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August 2005: Freddie & Shane
05 Sep 2005
By: Neil Pickup


We're four fifths through the greatest series of my lifetime, if not of all time. Since July drew to a close amidst English collapse, Glenn McGrath five-fors and Lord's rainclouds, 2005's incarnation of cricket's oldest battle has swung dramatically on its precipice, demanding the attention of nations, throwing football from the sporting headlines and turning cricketing cynics into converts of the game.

In other news, Shane Bond returned from his injury-ravaged exile with great style at the cost of multiple Zimbabwean and Indian batsmen, Sri Lanka set the tone for their ODI whitewash of the once-more-hapless Bangladeshis and Africa and Asia contested what proved to be quite possibly the most meaningless series of matches in the history of cricket in front of a crowd more suited to Scottish football. Little of this held the slightest sway amongst the English cities and shires, captivated by the events of Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham, each of them delivering their own miniature epic and cuticle-devastating climax.

Firmly afflicted by cricketing fever, English county cricket saw capacity crowds and record attendances abound, replica cricket shirts outsold their footballing counterparts by three to one, parks and gardens countrywide were overtaken by the sound of leather upon willow - or rubber upon plastic - as legions of children imitated the unscripted drama spilling out across television screens nationwide. Not even the tabloids, so often obsessed by celebrity misdemeanour, escaped the sporting affliction. Siena Miller and Jude Law took a back seat to Matthew Hoggard and Ashley Giles. Cricketing diehards pinched themselves, sat back and smiled. Yes, it was real.

Edgbaston began drowning under a sea of English insecurity, media speculation on the composition of the XI following the Lord's failures and total Australian confidence. Yet as Glenn McGrath's ankle gave way during the morning warm up, the brashness evaporated as Ricky Ponting inexplicably chose to field on what seemed, to all intents and purpose, a belter. It certainly played like one. As Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss slammed Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie to all parts of the West Midlands before making way for Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, the pattern for the month was set. Yet as the second day drew to a close, Shane Warne, around the wicket to Strauss as England began their second innings, unveiled the latest in his line of missiles of bemusement. The ball turned from the very edge of the cut square, past the left hander's pads and into his stumps.

McGrath may have been missing and Australia may have been staring at a 100-run first innings deficit, but there is something in the leg-spinner's make up that is utterly unconcerned with pressure and intensity. Where others fade and fail, Warne seemingly excels - and as England's second innings threatened to fall in an undignified, and more importantly match-turning heap, another chapter in the story of Warne's triumphs over towering adversity seemed to be emerging. However, the game wasn't over yet - the real excitement was only just beginning. Where Warne has served as Australia's talisman for the best part of a decade, England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff's International career has taken half of one to burgeon into its present crowd-thrilling effervescence.

Debuting seven summers ago at Trent Bridge during a summer characterised by Mike Atherton and Allan Donald's legendary confrontations - and an Old Trafford Gary Kirsten go-slow that could have put less besotted 12-year-olds convincingly off the game, Flintoff is unrecognisable from 1998. As it was, I survived the game by watching the trams go past, reading a significant proportion of CS Lewis' Narnia septology and placing bets on the outcome of the new-fangled Yellow Pages speed gun. Mercifully for everyone, Test cricket too is now unrecognisable from 1998. Batting for a day without making 100 seems unthinkable - and the way Freddie plays, 100 in a session isn't beyond question

Flintoff shared a brutally vindictive half century partnership for the final wicket with Simon Jones to dredge England's lead beyond 280. The second highest score in England's innings was Marcus Trescothick's 21, but the Lancastrian all rounder struck 73 before becoming one of Warne's ten victims in the match. Flintoff then took three wickets on the third evening as he delivered an awe-inspiring over to trap both Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting, combining with the rest of the English pace attack to reduce their opponents' batting order to tatters. When Steve Harmison bowled Michael Clarke with an outrageous slower ball in the final over of the day, the tourists' game was up.

At least, that was what was meant to happen. Allied with Brett Lee, Warne demonstrated that his talents were not limited to one aspect of the game, striking impish blows and opportunisitic boundaries to reduce the Australian target from three figures to two before falling foul of Flintoff - incredibly standing on his stumps as he aimed to flick a reverse-swinging yorker to the leg side. Flintoff's only further involvement in England's eventual two-run triumph was to crack Lee on the forearm and temporarily halt proceedings before Harmison, Kasprowicz, Jones and Bowden combined to deliver the final act of the Test.

