The Early Word on 2009: And Cook lifts the Ashes... we can only dream

Andorra shock the world, Martin Johnson earns new 10-year deal and 'Mitchell mystery' floors Pietersen
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The Independent Online

As Sir Alastair Cook lifted the Ashes urn the ecstatic crowd shouted as one. "Aly, Aly, give us a song, Aly, give us a song." England's captain, knighted on the Oval balcony in August, responded with a quick rendition of "Oh For the Wings of a Dove", the only song he could remember from his canon whilst a choirboy at St Paul's Cathedral all those years before.

If it was a lyric that seemed out of place on such a tumultuous occasion, it was like so much else of an imperishable summer. The England football team had failed to qualify for the World Cup when they lost five of their final six matches, with Andorra nicking a nailbiter in one of the classic internationals at Wembley, after a Government edict that David Beckham had to play to ensure the solvency of the worldwide banking system.

England lost four of their Six Nations matches, but a 47-47 draw against Italy prompted the RFU to give Martin Johnson a 10-year extension to his contract, while the previouscoach, Brian Ashton, who had taken them to a World Cup final, was threatened with 20 years' penal servitude.

What had yet to become Cook's England had begun by losing the Test series to West Indies, which immediately provoked a mass of ticket returns for the Ashes series to follow. Elimination at the first stage of the World Twenty20 increased the pressure on England's leaders. The tournament proved to be a huge embar-rassment all round, and the final at Lord's was played in front of fewer than 500 people as Bangladesh beat Kenya in a one-sided contest reduced to five overs a side.

However, the entire future of English cricket had been predicated on an Ashes victory. In Cardiff, England went 1-0 down in three days. Mitchell Johnson, Australia's pace-bowling sensation, took 16 wickets in the match, taking full advantage of a virgin Test pitch which could have been built with his fast left-arm cuttersin mind.

England acted. In London on the first morning of the Lord's Test, Johnson was intercepted as he made his way through the pavilion towards the Long Room for practice. In the scramble of members, it remains unclear what happened.

Police are still trying to reconstruct the scene, and though nobody cares any more in view of subsequent events, somebody was apparently heard to say above the mêlée: "Get him, lads." Reconstructive digital technology appeared to show that the words were spoken with a South African accent.

Johnson emerged 20 minutes later with a sprained left wrist which ruled him out of the rest of the summer. In subsequent interviews, he said he had not heard his assailant but remembered seeing a tattoo of three lions on the man's upper arm. "It's as if he was a member of some strange cult."

England got out of the match with a draw, but as captain Kevin Pietersen came into the pavilion after 172 not out, he was led away. Despite his claims that it was a fit-up, Pietersen was stripped of the captaincy and fined 20 per cent of his match fee.

Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, announced he would take charge of all team affairs. Clarke said he had never coached a team before and had last played for the Forty Club 15 years ago. But he knew stuff other people didn't and was fluent in four languages. He appointed Cook as captain, as the job needed a public schoolboy and Cook was one of the few around, having been to St Paul's and Bedford. In further sweeping changes, Clarke dropped all comprehensive schoolboys in the England team and wound up the Chance to Shine Project designed to take cricket to all state schools.

Clarke, widely tipped to follow Cook by becoming a knight of the empire, made the Old Etonian John Barclay his assistant coach. Ed Smith, the Old Tonbridgian, came out of retirement to open the batting with Cook. There was general relief that Stuart Broad had been educated at Oakham.

England won the last three matches, with Cook flourishing in the leadership role. The Australians did not appear to have any idea how to cope with the new England, and the tourists' new captain, Darren Pattinson, who was appointed after the original touring party withdrew because of "the Johnson Incident", constantly whinged about being understrength and how Dame Edna Everage could not fill Shane Warne's shoes as his spinner.

Cricket Australia insisted that the guarantee of $20 million from the ECB had nothing to do with their decision to continue the tour, and that the integ-rity of the Ashes had to be preserved at all costs. Andrew Strauss (Radley and Durham) scored three hundreds, one of them match-winning at Headingley, when he seven times put the "new Warne" into the Western Terrace. There was crucial assistance from James Foster (Forest School and Durham), Sam Northeast (Harrow) and Chris Martin, the Coldplay frontman not the New Zealand seam bowler, who attended Sherborne and had played cricket regularly for his village team near Exeter, and sang a duet with Cook at The Oval.

"This is what England cricket has been missing all along," said Clarke. "There'll be no more all-inclusive political correctness. This is thefuture." He has dismissed as ridiculous the suggestion that the Johnson assault was committed by a former agent of the notorious South Africa security service, Boss, got up to look and sound like Pietersen.

India won every match they played in the year. Clarke said it was much too early to say whether England would ever play them again, but thought it extremely unlikely. The Twenty20 Indian Premier League is to be played over 48 weeks in 2010.

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