2005 Ashes: A summer that will never be forgotten

Poll of the Decade: It was tight, it was hard-fought and it thrilled the nation: 2005's Ashes were the decade's greatest contest, writes Stephen Brenkley

Best sporting contest of the decade? It was probably the best of the century and the two centuries before that. It will struggle to be overtaken for another millennium.

The Ashes of 2005 was the apogee of sporting theatre, possessing the rare combination of being perpetually watchable to the point of addiction and being unwatchable to the point of fearing for your health. The years since have dulled neither its appeal nor its thrilling nature and that explains why it won the Greatest Contest in The Independent Poll of the Decade. And while England's win in the 2009 summer was perfectly respectable, bearing comparison with any event for its tension, its switches of fortune and its pure excitement, it was left for dead by its immediate predecessor.

2009 and all its successors will for ever be the siblings trying to come to terms with a cleverer, smarter, handsomer rival. In its way, the 2005 Ashes transcended sport and if that seems a daft claim itself, transcending pomposity, you should have been there.

Context is everything. When the series began, later than usual because other, piffling matches had to be fitted in, England had been without the Ashes for 16 years and eight successive series. There had been times during this period of trial when it was possible to believe that England would never win them again and Australia had come casually to assume that would be the case.

England went into that series with hope, which was more than they had taken into at least six of the previous seven. Under the combination of Michael Vaughan, the captain, and Duncan Fletcher, the coach, the team had won seven series in a row.

Hope, however, was not expectation. Australia were the No 1 side in the world and they had the players to prove it. Look at their team and it remains a who's who of greats of the game, starting with Shane Warne and embracing Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting. How many all-time greats can be fitted into one team? Australia had them falling out of wattle trees.

The tone of the series was set in the first minute of the first day at Lord's, it was continued and came to be embodied in the excruciating climax to the second Test at Edgbaston, after which a state of tension and unexpected twists became routine. Through Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and finally The Oval heart-stopping moment followed heart-stopping moment. Cricket was on everybody's lips and in everybody's hearts. It was quite something. The standard, it should be remembered, was uniformly excellent and it was purveyed by two sides who asked for and gave no quarter.

Australia probably knew they were going to be in for some tough stuff when with the second ball of the rubber, Stephen Harmison felled their opening batsman, Justin Langer. It was fast, it lifted, it was brutal. Harmison set down the template that day for how England would approach matters and when he almost knocked off Ponting's block with a bouncer barely half an hour later and no England player asked after the Australia captain's welfare the game was on all right. Cor blimey, it was on.

Of course, the downside to all this was that Australia won the match. Hope was what England had brought as their chief weapon and hope was quickly being expunged on the altar being set up by Warne and McGrath.

The prevailing fashion still is to view Edgbaston as a turning point in the campaign. So it was, but it was not – or not necessarily – the moment when McGrath stood on a stray ball and turned an ankle moments before the start. Nor was it – or not necessarily – the moment when Ponting despite this grievous loss still insisted on asking England to bat on winning the toss. It was the moment when England came out to bat and by lunchtime had swashbuckled their way to 118. Marcus Trescothick, who bludgeoned Brett Lee, and Andrew Strauss, laid down a template as Harmison had done at Lord's. England would not be cowed.

As the match evolved, it almost went horribly wrong for England. On the fourth morning, Sunday, they eventually snuck home by two measly runs. By the tantalising close, more prayers were being said in the ground and around the television sets of the nation than were being uttered in that day's church services.

Australia edged ever closer, England needed one wicket for long enough. One lousy wicket which came, as it happened, when even hope had left the room. In the moment of victory came the image which was to run round the world in a trice, the image which by itself could only enhance this ripping yarn.

Andrew Flintoff, who had just begun to issue a warning of what might be to come in a playing sense, immediately offered his condolences to his vanquished foe, the not out batsman Brett Lee. Flintoff crouched down and put his arm on Lee's shoulder. Here was the essence of proper sport distilled.

It could hardly get better, it did not become worse. On the fifth morning at Old Trafford, there were queues round the block to get in. Something special, it was plain, was happening and it was unstoppable. The series somehow was writing its own script.

The match in Manchester ended in a draw with England eventually well on top. Ponting had defied them for most of the final day; there were moments when he might have fancied a push for victory.

The whole coruscating thing was built on narrow margins. Come Trent Bridge and they were prevalent again. Warne by now was bowling out of his skin and if England thought they had developed a weapon of mass destruction in reverse swing, espoused by Simon Jones, who sadly was never to play another Test match, it had nothing on the blond assassin's leg-spin.

This was the match that witnessed the series' most controversial moment. Ponting was run out on the third afternoon by a direct throw from Gary Pratt, a specialist substitute fielder. Ponting was angry and he made it clear to Fletcher as he stomped off.

Vaughan, meanwhile, personified calm. He had a group of men who knew the real meaning of the trite phrase that there is no I in team. He began to sense that this was England's moment and that his side would win by being true to themselves, by, in his words, expressing themselves. On the fourth afternoon, England somehow defied – but only just – the Warne hex and sneaked home by three wickets.

So to The Oval. A whole nation was still being sustained only by hope. The Aussies would think of something. But it was Australian nerves which broke. Flintoff the colossus was in his pomp by now, batting serenely and all but refusing to have the ball taken off him when bowling.

England secured a first-innings lead which they should not have done. Vaughan's complex fielding plans were still working. But it was still on a knife edge. Then on the fifth morning it unravelled at last. Warne, of all people, dropped Kevin Pietersen at slip. Since his debut at Lord's in the first match of the series, Pietersen had not contributed much.

But now, encouraged by Vaughan's imprecation in the dressing room, he took the Ashes away from Australia. His innings of 158 will stay imprinted on the mind for ever. It blazed with authority and ambition. It was a seminal moment and later that afternoon with "Land of Hope and Glory" being accompanied by "Rule Britannia" and enough booze thereafter to sink the battleships which gave rise to those ditties, the Ashes were home. It was magnificent.

The runner-up: Nadal's epic victory

The Ashes 2005 pushed the epic 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal into the runner-up spot in our Greatest Contest of the Decade Poll. As the tension rose and the light faded the thrilling match, which was elongated by rain delays, was clinched by the Spaniard to his utter joy and Federer's distress.

Federer, a regular in all our categories in the poll, began the tournament under increasing pressure from the muscular Nadal. The Swiss had won in SW19 for the previous five years while the Spaniard had won his fourth straight French title and both men were at the peak of their careers.

Not since Bjorn Borg's epic victory over John McEnroe in 1980 had a match so captivated Centre Court. The momentum initially swung Nadal's way as he strode to the opening two sets, only for Federer to level, with two sets clinched on tie-breaks. Rain delays stretched the final into a seventh hour, with four hours and 48 minutes playing time, making it the longest Wimbledon final in history. It finished in near darkness as the exhausted duo fought to a standstill, Nadal emerging triumphant and memorably clambering up to his family in the stands.

Liverpool's heroic 2005 Champions League triumph over Milan finished third in the standings, Rafael Benitez's men recovering from a 3-0 interval deficit to take Milan to penalties, where Jerzy Dudek came into his own.

England's victory in the Aussies' backyard to win rugby union's 2003 World Cup final follows closely, Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson et al living up to their pre-tournament billing as favourites to edge out the hosts in extra time. Lewis Hamilton's last-lap drama at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix to win the driver's championship was fifth, while England's 5-1 World Cup qualifying win in Germany in 2001 came sixth. Padraig Harrington's battle with Sergio Garcia at the 2007 Open and 2009's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe complete the standings.

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