criminally, there was limited terrestrial coverage of the series with it being reduced to the ignominy of a 45-minute early evening helping served up manfully by Mark Nicholas on Channel Five but for those of us fortunate enough to be able to cough up for Sky Sports, there was some glorious High-Def and in-depth coverage to be enjoyed. Of course, test cricket can sometime be best enjoyed without pictures at all by tuning in to the wonderful Test Match Special on Radio 4 long wave as well as on the iPlayer and various digital services.

The first test, a first in so many ways, was held at the surprising location of Cardiff (which, if I recall correctly, became the 100th test venue) but was more a case of the ECB kow-tow’ing to the money rather than the greater good. Arguments about the selection of the venue didn’t last long as the match was genuinely memorable.  Things didn’t start too well from England’s perspective. After winning the first of four tosses, Strauss elected to bat and we clawed our way to respectability (435 all out) before the Aussies came in and well and truly embarrassed us by easing to a mammoth 674-6 declared with the help of no less than four centurions. After collapsing further to 70-5 everyone wrote off England’s chances in the first test as a lost cause while many wrote off the series and prayed that another 5-0 drubbing wasn’t on the cards. Everyone except for Colly, Jimmy and Monty that is. Paul Collingwood reminded us why he is most often referred to as “beligerant” and then the final pair of rabbits faced a collective 88 deliveries without losing either of their wickets in a nail-biting final session that brought memories of the tight finishes of 2005 flooding back as England grabbed an impossible draw from the certainty of defeat.

After a quick three-day break, the team’s arrived at Lords, the self-styled spiritual home of cricket, for the second test. The all important word here was “momentum”. With the last gasp shift in fortunes from Cardiff fresh in the memory, Strauss and Cook gave England the most solid of starts with an opening stand of near 200 but then the all too familiar middle-order problems meant a regular trickle of wickets and another par/below-par score. However, for the first time we then got a glimpse of Australia’s batting frailties, Anderson reduced them to 10-2 after a good opening spell and the quicks eventually wrapped up the innings with a possibility of enforcing the follow on. They didn’t opt to put the tourists in again and instead put the game out of their reach with another innings of good starts, although again, no-one moved on to get a big score. It didn’t matter in the end because the stage was set for Sir Freddie of Flintoff. At 313-5 Australia were suddenly only 200 or so runs from world record breaking run chase to win but the injury-defying 5-92 from Fred with some assistance from Graeme Swann’s off-spin meant curtains for Ponting’s men and England recorded only their second win against Australia at Lords since the nineteenth century.

A longer break between tests gave Andrew Flintoff time to recover but it was Kevin Pietersen who revealed that injury had put paid to the rest of his Ashes series and his withdrawal meant the weakening of an already weak middle order for England. At Edgbaston the all important word was “rain”. With only one session possible on Day One, Australia went in overnight at a commanding position 126-1. As Day Two dawned, Strauss surprised many by throwing the ball to Onions to kick off proceedings.  Two balls later and it was 126-3 and Australia wobbled again. A brilliant spell of swing bowling in the afternoon by Anderson saw him pick up five-for and skittle Oz for 263. The hosts scrambled their way to a first innings lead of 113 but the weather put paid to any hope of a result and Australia batted out the final day.

England went to Headingly with spirits high. Remaining one up in the series and at a ground where we had a good record Strauss won the toss again. Electing to bat (despite a few knowledgeable locals suggesting a bowl might be in order), no-one predicted what would happen next as the roller-coaster series took another turn. Inspired by the recalled Stuart Clark, Australia dismantled England for a measly 102 shortly after lunch, then went on to amass a huge lead with quality batting from Ponting, Michael Clarke and North and, just to rub it in, reduced England to 120-7 in their second effort with the bat. Some tail end resistance from Swann and Broad couldn’t gloss over the embarrassment of an “innings and 80 run” defeat. The media had a field day. Demanding recalls for Robert Key, Marcus Trescothic and even Mark Ramprakash… the knives were out and the series was written off once more as Australia only needed a draw at the placid Oval pitch to retain the urn.

And so to the Brit Oval, where England’s only change in personnel was to bring in Jonathan Trott for the underachieving Bopara and ignore the rather fanciful ideas for other inclusions. Winning the fourth and the most vital of tosses, England batted once more and coughed and spluttered their way to 307-8 overnight. Before the match, that would have been seen as disastrous but the pitch threw up a few surprises and seemed to be disintegrating with every delivery. Eventually getting to 332 all out, it was then Australia’s turn to see what they could make of it. The answer was 73-0 and looking pretty good thank you very much. But then. Ahhh, but then. The final swing of the pendulum. The single, stand-alone, finest period in the 2009 Ashes.

With the series, with their positions in the team and, may be with their international test careers on the line, up stepped Stuart Broad. The fans who believe in fairy tales may have wanted Freddie to do it one more time but it was his natural successor that stole the show. Broad’s demolition of the top order, ably assisted by Swann ripping the ball off the worsening pitch, saw 10 wickets fall for just 87 more runs and each victim was another nail in Australia’s coffin. England fans’ hope turned to belief and then turned to expectation with each dismissal. Debutant Trott shored up the England 2nd innings after a shaky start and became the host’s second centurion of the series and England declared. 545 to save the Ashes for the Aussies was never going to be possible, although at 217-2 it was starting to look a tad unsteady. One last hurrah then for Freddie. Not with the bat nor with his fearsome pace bowling, but with a throw from mid-off that flew like a tracer bullet to knock down the stumps before Ponting made his ground and we all knew it was over. Another run out and a stumping made it look unconventional but the referrals added to the drama. Harmison gave us one last glimpse of his oft unrealised ability taking three wickets in the evening leaving it to Swann to pick up #10 and seal the win. Marvellous.

The celebrations, thankfully somewhat muted compared to 2005, are over. We now look forward to some T20 and ODI action but a little renaissance for the five day game is a blessing to be treasured. All eyes turn towards what will be a tougher examination against South Africa in the winter but for now, lets just enjoy the moment. Unless you’re an Aussie, in which case you can start plotting for your revenge in 2010/11.

Please feel free to post your comments, memories, highlights, recollections and thoughts?!

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