I can't be more categorical about it: the 2005 Ashes tour was the worst time of my cricketing life. I know that we only lost 2-1. I know the big "what if" – what if Brett Lee's last shot at Edgbaston had gone a metre either side instead of straight to the fielder? But I ignore this false comfort. If we'd saved the Ashes, it would have been a travesty. England outplayed us. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for us, and for me personally. It was an experience that would leave me with a trauma that took two years to heal.
The hype when we arrived in England was huge. It was getting to us all, and there was a sense of anxiety and nervousness as we prepared. Then Steve Harmison bowled a terrific, fiery spell on the first morning at Lord's, drawing blood. It was a real statement of what they were about.
We only scored 190 but Pigeon [Glenn McGrath] turned it on, as he did so often at Lord's, and our batsmen dug in and turned it into a big lead. Pigeon predicted a 5-0 whitewash and was quoted in the press saying English cricket had three problems: batting, bowling and fielding! [After the game] Justin took us up into the English changing room. It was there that we sang our victory song. The English players had left, although a few of us thought, "Hang on, maybe wait until we're 3-0." I sang along with it, of course, but with more unease than at any other time.
Before we started [the second Test at Edgbaston], Pigeon and a few others were passing a football around. Suddenly he was lying on the ground, clasping his ankle. I thought he was just fooling around. But when I looked again at his face he was white; the colour had all drained out. In hindsight, the series was turned on its head at that moment.
We achieved what you want to achieve when you bowl first: we bowled them out on the first day. The only problem was they scored 407. McGrath's absence freed them up mentally, and they all played in a positive fashion. The funny thing was that because we kept taking wickets, it didn't strike us that we were losing control of the game. We went out to bat the next day and our top order blazed away. But nobody put a big score on the board, and we were out for 308.
Brett [Lee] bowled like a champion in Pigeon's absence. Yet we were never feeling safe until we had [Kevin] Pietersen and [Andrew] Flintoff out. This time we got Pietersen for 20, but Flintoff went after us again. They were only 174 ahead, but thanks to Flintoff they put on 107 for the last four wickets. It was something we'd done so often: turning things around with a wagging tail. This time, the move was being pulled on us.
We were still confident, though – we had two and a half days to get 282. If you look at Flintoff's stats for the series, they're good but not amazing: 402 runs at 40 and 24 wickets at 27. But the statistics don't tell you about the crucial times he contributed, and the impact he made. There was his batting in this match, which inspired their first innings and saved their second. And then, with the ball, when Ricky came out a couple of hundred runs from victory, Flintoff bowled one of the best overs I've seen. He bowled Justin with the second ball, and then had five balls, including one no-ball, at Ricky. There was nothing Ricky could do. They were five of the most vicious deliveries you could ever see, swerving in the air and leaping off the deck, beating his bat, hitting his body. And then Ricky was somehow good enough to get bat on the last ball to nick it. The crowd erupted. Flintoff stood there like he was Hercules and his teammates mobbed him. I remember thinking: "We are in big strife."
The next day, I woke up feeling pessimistic. We only had Warnie, Binga [Brett Lee] and Kasper [Michael Kasprowicz], and still required 107. Our mood in the changing room was relaxed, in the way you can relax when you're expecting nothing but a loss. Ball by ball, it started to turn around. We were the Australian cricket team. We pulled off miracles. After nine overs and 45 runs, Warnie trod on his stumps. But before we could settle too much Binga and Kasper showed they weren't giving up. We got down to needing four more runs, one good hit. Harmison bowled a low full toss and Brett smoked it through backward point – straight to the fieldsman. Vaughan had left that one guy out. Later, I quizzed him why. He said he just felt that was where the ball went when Binga swung but didn't collect it perfectly. And so it happened. A metre either side and it was four.
I still thought we'd win. Kasper was comfortable. Then Harmison fired one in at his ribs – and what happened, happened.
By the third Test at Old Trafford I could feel this sickly atmosphere permeating the team. There was nothing unified about that changing room. England won the toss and batted, and this was the worst day of cricket in my life. I hated every minute of it, and I hate it even more when I think about it. For me, that was the day when my series as good as ended.
I had no one to blame but myself. I dropped Vaughan when he was 41. He flashed at one from McGrath and it flew high to my right. With all the tension in the group, I was desperate to do something to inspire us, to grab the momentum back ... and I dropped it. I didn't recover from that.
My memory of that crowd is quite distorted. Old Trafford has a typical low English grandstand, but in my mind there were skyscrapers on top of us, with the crowd baying and singing. On this day I hated the crowd, I hated their singing, and when the day finished (Vaughan had gone on to make 166) I hated walking down the street. I was so low I covered up the team shirt: I was wearing the Australian shirt, and I was ashamed of myself.
Batting at Old Trafford, I felt under so much pressure I was exploding from it. Standing over the bat, hearing the crowd was unbearable. My eyes and mind were playing tricks on me. I wasn't seeing the ball, or the bowler: I was seeing the entire ground. I felt hyper-aware of every little thing – the crowd, the sightscreen, the pavilion, the trees outside, the clouds – as if my focus was on a thousand different things instead of just one.
