A Test of Nerves (Sportz Cosmos’ Build Up to the Ashes)

(As Sportz Cosmos hurtles through the infinite cosmos of sports, we take you back in time with this wonderful narrative, written by Rajkamal Vasu a few years ago, about one of Cricket’s greatest Test Matches –  the Edgbaston Test, during the 2005 ashes.)

It started on Thursday and, while telling an English acquaintance the score, I made the obvious observation that England needed their talisman to fire. Flintoff fireworks with bat or ball seemed to be the only thing that could ignite the Ashes for England. If he failed, it could be like the previous campaigns where, from Ashes to Ashes, England had gone only from dust to dust.

England started off well, of course, but suddenly there was a slump and they were 187 for 4. The batsmen at the crease were Pietersen and Flintoff, the pair long talked about as the one to watch in tandem. Pietersen had done enough in the previous Test to suggest that he can bat, whereas Flintoff had never really got off the blocks. The circumstances however demanded cutting him some slack, because he hadn’t played in a Test for quite a while.

What followed was thrilling- Flintoff pulverised the Aussies, hitting 68 at more than a run a ball, including 5 sixes. Batsmen have played exceedingly well against this Aussie team before, Lara, Tendulkar and Laxman among them, but other than Chris Cairns to a certain extent, it is hard to think of somebody who has battered them to pieces. England finished the day on 407. It was a day that matched, and eventually surpassed the excitement of the opening day at Lord’s. Frenetic would be an understatement.

On the second day, the Aussies were dismissed for 308, 99 runs behind. The England second innings started off on an explosive note and it is here that we must cut to the chase. This post will now metamorphose into a far more personal account, rather than a match report.

You see, all this while I hadn’t seen a ball of the Test, but had only followed it on the net. But this was Friday evening in the UK, where I currently happen to be, and it was a natural thing to head into a nearby pub for the last few overs of the day.

What I could see on TV confirmed my suspicions- that England were not just competing, but dictating terms.

The pub was full, but of all the Englishmen present, only around eight were watching the big screen. A man behind me was trying to explain the situation to a friend of his who didn’t seem to be to interested in the game.

There was one over of the day remaining and Warne came in to bowl.

“Oh, that’s Shane Warne”, the guy explained, “the best legspinner ever. He turns the ball this much (he spread his hands a few feet apart!). Giles can’t spin it half as much. In fact, England hasn’t ever really produced a great spinner. India and Australia have had a few.”

He then proceeded to explain Warne’s deliveries:

“The wrong one goes the other way, you see. You think it’s coming in, but it goes the other way. It’s like an outswinger that you think is an inswinger. So as a batsman, you think it’s turning this way, you see, but the thing is … ”

The over had started while this explanation was going on, and I didn’t know which one to concentrate on. But I knew soon, enough.

For, with the next ball, I thought there was something wrong with the telly. We all thought for that split second that that was the case. Warne bowled a ball outside off stump, Strauss padded up with conviction and then- oh, there must be something I missed, maybe a problem with the transmission- the ball crashed into the stumps.

But we saw Gilchrist celebrate and then it dawned on me, and everybody else watching, that we had just witnessed something truly out of the ordinary.

It was a delivery fit for the Gods or, if you’re a batsman, the ball from hell.

That sort of thing doesn’t surprise you. It stuns and numbs you. There were a few seconds of silence, before the pub erupted in a babble of excitement.

“Oh my God”, somebody explained. “Incredible”, “That didn’t happen, tell me it didn’t!”, shouted others.

The man behind me, dumbstruck like the rest of us, finally spoke: “That was what I was telling you about. That’s the wrong one, you see.”

Forget the fact that that wasn’t the wrong one, it’s not really possible for anybody to have been talking of that ball. Before you can do that, you’ve got to figure out that it is possible to defy the laws of physics and geometry.

What a ball, and, equally, what a time to bowl it! Warne gets the ball with an over remaining and England well on their way to running away with the match. It just takes him two balls to produce a ball of such terrifying brilliance that his shadow seemed guaranteed loom over the match ominously from then on and give the English batsmen nightmares. If they managed to sleep, that is.

After that, you had to watch the match of course. What would happen on the third day? Would Pietersen and Flintoff be able to repeat their first innings heroics?

The third day, I got myself in front of the telly just in time. And a good thing too. For before you could say Brett Lee, he came steaming in and removed Trescothick and Vaughan. While England had tried to secure the main entrance from Warne, Lee had burst in through the side door. It didn’t help that the dismissals seemed self-inflicted. Hoggard too followed, though he was less to blame. Pietersen survived the first ball he faced, the bowler being Lee, though he might have gloved that one down the leg side.

