By Pete Usher
The smallest trophy in world team sports. Michael Vaughan holding The Ashes after victory in 2005.
Picture courtesy ESPN.
August 7th 2005 was the 70th anniversary of the invention of the metallic drinks can and the conclusion of the greatest test match of all time.
Warwickshire CCC website.
Of all sports, it is possible that Test cricket offers more potential for points of divergence than any other single sporting event. A full five-day test could have 2700 individual deliveries, any of which could, in theory, provide a vital wicket, boundary, or missed chance, which could change the course of the match. And above that, the coin toss to decide who bats first can often be vital, and we haven’t even begun to consider the impact of the weather...
Within the game, the longest and most storied rivalry is that between England and Australia, known as The Ashes (and played for the smallest team sporting trophy in the world), started in 1882. There were Test Matches before that, but it was only when England lost in 1882 and The Sporting Times published a mock obituary that the name arose). Since then, 341 Tests have been played across 73 series (at the time of writing, the first Test of the 2023 series has just reached a thrilling climax), and there have been a lot of notable events, from Bodyline to Bradman’s Invincibles to the D’Oliveira Affair and beyond.
And within all those matches, few have as much potential for alternative outcomes as the Second Test of the 2005 Ashes, played at Edgbaston in Birmingham. It had been 16 years since England had last held the Ashes, having lost a record equaling 8 series in a row from 1989. England were more hopeful, having won 14 of their previous 18 test matches. Australia’s captain, Ricky Ponting, believed the series would be competitive, while other players, like fast bowler Glenn McGrath, had predicted a comfortable Australian win of 5-0. Alongside McGrath, Australia also had Shane Warne, one of the great spin bowlers of any era, with Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie, both fine bowlers, completing the bowling attack.
The First Test at Lord’s had resulted in an easy Australian win (239 runs), with McGrath’s bowling being a major factor in England’s inability to score – he took 9 wickets across the two innings for only 82 runs, and was awarded Man of the Match. His consistency and accuracy were what made McGrath such an effective bowler, enticing batters into shots because the ball was too close to be left, ball after ball, over after over. Of all bowlers with over 400 test wickets, only the great West Indian Curtly Ambrose has a lower bowling average than McGrath. The only bright spot for England was the test debut of Kevin Pieterson.
And thus the scene was set for a vital Second Test. England could not afford to go 2-0 down in the five match series, as they needed to win to get hold of The Ashes (a drawn series meant that the holders retained the trophy), and the vagaries of English summers are well known [Ed. This became very topical this summer...]. There have been many times when cricket supporters have been praying for rain, so that their team can escape with a draw from a losing position. Cricket is unusual in that a game is a draw if no-one wins. If the scores are exactly level when the final wicket falls, that is a tie, which is a very different thing. This is important to cricket fans.
The first potential divergence comes a couple of days before the game started, when there was a hurricane. In Birmingham, England. Just a small one, but it dumped about an inch of water onto the pitch (the part of the cricket field where the bowling and batting happens. Yes, the pitch is part of the field. And people wonder why cricket can be confusing). That will have changed the amount of moisture in the surface, which will, in turn, change the way the ball bounces and moves. Cricket groundsmen put a lot of time and effort into getting the pitch ‘right’ (which usually favours the home team’s style of bowling if they’re doing a good job), so this small weather event could have changed the whole match.
The next POD is probably the most well-known. During the warm up, Glenn McGrath stepped on a discarded cricket ball and twisted his ankle, tearing ankle ligaments. The upshot was that he would have to miss the test, and was replaced by Michael Kasprowicz, a solid bowler but not in the same league as McGrath. The absence of the most feared Australian quick bowler would have been a major boost for England, and it would be reasonable to expect an Australian attack having all of its best bowlers would have done somewhat better. McGrath also missed the Fourth Test with an elbow injury.
McGrath, laid low by stepping on a cricket ball.
Picture courtesy Cricket Australia.