I remembered how in 2001 their fans would have their chants going and I'd thought, "This would be magic, to have this behind you." They were so good-natured. You'd see 25 Elvises walk in, or a pack of Pink Panthers. But this time, at Old Trafford in 2005, they were ferocious and aggressive, and so was the team, because they had belief. On his home turf, Freddie Flintoff looked 10 feet tall. We weren't beaten on the field. Ricky played a majestic match- saving 156, before Binga and Pigeon kept out the last few balls. I failed again. I'd dearly wanted to rally around Punter [Ponting], and my strategy was to take my time and slow right down, to give myself a chance. I batted 30 balls for 4. I'd done a total about-face on my natural game, and the opposition knew it. In the end Flintoff came around the wicket and I edged one to gully. It was only a matter of time.
When we hung in for the draw we were leaping all over the place, hugging and cheering, fists clenched. It was telling to see us react like that, as if we'd won, when it was only a draw.
For the next Test, in Nottingham, my confidence was at an all-time low. They passed 400 in the first innings for the third straight time. We hadn't attained 400 once. I went in at 5-99 and for the first time in weeks felt comfortable. If I could just get through Flintoff's spell, everything else would settle down. Most importantly, I'd be able to dispel the theory that I couldn't cope with Flintoff around the wicket. I needed to convince myself of that. But then he came around the wicket again, I slashed at one, and [Andrew] Strauss, at full stretch diving to his left at second slip, took an absolute screamer. I was truly born under a bad sign for that tour.
We were made to follow on. It was not only the first time I'd followed on for Australia; it was the first follow-on for any Australian Test team since the Karachi Test of 1988. In the second innings Ricky was going really well when the worst turn of fate struck. All series, England had been doing something which was within the rules but totally against the spirit of the game. They brought their bowlers off two overs before they started a new spell, freshened them up, or so we heard, with a few cans of Red Bull – caffeine is on the banned drugs list, but I assume they were careful enough to stay below the allowable limit – and had them do some stretching with the physio. Then, after their spells, they'd come straight off again, change their shirt, rest. While they were doing that a substitute fielder would come on. The substitute was a specialist fielder from somewhere around the country. Gary Pratt from Durham's 2nd XI was one of those. Ricky pushed one into the covers, and Pratt got him with a direct throw – the run-out that changed the course of the match.
When Ricky came off and saw Fletcher sitting on the pavilion balcony with a big Cheshire cat grin, he exploded. He let fly with something like: "Play the game properly." What frustrated Ricky, on top of being out, was that he'd had sitdowns with Vaughan and two match referees on precisely this issue, yet had been ignored.
We battled on, setting England 129 to win. Warnie got both openers plus Vaughan. Even though Flintoff and Pietersen added 46, we got them both and thought we still had a chance. It would have been an interesting England dressing room as the wickets kept tumbling. But we didn't have enough on the board and they beat us by three wickets.
Although all of England was going nuts, the unbelievable thing was that we could still retain the Ashes. We needed to win at The Oval, which was by no means beyond us. As badly as we'd played, we'd been only inches away from tying up the Ashes.
Warnie clean-bowled Pietersen, who was beginning to feel a bit of pressure. After his authoritative start Pietersen's form had tailed off. Attention was focusing on his flamboyant personality. Plus, he was South African. We got the sense that if ever he stopped scoring runs, the press would come down hard on him. But Strauss made 129 and they constructed a solid 373. Justin and Haydos both scored centuries. But rain and bad light kept stopping our momentum. On days two, three and four, there had been rain. On their television shows the English were gloating about the rain. I wanted to smash the TV in. Rain held up our innings to such an extent that it was late on day four by the time we got them back in. We had to bowl them out cheaply, and then go for a fast chase. There was still hope. England had shown how brittle they were when it came to closing matches out. Day five dawned sunny, so maybe the gods were finally taking pity on us.
Warne and McGrath took early wickets, and I helped, at last, by taking a good catch to remove Vaughan. Now that they had their hands on the Ashes, were they going to choke? We had a real sense of momentum. Pietersen came in at 3-67, facing a hat-trick from McGrath. We thought we had him first ball, but Pigeon's bouncer had hit him on the shoulder, not the wrist.
Six balls later Warnie bowled a ripping leg-spinner at Pietersen, who still hadn't scored. He pressed forward and nicked it. It brushed my glove, and I did the worst possible thing. Not only did I miss the catch, I deflected it away from Haydos at first slip. Everyone talks about Warnie dropping Pietersen a few overs later, but I'll never forget that half-chance I missed when he was on zero.
Reprieved, Pietersen found his groove. It was sickening, as the match seeped away from us. When the pandemonium erupted I decided not to hide from it. I took a beer onto the balcony of the pavilion and sat there to face their singing crowds. Grown men were weeping. I could see, in their faces, that they were honouring us and the earlier Australian teams by showing us how much this day meant to them. I watched it all from the balcony. A few of our guys came out, but otherwise I was sitting there watching it on my own. For the first time in months, I felt my spirits lift. It was over.
Summer of discontent: Gilchrist's 2005 series
First Test: Lord's, 21-24 June, Australia won by 239 runs, Gilchrist 26 and 10.
Second Test: Edgbaston, 4-8 August, England won by two runs, Gilchrist 49 not out and 1.
Third Test: Old Trafford, 11-15 August, Match drawn, Gilchrist 30 and 4.
Fourth Test: Trent Bridge, 25-28 August, England won by three wickets, Gilchrist 27 and 11.
Fifth Test: The Oval, 8-12 September, Match drawn. Gilchrist 23.
Extracted from 'True Colours: My Life', the Australian wicketkeeper's autobiography, which provides an enthralling behind-the-scenes look at the sport's leading players and major issues. To purchase a copy for the special price of £17.09, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 060 0030Reuse content