Timeless England bid farewell to the golden summer of 2004

Whatever happens in the ICC Champions' Trophy final today, it has been an unforgettable five months
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The gymnasium at the Sonargaon Pan Pacific Hotel in Dhaka may seem a strange place for the renaissance of English cricket, but it was here last October, at the start of England's tour of Bangladesh, that Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher began changing the culture of their side.

The gymnasium at the Sonargaon Pan Pacific Hotel in Dhaka may seem a strange place for the renaissance of English cricket, but it was here last October, at the start of England's tour of Bangladesh, that Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher began changing the culture of their side.

The hot, humid room, situated by the side of the hotel swimming pool, contained half a dozen dusty old treadmills, three exercise bikes - only one of which worked properly - free weights and a pretty basic range of weights machines.

Stuck in the middle of one of the world's most chaotic and poverty stricken cities, there was little to tempt England's cricketers out of the team hotel. The spare time was not wasted. Strenuous fitness sessions took place each day at the cricket ground and in the evenings every player returned to the gym to complete a weight training programme specifically designed by Nigel Stockhill, England's fitness co-ordinator. I have never seen an England cricket team work so hard.

This summer, a golden one for English cricket, all that effort bore fruit. Vaughan's team had suggested their potential with a comprehensive Test series victory in the Caribbean, but even that triumph did not prepare us for the remarkable winning run they have enjoyed in the last five months.

England reeled off seven successive Test victories, and did so by playing some of the most confident, attractive cricket seen at English grounds for many years. As if that was not enough, they even found some form at the one-day game, beating Australia memorably in the ICC Champions' Trophy semi-final on Tuesday to set up today's final with the West Indies.

At Test level, the records tumbled. England's seven wins in a row equalled their best ever run of victories, records sets in 1885-88 and 1928-29. Their run of 10 victories in 11 Tests is England's second longest period of success. The key to it was some glorious batting, with eight Englishmen scoring 13 centuries, more than in any previous summer.

If the bowling was less eye-catching - only three five-wicket hauls - it was no less vital, with Stephen Harmison, who had announced his arrival as a major force in the West Indies, and the often criticised Ashley Giles as the key wicket-takers.

"I cannot remember a summer like it," said Micky Stewart, the 72-year-old former Surrey and England batsman. Stewart, the father of Alec, also managed England between 1985 and 1992, the period when they last held the Ashes. "It is difficult to make comparisons," he added. "In the 1950s, when England comprehensively beat Pakistan and India at home, very few of their team had any knowledge of playing in England. You could say their achievement is as good as that of Mike Brearley's team, who won 5-1 in Australia, but by then Kerry Packer had taken most of their side.

"All you can do is play and beat the people in front of you and this team have done that. What has been pleasing is watching them improve time after time. You could see their confidence grow after every win. A huge amount of credit should go to Duncan Fletcher. He came in out of the blue and has applied his own consultancy style of management."

Luck plays a role in any team's success and England's came, bizarrely, when Vaughan twisted his knee batting in the nets three days before the start of the first Test of the summer, against New Zealand at Lord's. It was feared Vaughan's injury would have a disastrous affect on England's chances against the Kiwis but Andrew Strauss came in and grabbed his unexpected opportunity with style.

The then Middlesex captain had impressed England's selectors during the winter with his attitude towards the game, and had scored a couple of sixties in one-day internationals against the West Indies. Strauss is an intelligent and ambitious young man and his approach to cricket - diligent and hard-working - would please Fletcher.

The England coach will not turn his back on a gifted player with a carefree attitude - hence the faith he has shown in Andrew Flintoff and Harmison - but Strauss, like Paul Collingwood, is the type of character he warms to. Yet not even Fletcher would have expected the 27-year-old to make such an impact on his debut, scoring a marvellous 112 in his first Test innings, and following it with 83 in the second innings before being run out by Nasser Hussain.

This unfortunate incident spurred the former England captain on to great deeds himself. New Zealand had set England 282 for victory - a total never previously overhauled by the home side at Lord's. Hussain went on to score a brilliant hundred, winning the game for England with a trademark cover drive for four. Hussain chose this as the perfect moment to retire.

Harmison failed to claim a five-wicket haul against New Zealand but his bowling was the difference between the sides. Whenever Vaughan wanted to make something happen he threw the ball to his spearhead and invariably he obliged. Harmison took 21 wickets at an average of 22 runs apiece.