And there was one more potential divergence before the match even began. The toss at Edgbaston was seen as crucial, as batting first was a big advantage – the pitch tended to deteriorate as the match went on, making run scoring harder and becoming more and more friendly to spinners. Indeed, in 12 of the 13 previous Edgbaston tests, the side batting first had won. Ricky Ponting won the toss; he had one of the world’s greatest spin bowlers in Shane Warne (seriously, go and find a video of ‘The Ball of the Century’ he bowled to Mike Gatting. Amazing). And Ponting ... put England into bat. This may have been a mistake.
Warne's Ball of the Century to Mike Gatting.
Picture courtesy Cricket Australia.
Now we get to the match itself. Before we go on, it’s probably worth mentioning that the DRS (Decision Review System) which allows umpire’s decisions to be challenged, using video technology and the like, was still a few years away. Any debate about wickets (especially the hard to explain ‘leg before wicket’ (LBW), and whether the batter had hit the ball) would take place in commentary and on TV, but not on the field. The umpire’s decision was final (unless they chose to send the decision to be reviewed, and if the technology was there).
England batted first, and, as expected because of the intervention of the hurricane, the pitch showed very little pace, meaning it was more helpful to the batters than the bowlers. England’s openers, Strauss and Trescothick, got off to a good start, scoring 17 off the first three overs. And then, in the fourth over, we get another Point of Divergence. Off the fourth ball of the over, Andrew Strauss, who had scored 4, edged the ball to the slips, where Shane Warne was waiting. Warne was a good fielder, but he dropped the chance. Strauss went on to score another 44 runs.
Helped by the docile pitch, England reached 54 without loss after 12 overs. Brett Lee had been replaced as bowler earlier than expected, as he had been quite expensive in terms of runs conceded, and replaced by Michael Kasprowicz, who was bowling the 13th over. On the second ball, Trescothick (on 32) edged the ball to gully and was caught. Unfortunately for the Australians, Kasprowicz had over-stepped, and so it was a no-ball, meaning Trescothick was safe, and he would go on to score another 58 runs, for 90 in total in the innings.
At lunch, England were 132/1 from 27 overs, in an era when the Australian aim to score at 4 runs an over was seen as ambitious. England’s rate of 4.89 was no doubt helped by the lack of McGrath, as well as the pitch conditions.
After lunch, England started to lose wickets, and when Andrew Flintoff came in to join Kevin Pietersen, the score stood at 187/4. On his fourth ball from the great Warne, Flintoff drove the ball and it just cleared the fielder at mid-off, going for 4. A fraction of a second slower or faster in the swing and England are 187/5, and losing momentum rapidly. At the tea break, 17 overs later, England were 288/4. Flintoff and Pietersen had crashed along at a ridiculous 5.94 runs per over, with Flintoff having scored 68 runs off just 60 balls.
On to the 64th over. Shane Warne bowling to Ashley Giles, England on 330/6. Third ball in, what looks to be a pretty plumb leg before wicket decision (at least on replay) is not given, and there is no review system in play. Although Giles will only score 4 more runs, the little changes add up. Regardless, with a bit of a flurry from the tailenders, England are bowled out for 407. Depending on which catches are taken and which decisions go the other way, there are versions where England score anywhere from 4 less to 174 less in their first innings.
In comparison, the Australian first innings was much less eventful, at least in terms of missed chances or poor decisions. Australia rattled along at over 4 runs an over; England picked up wickets on a regular basis; and Australia reached 308. Even the ninth wicket to fall (lbw) would have been “Umpire’s Call” in the modern game. With a few overs left in the second day, England had a very useful lead of 99 runs, and were in to bat again.
It’s fair to say that the England second innings did not go nearly as well as their first innings had. The runs did not flow as freely. Brett Lee found some accuracy and hence some wickets, and Shane Warne did Shane Warne things. England were 72/4 in the 25th over when Warne bowled to Pietersen. The ball hit the pad, bounced up and hit Pietersen, and then was caught by Adam Gilchrist, the Australian wicket keeper. Pietersen was given out, but he was adamant that the ball had not touched glove or bat. If true, then he should not have been given out. In a modern test, the third umpire has all the replays, hot spot, and snickometer (sound analysis), but it is probable that Pietersen, who was bang in form, would have scored more runs.
