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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 18:53 GMT 19:53 UK
English cricket's finest summer
By Martin Gough

It is easy to say it with hindsight, but even as the 2005 Ashes were being contested, everyone involved was aware they were part of one of the greatest series ever.

Flintoff (with daughter), Pietersen and Vaughan celebrate in Trafalgar Square
Perhaps it had to do with the history of the rivalry between England and Australia, dating back purely in cricketing terms to 1887.

Maybe it was because England had not beaten their great rivals in a Test series since 1987, the weight of expectation growing as time wore on.

Certainly it had a lot to do with the fact that the two best teams in the world - in English conditions at least - were going head-to-head.

Even without that off-field baggage, a series that had more twists and turns than the route from the Lord's dressing-room to the hallowed turf would have carried the attention of a nation.

Appropriately the Test series began at Lord's, where England's bowlers shocked Australia with their pace and hostility.

The home of cricket turned into a coliseum as Steve Harmison hit three batsmen on the head in the first morning on his way to a five-wicket haul.

McGrath took his 500th Test wicket in a classic display
Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting refused stitches after his cheek was split open, and wore the resulting scare like a badge of honour throughout the series.

Veteran McGrath hit back in the best way possible, though, with a wonderful display of accurate seam bowling, taking his 500th career wicket in the process.

Along with Shane Warne, he ran through the English order on the fourth morning and it looked like business as usual for the Australian juggernaut.

However, England players accused of being a "bunch of drips" by just one of the newspaper headlines that week, proved to be anything but.

The second Test at Edgbaston was described as one of the best ever, and the comparisons with the infamous "Botham's Ashes" of 1981 started here.

McGrath was ruled out after a freak training accident when he trod on a ball, and Ponting's decision to put England in to bat first was exposed mercilessly.

Flintoff played a massive part at Edgbaston
The home side could still have capitulated, though, were it not for Andrew Flintoff's heroic second innings batting as he hit four sixes in adding 81 for the last three wickets.

Australia were set a ground record 282 to win, but had no intention of capitulating and it took a tireless display from Flintoff and Harmison to squeak a two-run victory.

Flintoff's conversation with Brett Lee after the tailender's defiant and almost successful unbeaten 43 came to define the mutual respect that pervaded the series.

On to Old Trafford, where 19,000 people were turned away on the final day, denied the chance to see England come a single wicket short of victory.

Again Australia's lower order bailed them out, with Warne and Lee fighting a valiant rearguard action.

I can't remember celebrating a draw before in my career
Amazingly there had not been a single century until the third Test of the series, but here there were two of the highest class, from rival captains Ponting and Michael Vaughan.

Amid the excitement, it was almost possible to miss Warne becoming the first bowler ever to pass the mark of 600 Test wickets.

Now cracks were beginning to show in the once-impregnable Australian armoury.

The plans laid by Vaughan and coach Duncan Fletcher to combat their rivals' attacking batsmen were paying bigger dividends than they could ever have expected.

Even so, England came within three wickets of losing the entire series on a surreal Sunday afternoon at Trent Bridge as Warne worked his magic.

After a match in which the momentum had swung this way and that with exhausting regularity, England set about chasing a nominal 129 for victory.

Enter Warne, looking like he could win the series single-handed, dismissing Marcus Trescothick first ball and Vaughan with his seventh.

When Geraint Jones was the seventh wicket down with 13 runs still needed, the tension was at its height.

But Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard, two uniquely English characters, got across the winning line and guaranteed folk hero status.

The country was at fever pitch, and England were certainly in the ascendancy going into the final match at The Oval.

Even though two days were ruined by rain and bad light, the series remained in the balance as England sought a draw and Australia pushed for a win to tie the series and retain the Ashes urn.

Kevin Pietersen had demonstrated his attacking intent on his Test debut eight weeks previously but his most high profile contribution to the series since then had been six dropped catches.

Now was his turn to shine as he survived a crucial drop by Warne on 15 and took the attack to Australia, belting seven sixes.

Australian legend Richie Benaud's attempt to sign off from the commentary booth for the last time in England in low-key fashion was ruined as Pietersen was out off his final syllable.

By then, though, the urn was safely in England's hands, the only anti-climactic part of the series being the moment when bad light ended the game early.

Flintoff, who emerged bleary-eyed from the team hotel for an open top bus parade to Trafalgar Square, will be remembered as England's larger-than-life hero.

But every one of the 12 players who celebrated in front of 25,000 on the streets of London played a part in a series which live on in the memory forever.

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