Review of the year: The Ashes

A golden summer, forged in the furnace of cricket's greatest contest
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Sometimes in life we have a day so perfect that we know it will always be with us. What was so remarkable about the summer of the Ashes was that we kept having such days. We couldn't shake them off. If we thought we had, if we sensed a stalemate coming on, some fleeting lapse in intensity or perhaps rain clouds gathering, someone like Andrew Flintoff or Shane Warne would come again, trailing still more glory It got to be ridiculous, in a pulsating way. From time to time it even put you in mind of the Hemingway line when he was recalling some distant, tumultuous summer of fishing in the Pyrenees and bull- fighting in Pamplona and horse racing and too much drinking and general high jinks in Paris.

"Remember that summer," he wrote, "when we were all nice to each other." You first recalled the line on the fourth morning of the Second Test at Edgbaston, when England came alive again after being shattered at Lord's, and Brett Lee, the Australian pace bowler who had batted with scarcely believable accomplishment and nerve, fell to the ground just one hit short of achieving a victory that would have made it an Ashes summer like so many others, a formal parade of Australian might. There we had the wonderful, early distillation of the spirit of a sporting summer never to be forgotten.

Flintoff, the conqueror, bent down in his very moment of triumph to comfort the vanquished. In another age his consoling of Lee might have warranted no more than a nod of approval that the niceties had been observed. Now, in another, more rancorous time, it was seen as confirmation that something rather amazing was indeed afoot. Flintoff said simply: "I looked at Brett Lee and suddenly I remembered all the times I had tasted defeat and I thought of how he must be feeling after doing so much for his team. It seemed like the natural thing to do, to get hold of him and say: 'Well played, mate...'"

There were so many other gracious notes and so many of them involved Warne, the veteran, who, in his last Test series on English soil, never stopped exploring the last reaches of his extraordinary talent. At Old Trafford, where an epic draw left thousands locked out on the last day and carried us to Trent Bridge and then The Oval with dwindling resistance to the idea of further astonishment, Warne reached the staggering milestone of 600 wickets. He achieved his feat on the ground where he had first announced himself to an English audience with a delivery to dismiss Mike Gatting that will probably always be considered the most astounding ever produced at the highest level of the game.

Gatting's expression of disbelief when he looked at his broken wicket would be mirrored throughout the summer of England's Ashes victory, their first in 18 years. When the diamond-studded larrikin Warne reached his summit, even the Barmy Army, who spend most of their days at cricket admiring each other's fancy dress and chanting banalities, responded reflectively and generously. Warne, their tormentor, swept off his sun-hat and acknowledged the cheers. You wanted to freeze that moment among so many others that defined how sport should really be.

Warne's particular contribution was his unbroken capacity to challenge a vibrant young England team with an effort that came to define the style of a champion. Had an ageing Australian side submitted with even a hint of resignation to this new force, had they shrugged their shoulders at the passing of the years, the scenes at Trent Bridge, where England survived a last-day crisis, and at The Oval, where the sound of Jerusalem beating against the grey sky was in the end as much about relief as celebration, could not have been so joyful. The Australians fought to the end. Warne came close to scoring his maiden Test century at Old Trafford, and whenever he was given the ball England braced themselves for trial by cricket's Merlin.

At Lord's in the first Test, where Warne's fellow bowling veteran Glenn McGrath had produced one of the greatest single phases of seam bowling ever seen in Test cricket, Warne had apparently undermined the entire English batting line-up with the guileful range of his attack. That England survived such a mauling was the single most extraordinary fact - and reason for celebration. That it happened had so much to do with the emergence of Flintoff as the heart of the new England.

At Lord's Flintoff was so tentative with the bat that the Australians sensed a familiar failure of English nerve. While Freddie went off to re-appraise everything he had tried to achieve in cricket, Warne contemplated the wreckage of his personal life and explained why it was so important for him to make a statement on the field.

"Whatever my problems off the field," he said, "I've tried to remember that my professional life is cricket and it has maybe never been more important for me to give a good account of myself as a player. Maybe I can at least get this right." Flintoff's reflections were no less intense and his response to the challenge that he recognised might just define his career, if not his life, was the single most decisive element of all. He and his young South African-bred team-mate Kevin Pietersen became the heroes of the summer with their spectacular deeds; they were at the heart of the national celebrations that were expressed in Trafalgar Square and Downing Street.

A few days later, back home in Yorkshire, the England captain, Michael Vaughan, made a heartfelt plea to his teammates. His greatest wish, he said, was that the team "stayed honest". They had to see the great summer as a foundation for future success, not a climactic, unsurpassable high in still young careers. At the same time the knowing English coach of Pakistan, Bob Woolmer, asked a cunning, intriguing question. "Would England," he wondered, "get up for the forthcoming challenge against his side as they had for the Ashes?" We know now they di not, and in their failure to play with the fortitude displayed in front of their own crowds they confirmed the one fear that jostled with the elation of the summer. It was something to do with the English sporting psyche, something about a failure to see that sometimes victory can be as much of an imposter as defeat. This, however, remains something for future years, for fresh campaigns.

Whatever happens, the summer of 2005 will always shine. It was the summer, like that one of Papa Hemingway's, when we were all nice to each other, and we couldn't keep the smiles off our faces.