So, on to Old Trafford. The return of Glenn McGrath promised much, but failed to deliver as a wicketless first innings effort was overshadowed once again by Warne leading the attack on his way to another five-wicket haul. Even so, Australia's batsmen failed to respond to the leg-spinner's one man battle cries - once again leaving their tail-enders with the task of rectifying a top order capitulation, Flintoff producing one of the most memorable deliveries of the series as Simon Katich left a reversing inswinger only to see his off-stump cartwheeling.

As Englishmen checked the history books for the last evidence of Australian following on (Karachi, seventeen years ago this autumn), one Australian set about preventing that statistic from being altered. With the unwitting aid of unfortunate England keeper Geraint Jones, Warne neared his maiden Test century and seemed certain to erase the memory of his previous highest score - 99 against New Zealand, holing out on the boundary - but repeated the recipe of disaster as he perfectly picked out Ashley Giles on the legside boundary when 90.

Warne went wicketless and Flintoff failed as England chased a third-innings declaration - but neither were kept out of the game for long as the final day progressed around Ricky Ponting's magnificent century before Warne's time-consuming liaison with his captain played no small part in allowing his country to see the match through to its close of play and escape Lancashire with the series tied at one apiece, despite having just one wicket intact as stumps were drawn.

Two incredible Tests, two incredible finishes, two incredible players. As the series - and the burgeoning Ashes fever - moved to Nottingham's Trent Bridge ground for part four. Shaun Tait's double strike kept Australia in touch before Flintoff was joined by Geraint Jones with the score at 241-5 and the game in the balance. When Flintoff was finally dismissed, 177 runs later, there only seemed likely to be one winner. His eighth - and best - Test century, aptly recorded with a single off Warne inspired England, despite the tail once more being checked by Warne, to their largest first-innings score of the series.

This time, even Warne's batting efforts proved insufficient to prevent the Karachi statistic from being consigned to the realms of history at the second time of asking, Simon Jones starring with the ball as Warne fell first ball as the margin of England's lead lay somewhere between 'unmanageable' and 'insurmountable'. Second time around, things were a little different as Katich and Michael Clarke provided a flashback to Test cricket's bygones, accumulating at barely two per over before Warne bludgeoned 45 at faster than a run a ball to set the hosts a seemingly simple 129 for victory. When Trescothick and Strauss eased away, it seemed exactly that - but England fans knew better than to expect a nine-wicket stroll. And they knew right.

The words 'follow-on', 'England' and 'Australia' conjured only one vision before the fourth Test, that of Ian Botham's carefree strokeplay and Bob Willis' disarmingly single-minded eight-wicket haul to effect the most remarkable of transformations at Headingley in 1981, when the tourists chased an unerringly similar 130. It took Warne just one ball to paint the first brushstrokes of his new vision as Trescothick fell, caught at silly mid-off by Ponting. When the leggie swiftly snaffled the scalps of Michael Vaughan and Strauss - and Ian Bell fell to an indiscriminate hook shot - hearts across the nation journeyed upwards, whilst intestinal contents passed in the opposite direction. It was once more Flintoff who steadied the collective nerves, sharing a stand with Kevin Pietersen that reduced the target to one manageable enough for Giles and Hoggard to drag England over the line following a leg-side flick off Warne. 2-1.

Two names standing out above all others as the world's attention turns to The Oval on September 8. One player of the month award. Yet how to split them? Without Flintoff, England would lose their heartbeat, their inspiration and a player worthy of selection thanks to his skills with both bat and ball - but without Warne, Australia would lose their talisman, the centrepiece of their bowling attack and a pugnacious lower-order streetfighter. Flintoff may have guided England to a series lead, but without Warne the series would neither been remotely as competitive nor as memorable. Every great protagonist needs an adversary - Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne - join the club

The summer's series has one Test remaining, arguably the most-anticipated match in the history of the cricket, and the combined efforts of these two men - above, beyond but not forgetting 22 others - has been the root around which the Ashes 2005 has grown and bloomed. Part of me dreams of a spectacular finale... and another of spectacular thunderstorms. Either way, nobody will forget this cricketing summer in a hurry.

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