The Australians are here, the first Ashes Test starts a fortnight on Wednesday in Cardiff, and the memories of the greatest series ever played are jostling for position.
To mark the occasion, on behalf of those who believe cricket not only should be better than a playground punch-up, but has a duty to be so, we appeal to both teams to refer one image in particular from that 2005 masterpiece and use it as their guide and inspiration for the summer ahead.
At the moment Steve Harmison stood at the top of his mark and prepared to bowl to Michael Kasprowicz on the fourth day of the second Test at Edgbaston, the stakes could hardly have been higher. Amid mounting levels of hope-against-hope excitement for visiting supporters and excruciating, stomach-churning tension for England’s Barmy Army, the Aussie No.11 had put on 49 for the last wicket with Brett Lee to drag his apparently beaten side, inch by inch, to within three runs of their fourth innings victory target of 282.
Across the nation that Sunday morning a decade ago, cricket lovers and even those previously unaware they cared that much about it, found themselves physically gripped. Those still able to watch, those still able to breathe, knew one good hit and the match would have belonged to Ricky Ponting’s men. Many felt that, from a 2-0 lead after the first two Tests, Glenn McGrath’s 5-0 prediction might well have come true, and one of them was Harmison himself.
“I’d gone,” admitted the Durham paceman later. “We had already won the game in our minds. We’d put so much into it. I was thinking if they won the game, from here it might be five-nil.” And when the drama was done there amid the madness of England’s celebrations, was the sight of Andrew Flintoff consoling Lee, slumped on his haunches after Harmison’s leg-side lifter had flicked Kasper’s glove on the way to wicket-keeper Geraint Jones, an iconic Ashes image.
Perhaps in order to avoid being thought of as Northern Softie, Freddie himself has often joked publicly that, rather than offering words of comfort to his fellow gladiator, what he actually told Lee was: “It’s 1-1, you Aussie b******d.” Or words to that effect.
For accuracy’s sake, and a lot more besides, however, I offer the less colourful, but truer version. “I just told Brett he had played unbelievably well,” Flintoff revealed, “and that he should be proud of how he batted. The last three Aussie batsmen stood up to everything we could fire at them. Fantastic.”
That series had its moments, of course, notably in the opening Test at Lord’s when, after Harmison had drawn blood from Ponting’s cheek, not one of the England fielders approached the batsmen to check on his wellbeing and Ponting’s reaction to being run out from cover point at Trent Bridge by a substitute fieldsman named Gary Pratt, who just happened to have the quickest arm in English cricket, was littered with what used to be known as industrial language and accusations of sharp practice.
But no-one shoved anyone in the pavilion, or squared up to them, as India claimed James Anderson did to Ravindra Jadeja last summer and no-one suggested to anyone they should “get ready for a broken f***ing arm” as Australia’s captain Michael Clarke undoubtedly did to Anderson in the first Test at the Gabba on the 2013-14 tour.
No-one made the kind of hand-to-mouth gesture which, when shown repeatedly on Aussie TV during and after the second Test of that series in Adelaide, persuaded many viewers that Mitchell Johnson was suggesting something to Stuart Broad other than the best way to look after a Mexican bandit moustache was regular stroking.
The Flintoff-Lee handshake was by no means an isolated incident. While Kevin Pietersen’s love-in with Shane Warne at the Oval may have been taking things a tad far, the camaraderie between the two sets of players was a genuine mark of mutual respect. And the end result was that this was, by common consent, one of the greatest Test series ever played.
Doubtless there are those who could provide the full list, in chronological order, of the reasons why things reached such an ugly pass the last time the sides met Down Under, going back to Bodyline and beyond. Not only is there nothing to be gained by trying to apportion blame, however, such activity also misses the bigger point by a million miles.
At a time when Test and international cricket is struggling to retain its core audience, let alone attract a new one, when the inner workings of the International Cricket Conference are under close scrutiny and when breakaway deals are being discussed which might fatally weaken the integrity of the world game, the example set by New Zealand and England in the home summer so far has shown just why, after all, when it is conducted in the right spirit, no quarter asked, none given, no punches pulled but none thrown either, it deserves to be loved, cherished and passed on to the next generation intact for them to love, cherish and pass on to the next.
And that is the challenge we lay in front of Australia and England as Clarke’s men make themselves at home for their first match against Kent in Canterbury this week.
No-one should be under any illusions. Anderson himself reacted to the aggro in Brisbane by saying that as he and his side were happy to dish it out they were also happy to get it back and the most recent evidence suggests the Aussies regard the Kiwi approach under Brendon McCullum as bordering on the effete.
Justifying his side’s full-on sledging of them in the World Cup final, with Martin Guptill, Grant Elliott and Dan Vettori each copping hefty send-offs, and Brad Haddin himself involved in confrontations with Guptill and Elliott, he explained he felt New Zealand deserved it for being “ too nice”. “I said in the team meeting: ‘I can’t stand for this anymore. We’re going at them as hard as we can’. “I said, ‘I’m not playing cricket like this. If we get another crack at these guys in the final I’m letting everything (out)’.”
The bottom line, of course, is that Australia won not because they were nastier than their opponents, but because they were better. Ten years on from the greatest Ashes ever, is it too much to hope that the same applies and that, whoever wins this summer, they do it with a smile and not a snarl?
This piece originally appeared in The Cricket Paper on Friday June 19, 2015.