That left Pietersen and Bell, trying to rescue England from 31/4. Pietersen played a couple of wonderful shots off Warne, hitting him long and far, but thanks to two dubious decisions, England were 75/6 with Jones and Flintoff in.

Flintoff could still have a say on the course of the match, but this soon seemed highly improbable, for he had injured his shoulder while trying to cut a ball from Warne. England went to lunch with Flintoff and Jones hanging on, and me praying desperately that they’d somehow get to 150 with Flintoff somehow gritting his teeth through the pain and contributing a 50 perhaps.

These seemed unrealistic when Lee dismissed Jones and then Warne almost claimed a hat trick, removing Giles and Harmison off successive balls.

England were 131/9 and they needed a few runs from Flintoff, whose shoulder seemed to be a bit better. I had no idea what the next half a hour would bring.

What did it bring? It brought cricket of unbelievably gripping intensity. You see, Flintoff suddenly decided to let go.

Changing gears with alacrity, he set about hitting the cricket ball murderously and with the fury of a tornado. The amazing knock was made all the more special by the fact that he’d hit no sixes till then, that it was the last wicket stand, that Australia had 9 fielders on the boundary, that Lee, one of the fastest bowlers and a highly successful one on the day was bowling and that, let it not be forgotten, he was injured in his shoulder.

Flintoff wanted to deal only in sixes. Ball after ball vanished into the stands. Kasprowicz was biffed on the leg side and Lee was twice hit straight, once out of the stadium. The momentum swung rapidly, far more rapidly than words can convey. If the first innings knock had been sparkling, this was electrifying. You opened your eyes after blinking and the last wicket had added 51 runs.

The match, just when it had seemed to be Australia’s, had been turned on its head against all odds by this remarkable player. It went on till Flintoff attempted a heave against Warne and was castled. By then, damage- actual and psychological- had been done. Flintoff had brutalised the Aussies for the second time running.

I felt intuitively that England would win, but the way the Aussie openers started off, their hopes soon began to rise. Hayden was far from his best, but Langer was timing his shots sweetly. They motored along to 47/0, and England’s spinning option, Giles, was hit for boundaries by both openers.

Langer began to look ominously dangerous. England had to get him out soon or they’d surely lose the match. It was almost an emergency. Australia needed 230 odd to win, and England had almost run out of options, unless.., well unless Flintoff could bowl. Maybe, he was ruled out for the match, injured shoulder and all.

Surprisingly, Vaughan threw the ball to Flintoff. So he was prepared to bowl. But was it a tactical move or just the final throw of the dice? Flintoff was on a hat trick, but what I really wanted to see was whether the venom in his bowling still remained after the injury.

Could he somehow find a way, when England needed it more than they’d ever done maybe? Logically, it would have seemed impossible. But you could sense that it would happen. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. By the sheer force of will power, Flintoff imposed himself on the game again and forced Langer to play on to a leg break.

It was similar to Warne getting Strauss. What a time it was to get a wicket! This was more crucial for England, though because if England lost the match, they had no hope whereas if Australia lost it, it would still be even Stevens score wise.

Ponting walked in, another crucial batsman. He played the first ball unconvincingly, and suddenly it was a far cry from what had been a stroll in the park. Flintoff had him hopping around the crease for four balls, beguiling him with inswingers seaming in. There were two shouts for lbw. Flintoff succeeded in getting the outside edge once too, all in a matter of four balls. It was a ruthless examination. The track seemed suddenly to have become a dwelling of demons.

The sixth ball was a no ball, but he made amends brilliantly with the seventh ball to produce an absolute corker that swung out late. Ponting did well to nibble through to the keeper. That made it two wickets for Flintoff in his very first over. Unbelievably, he had, for the second time in the day, altered the course of the match single-handedly. Australia looked clueless and overwhelmed.

Flintoff was soon removed from the attack, however, and though Australia managed to weave together short partnerships, they lost crucial wickets at crucial stages and soon, the score was 137/7, with Flintoff again coming to the party by dismissing Gillespie for nought. The much-reviled Giles had earlier proved his worth for the second time in the match, picking up the crucial wickets of Katich and Gilchrist.

There was more drama before the close of play on a third day that had been as feverish as the first two days. Just when Clarke and Warne had started giving Aussies a glimmer of hope and looked to have played out the third day, Harmison produced a brilliant slower ball, one of the best balls I’ve seen, to completely deceive Clarke. He’d been shaken up by two short quick balls before the killer blow. It was once again the last over of the day!