England fell to 75/6, but some brilliant batting from Andrew Flintoff (71 from 77 balls, not quite as quick as his first innings) had got them to 180/9. Brett Lee was bowling to Simon Jones, England’s number 11, who was trapped lbw, plumb in front of the wickets. It was obviously out to everyone bar the umpire, Billy Bowden. England went on to score 2 more runs before Flintoff was bowled by Warne, who had taken a magnificent 6 wickets for 46 runs.
It still left Australia a target of 282, which was higher than any team had ever chased successfully in the fourth innings at Edgbaston. If Australia were all out for 281, it would be a tie. Any less, and England would win. Time was not an issue, as this was still only the third day of a possible five days of cricket.
Australia started well, reaching 47 for no loss after 12 overs, but then England’s bowlers took charge, following Andrew Flintoff’s dramatic first over in which he dismissed both Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting. As the end of the sheduled day’s play approached, England had reduced Australia to 137/7, still 145 runs short of the winning line, with only one recognised batter left. England were so confident that they took the option of an extra half hour of play to try and wrap things up. Despite some attacking play by Warne and Clarke, another wicket fell on the very last ball of the day, when Steve Harmison bowled Clarke with a slower ball. Australia still needed 107 to win. Surely it was all over?
On the fourth day, Warne and Lee attacked, scoring at a steady clip, before Warne was out to the first ball of the fifty-third over, in quite an unusual way. Backing up to try and play a fast ball from Andrew Flintoff, Warne stood on his own stumps and was given out hit wicket, which has only happened 163 times in over 2500 Test Matches. Perhaps on another day Warne would have avoided this. Nonetheless, Australia were 220/9, still 62 runs short of an unlikely victory.
This is Inzamam al-Haq demolishing the stumps to be out Hit Wicket off the bowling of England's Monty Panesar in 2006.
Picture courtesy ESPN.
Nine overs later, Australia had reached 267, still fifteen runs short of victory. England’s captain Michael Vaughan had turned to the talismanic Andrew Flintoff in an attempt to winkle out the last Australian wicket, and with the first ball of the sixty-second over, that chance came. Michael Kasprowicz scooped the ball over the slips and Simon Jones, running in from the boundary, dived forward to try and take what would have been a magnificent match-winning catch. It was a difficult chance – and he dropped it, leaving the door open for Australia.
And the runs just kept coming. Just three overs later, Australia had the requirement down to 4 runs. A single shot could now win the Test, and give them that virtually unassailable 2-0 series lead. Steve Harmison was bowling, and Brett Lee drove the ball powerfully through the covers. Initially, it looked like the ball might be going to the boundary for 4 runs and the win, but it was hit straight to a fielder and just 1 run resulted. Hit five yards either way, and that would have been the match.
Three runs were needed, and Kasprowicz – not as good a batter as Lee – was now on strike. On the third ball of the over, Harmison fired in a short ball to Kasprowicz, who tried to get out of the way but failed. The ball flicked off his glove and was caught by the wicket keeper, Geraint Jones. England had won by 2 runs in one of the closest Test matches ever (only 2 Tests have been won by a single run, and one of those was in 2023).
And yet, there was one final twist to the Test. On replays, it can be seen that when the ball hit Kasprowicz’s glove, it wasn’t holding the bat at the time, and by the rules, shouldn’t have been given out. However, no DRS and the umpire’s decision was final. Had the umpire seen that, there could have been a different outcome to the Test.
The iconic image of the Second Test at Edgbaston 2005. Andrew Flintoff consoles Brett Lee.
Picture courtesy ESPN.
The result was pivotal – the Third Test was a draw, and England went on to win the Fourth Test to take a 2-1 lead going into the final Test. Even with the return of McGrath, England scored enough runs, took enough time, and benefited from enough dropped catches and bad weather delaying play to secure a comfortable draw – and with it, The Ashes. But it could have all been so different.
Nowadays, DRS has taken a lot of the guesswork out of decisions (although you can look at Headingley 2019 as an example of what happens if you are not careful with your reviews), but dropped catches, no balls, and near misses remain part of every game. It’s just unusual to have such a close finish with so many potential turning points.
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