The third Test of the 2015 Ashes is currently taking place and Edgbaston, the venue this week, has been staging matches in this series since 1902. It is the scene of some famous moments in the history of this sporting contest. In that first Test, Australia were bowled out for 36 in their first innings in reply to England’s 376. In 1981, Ian Botham memorably took 5 for 1 during a spell with the ball as the Australians were thwarted chasing another low target following their legendary collapse in Headingley. And in 2005, England secured the most dramatic of victories when they won the second Test match by 2 runs, the second smallest margin of victory in Test history.
Those few vignettes give a false impression of England and Australia’s relative standing, obviously. For followers of England, part of the euphoria of 2005 is explained by a largely uninterrupted procession of misery against Australia going back to the late 1980s. This writer first took a keen interest in cricket around the time of the 1993 series, which is mostly remembered for Shane Warne’s Ball of the Century in the first Test. Other defining demonstrations of dominance were to follow. In the second Test, Australia declared on 632/4 in their first innings, eventually winning by an innings and 62 runs. In the fourth, they declared on 653/4, and won by an innings and 148 runs. The next time the Ashes were held in England in 1997, the sniff of glory following victory for England in the first Test was well snuffed out by the end of that summer.
It might be a glib and unverifiable assertion that the 2005 Edgbaston Test changed the course of sporting history, but it certainly reinvigorated the Ashes and Test cricket generally. England had lost heavily at Lords in the first Test, a match that followed the usual script. In the second Test, a freak injury to Glenn McGrath in the warm-up before the first morning had the ultimate effect of changing the atmospherics around the whole series. By the end of the third day, England were in a dominant position, with Australia 107 runs short of victory with only two wickets in hand. And then the drama kicked in. I was at a totally loose end on that fourth day, and, living alone at the time, there were no competing interests for the television and there was nobody to call me away to do something else. I sat down to watch the cricket, but I wasn’t banking on it taking very long.
We’ll never know if England would have received the same boost to go on and win the series if they had closed out the match in the facile manner that would have been expected in that position. We can say that it was that Australian team’s enduring quality that made it a close run thing, and consequently a more cherished victory for the hosts. That final morning was also a reminder of the beauty of Test cricket. The way the narrative of each Test can be so unique. The way the narrative can have so many vicissitudes, each session a mini-battle on the way to the final result.
That morning, the Australians put together two partnerships that took them within a whisker of snatching victory. The first partnership was that between Shane Warne and Brett Lee, legendary bowlers, but neither of them shabby with the bat. Warne’s was the ninth wicket to fall. At first appearances, he had been bowled, though the ball had appeared to go down the leg side. Replays showed he had in fact trod on his own stumps. It seemed a cheap wicket, and probably the last moment when the Australians could seriously entertain plundering a win. The last man for Australia was Michael Kasprowicz, McGrath’s replacement and someone with the batting skills one would normally associate with a tail-ender. One of the commentators mentioned that he had been talking to members of the Australian camp about Kasprowicz’s batting, and had asked if he’d been scoring any runs of late. “He’s due a few”, came the reply. England would surely get him out soon, and clinch the match.
But Kasprowicz was doing a good job of resisting Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison. There were numerous escapes, of course. Vain appeals, a dropped catch, an inside edge for four, some vicious short stuff as England started to get desperate. When Flintoff bowled a no-ball that also went for four, leaving Australia needing 9 to win, the tension was now almost unbearable. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat anymore. I was already standing up.
Australia’s mindset had been changing over the course of the morning the closer they got to their target. Their batting became more cautious, and with a small number of runs now required, they were confining themselves to safe singles. What was unfolding in front of my eyes was totally unrelated to anything I could have visualised earlier in the day. I was now contemplating the reaction to what now seemed a likelier Australian victory. England would now be so disheartened they could easily fold in the remaining Test matches. Then, with three runs required, Harmison bowled another short ball to Kasprowicz, which he apparently gloved to Geraint Jones, and it was hard to tell if joy or relief was the prevailing emotion being conveyed by the television pictures as Kasprowicz was given out caught by Billy Bowden.
But here is another detail of sporting history that changed sporting history. Replays of the final ball showed that Kasprowicz’s glove wasn’t holding the bat handle when the ball made contact with the glove, which meant he wouldn’t have been given out if Australia had been able to review the umpire’s decision, as teams are now able to do since the introduction of DRS. There are those who oppose using technology to resolve contentious decisions on the grounds that it removes some of the interest, that leaving fallible human judgement to provide arbitration gives fans something further to debate when they talk about sport. The conclusion of the Edgbaston Test in 2005 perhaps offers weight to that argument.
Following on from his disappointment in failing to win the second Test with a heroic last wicket stand, Brett Lee secured a draw in the third Test at Old Trafford thanks to a heroic last wicket stand. The Australian celebrations in the pavilion demonstrated palpably that the balance of power had shifted that summer, and that an enduringly memorable sporting contest was being played out. There are lots of reasons why the 2005 Ashes series is still talked about so much.