Captains and coaches can instruct their players what to do, and help create a healthy working environment, but great sides still need star performers. And there can be little doubt that Harmison has turned England from a reasonable side into one that could be on the verge of great things.

Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee may be quicker but England have the bowler that batsmen would least like to face. Bounce is the key to the 25-year-old's success. Shoaib and Lee are smaller and therefore need to pitch the ball on a shorter length to get it up to rib height, and this gives the batsman more time to react. Getting forward to Harmison is virtually impossible.

Harmison's best mate is Flintoff and England's fortunes depend greatly on this pair. Both are wholehearted cricketers who are incapable of giving anything but their best, but it is Flintoff who inspires the team.

The Lancashire all-rounder has become a colossal figure this summer. His batting has matured immeasurably. Gone are the days when he used to slog his way recklessly out of a tricky situation. Now he gets his head down, plays himself in and then starts depositing the ball into the stands. When Freddie is at the crease, no spectator is safe and in England's eyes anything is possible.

The majority of England's Tests this year have followed a similar trend - most have been fairly close after three days. But it has been then that England have raised the level of intensity and the opponents have buckled.

The England side of the Nineties faded when faced with such situations but this side are made of sterner stuff and their higher fitness levels have allowed them to stay strong while New Zealand and the West Indies tired.

Vaughan's side also believe they can get themselves out of any predicament. This confidence started in Sri Lanka, when they drew two Tests they should have lost, and continued in the Caribbean when they broke Brian Lara's side in the third innings of each match.

At Headingley, in the second Test against New Zealand it was Flintoff and Geraint Jones, and at Trent Bridge it was a rejuvenated Giles and Graham Thorpe. Thorpe scored a classy century to chase down another record target and complete England's first whitewash of the summer.

A mid-season lapse in one-day cricket was soon forgotten when England started thumping the West Indies in the Tests. Again an injury led to another youngster grabbing an unexpected chance. Mark Butcher strained his thigh before the Lord's Test and Robert Key highlighted his potential with a wonderful 221. Vaughan scored a century in each innings and Giles turned into a match-winner.

Marcus Trescothick repeated the feat of his captain at Edgbaston but it was Flintoff's 167 which buried the West Indies. There were fears that a bone spur would prevent the all-rounder from bowling for the rest of the summer but he returned to haunt Lara, dismissing him three times in four innings.

The West Indies capitulated in the face of England's ruthless cricket and another whitewash was completed on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon at The Oval.

Halcyon hat-trick Angus Fraser's three favourite moments

1 Flintoff dropped by his dad in the stands

Andrew Flintoff was on 83 when he decided to flick the West Indian fast bowler Jermaine Lawson over long-on for six at Edgbaston. The ball flew into the top tier of the Ryder Stand, where the players' guests sit. Flintoff's father, Colin, tried to catch the steepling chance but fluffed it. "He plays cricket at the weekend and comes home every week telling me what a great catch he has taken," said Flintoff Jnr. "But I think he has now proved to everyone that he has terrible hands. I thought he was going to come over the balcony at one stage." He hit a career-best 167.

2 Strauss's hundred on debut at Lord's

A freak injury to Michael Vaughan in the nets three days before the first Test against New Zealand allowed England to unearth a batsman of rare talent. Andrew Strauss was about to play for Middlesex at The Oval when the selectors asked him to dash across London to Lord's. He looked nervous but once in, he made Test cricket look a doddle. On 91 he went for a big drive and an inside edge shaved his off stump. He became only the fourth player to score a Test century on debut at Lord's when he drove through the covers. Then he made 83 in the second innings, a hundred on his one-day debut at Lord's and another Test century against the West Indies on his home ground.

3 Giles takes 100th Test wicket

England's premier spinner considered quitting Test cricket after an arid spell and criticism from the media and fans. But he gamely continued, picking up six wickets in the final Test against New Zealand at Trent Bridge. Five more came in the first Test against the West Indies at Lord's, taking his career tally to 99. The 100th came off a superb ball. Brian Lara came down the pitch but was beaten by a delivery that dropped and turned sharply between bat and pad. On dismissing the world's leading batsman, Giles was a man in rhapsody.