I was a relative latecomer to Test cricket. The 2005 Ashes kickstarted it all; the summer of Michael Vaughan’s heroes coincided with the birth of my first son, a blur of hot, restless nights spent watching recorded Channel 4 coverage (the last year Test cricket was shown on free-to-air TV) while trying to jiggle a baby back to sleep. I never made it to a game that year but the seed was sown.
For some reason, in those years of small children, a full day out of the house, getting gently drunk with a few friends and a bag of sausage rolls, became an incredibly compelling prospect. There was also the cricket, of course. Each summer I started block-booking tickets for a day at my local ground, the Oval. Takers down at the Dads’ Club were never hard to find.
For a while this never quite went to plan, mainly involving comical washouts and drawn-out refund applications. But in 2009, I struck gold. Tickets for day four of the final Test at the Oval – the day, it transpired, when the Ashes would be decided.
A fierce and gripping series had reached the Oval tied at 1-1. At the centre of it was Andrew Flintoff, playing final Test match. For years he had been England’s changemaker, the man who could single-handedly turn a game on its head. But having flown once too many times into the sun, the Iron Giant of English cricket had become visibly diminished. Over the first three days of this match, intended to be his glorious swansong, he had taken one wicket and scored 29 runs.
England had manoeuvred themselves into a fabulous position, having set Australia a victory target of 466 on a deteriorating pitch. They couldn’t blow it from here, could they? It would require a fourth-innings run chase the likes of which the game had never witnessed, but this was Ricky Ponting’s Australia. No longer the invincibles of previous years, admittedly, but even a transitional Australia had pushed a decent England side – now led by Andrew Strauss – to the brink of defeat in the first Test before steamrollering them in the fourth.
Vaughan’s England had broken Australia’s long grip on the urn back in 2005, but the violent 5-0 retribution dished out two years later in Australia was still raw in the psyche. Equally unnerving was Ponting, ingrained with the singular expression of a man for whom even the thought of defeat might cause him to crash and require a hard reboot.
Ominously, Australia’s openers, Shane Watson and Simon Katich, had knocked 80 off the run chase the previous evening. So, with the target down to 386, apprehension as much as anticipation filled the air as we filed along Harleyford Road to the ground that warm, late August Sunday morning.
Katich and Watson fell early, soothing the nerves in the packed stands. But this brought Ponting and Mike Hussey, Australia’s two most battle-hardened batsmen, together at the crease. As the sun beat down, the partnership ticked past 50, then 100. England were becalmed; the crowd fidgeted.
Then, half an hour after lunch, a moment for the ages. Hussey pushed a Steve Harmison delivery to mid-on and Ponting, at the non-striker’s end, set off for the run. There, in the field, was Flintoff, barely able to move but perfectly positioned. In one heart-stopping movement he gathered the ball and speared it in towards the stumps, splattering them with Ponting still a foot out of his crease.
Seven Australian wickets remained but the game was up and, for just the second time in 20 years, England would reclaim the Ashes. In the afternoon shadowsthe players, bedecked with flags of St George, paraded the urn around the outfield.
It’s not the memory I take from that day above all, though. For one final time, arms raised in valedictory triumph and mobbed by team-mates, Flintoff the Iron Giant had been resurrected.
Cricket is filled with moments of theatre but could this, beneath blue skies with a raucous, disbelieving crowd brought to its feet, ever be bettered?