The match now seemed to be England’s for the taking on Day 4. Though this would be an anticlimax, it would still be worth seeing, because it would be proof that England were finally taking the game to the Aussies.

But this match refused to lie down and die. Warne and Lee came blazing out in a spate of boundaries and the match sprang to life again. England needed a breakthrough and as had become the norm, Flintoff provided it when Warne was hit wicket to him. The dismissal was very unusual, but there had been nothing usual about any of Flintoff’s runs or wickets in this match.

Kasprowicz and Lee were in now, Australia need another 62 runs to win, and finally England could afford to relax. Or so it seemed.

Then came, astonishingly, the tensest period of the match. It was all over bar the singing, but when could we sing? Kasprowicz took over from Lee and Lee from Warne. The runs started to flow again. Kasprowicz and Lee even hit three boundaries in an over from Giles and an Aussie victory seemed to be within their grasp again.

Soon, as the runs were whittled down rapidly and without too much of difficulty, the old doubts began to surface. One of the great all round performances seemed destined to go waste, but Flintoff would yet have his chance.

With around 15 runs to win, Flintoff produced the crucial edge. It had seemed inevitable that he would deal the last blow. The catch went to Simon Jones at third man. The catch and the match were his, provided he hung on. He didn’t.

Poor, poor Freddie. What an awful time to drop a catch and spoil the perfect ending for the team and Freddie!

That seemed it. There were soon four legbyes down the leg side and the runs required were in single digits. In utter dejection, I messaged a friend, telling him that in a match so full of twists and turns, this twist on the final day had to be. I sent it to him because I felt it was true of course and also because I hoped against hope for one final glorious decisive twist.

And it came! It came unexpectedly, which is what makes it all the more special. It came with Australia requiring just two runs for victory. Harmison produced a ball that leapt at Kasprowicz, who deflected it behind the stumps where Jones somehow managed to scramble and hang on. A heart stopping final hour, a tense final day and a magnificent match had ended in joy for England and me.

It was a brilliant Test, as the statistics will bear out. For example, each day had ended in drama, with a wicket being taken in the last over and three times, with the last ball of the day.

The length of this post is reflection of the enjoyment this match and Flintoff in particular gave me. This might be how they felt in 1981 when another English allrounder was busy pushing the frontiers of cricketing reality. Comparisons with Botham finally seem to be more than mere hype.

Hence it goes without saying that the final few words about this match from me can only be about one guy.

There is nothing more pleasurable in this game than watching an allrounder at the top of his game. Such a guy spells danger. You dismiss him cheaply and he wanders off with a smirk, realising fully well that he will get his chance with the ball in hand. You take him apart as a bowler and he has a knowing smile on his face, which warns you that with willow in hand, he will bludgeon you to more devastating effect. It is hence that the best cricketer in the world can only be an allrounder.

Having said that about allrounders in general, Flintoff is special even among them. He hits the ball as hard as anyone I’ve seen and bowls with pace, hostility, variety and skill.

No words can aptly describe this monumental a performance. You can call it very, very special, but it would still have been very, very special had he not bowled a single ball in the match.

Considering that this was his first Ashes series and his first major test against the best team in the world, it was special.

Looking at the context of the match, it was superb. He did it with his team staring down the barrel.

Looking at the context of the series, the history of the previous Ashes series and what the win means to England, it was great.

Considering the way he did it, with both bat and ball, it was out of the world. Pondering on the absolute necessity of both these performances for victory in such a tight match, it was indescribably priceless.

I can’t recall anybody having such an influence on the match by his skill with the bat and ball, by his fielding, by the weight of his personality and by the inspiration that his very presence on the cricket field provided.

He treated the match like a policeman would a criminal he’d caught after a long pursuit. When it threatened to defy his beck and call, he took it by the scruff of its neck, shook it up and bullied it into submission.

He tore up the script he’d been given, wrote a fantastic one for himself and went out to the cricket field and calmly essayed it.

In the process, he contributed to making this Test one of the closest and most riveting matches in the history of the game. As much as he gave us countless moments of joy, he also gave the game one of its finest moments and memories that will remain even if Australia rise from- and with- the Ashes.


4 thoughts on “A Test of Nerves (Sportz Cosmos’ Build Up to the Ashes)

  1. Very good read. Very well written. This article made me relive the whole match and that series. Ashes really is a special series

    “He treated the match like a policeman would a criminal he’d caught after a long pursuit. When it threatened to defy his beck and call, he took it by the scruff of its neck, shook it up and bullied it into submission.”

  2. Pingback: The Name Is Pietersen….. Kevin Pietersen | SportzCosmos

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