Ashes 2005: England clinch a photo-finish thriller; Brett Lee-Michael Kasprowicz epic last wicket stand ends three short of a sensational victory

One of the most iconic images in cricket in modern times: Andrew Flintoff (right) consoles Brett Lee after England beat Australia by two runs at Edgbaston in the second Ashes Test in 2005 © Getty Images

On August 7, 2005, England pipped Australia by two runs at Edgbaston in what was arguably the greatest Test match ever played. Jaideep Vaidya narrates the story of three and a half days of pulsating cricketing in which the result was decided by a spectacular all-round display by Andrew Flintoff and an umpiring call.

Brett Lee, bat in hand, is crouching on the ground, face down. His partner, Michael Kasprowicz, is squatted in the exact position at the other end of the crease. Edgbaston has erupted as England celebrate the fall of the last Australian wicket, three runs from what would have been a knockout 2-0 lead for the visitors in the five-match series. But to Lee, who was unbeaten on 43 and had played a valiant knock to take his team so near, yet so far, it would have been difficult for him to hear anything at that point. Disappointment is not a great emotion to experience. But this was something far more. This was agony, which could suck the soul right out of you.

Ashes 2005: England clinch a photo-finish thriller; Brett Lee-Michael Kasprowicz epic last wicket stand ends three short of a sensational victory

Michael Kasprowicz (top) and Brett Lee of Australia bow their heads after England defeated Australia by two runs on Day Four of the second npower Ashes Test match between England and Australia at Edgbaston on August 7, 2005 in Birmingham, England © Getty Images

As Lee stared at the blades of grass, perhaps being watered by silent tears, Andrew Flintoff walked over to his opponent, squatted down, put an arm over his shoulder and said something. There have been a couple of versions as to what exactly Flintoff muttered — both at the opposite ends of the spectrum of compassion. One version goes, as was narrated by Flintoff himself in an entertaining chat on BBC Radio 5 Live, “It’s 1-1 son.” It sounds rude, almost unsportsmanlike; you wish it isn’t true, but then you also realise it’s very much possible given the overflowing emotions and adrenalin behind the rivalry that is the Ashes. The other version restores your faith in humanity and gives you a warm feeling in your heart: “You were unbelievable,” is what Flintoff is supposed to have said, according to a biography written on him by Tanya Aldred, titled Freddie Flintoff — England’s hero. If true, it was a selfless gesture committed in admiration of an opponent after an epic tussle where there unfortunately can only be one winner.

The scene was captured by photographers and went on to become one of the most symbolic snapshots of that blockbuster contest between the old rivals. It bared resemblance to the famous photograph of Pele swapping his jersey with Bobby Moore and embracing him after Brazil beat England 1-0 in the 1970 FIFA World Cup.

“He was my friend as well as the greatest defender I ever played against,” Pele was to say years later. “The shirt he wore against me in that 1970 match is my prized possession.”

Whether Flintoff and Lee had the same mutual respect towards each other, and the truth behind their photograph — which is definite to go down the annals of the game as one of the best examples of what a sporting combat should be — will only be known to the two protagonists. But whichever is the case, both sound equally believable given the happenings over the three and a half days that preceded that moment.

England had not won an Ashes series since Allan Border and his ‘worst-ever Australian side to tour England’ had shocked the hosts and handed a humiliating 4-0 defeat back in 1989. Sixteen years was a long time and had seen the emergence and retirements of many great English players who had yearned to hold that coveted little urn, but had failed repeatedly. Australia were entering the 2005 edition having won 19 and drawn two of their previous 22 series; England, meanwhile, were coming in quite chirpy and confident themselves after a series triumph down in South Africa the previous year. The Australians had begun their tour of England with a Twenty20 game in which they were bowled out for 79 and were then handed a shock defeat by Bangladesh in the first match of the triangular One-Day International (ODI) series. England and Australia, expectedly, met in the final and shared the NatWest Trophy after the match ended in a tie.

England’s limited-over performance had energised the local media prior to the start of the five-match Test series. The enthusiasm was high, more so because it was the first time they would get to see the hot new immigrant prospect from South Africa, Kevin Pietersen, play on their own shores. Pietersen had impressed one and all after his ODI debut in Zimbabwe the preceding year and had already scored three centuries against his country of origin — something the English press thoroughly enjoyed. They had equally built up the partnership of Flintoff and Pietersen, both explosive batsmen who had carved a reputation of playing positive, aggressive and entertaining cricket. However, England were brought to the ground by Ricky Ponting‘s world beaters in the first Test at Lord’s, which Australia won comprehensively by 239 runs, despite being bowled out for 190 on the first day and Pietersen’s two half centuries on Test debut. Within no time, the headlines in the newspapers changed from words of enthusiastic and optimistic puns to the likes of “Vaughan Again Losers”.

On the morning of the second Test at Edgbaston, England were given a massive shot in the arm after Glenn McGrath tripped over a stray cricket ball on the field while the Australians were warming up with a session of tag rugby. McGrath was clearly Australia’s best pace bowler and had just taken his 500th Test wicket during his nine for 82 match haul at Lord’s. The England squad would have watched with sadistic pleasure as McGrath was wheeled off the field on a groundsman’s cart with a tear in his ankle ligament. “I was smiling, ecstatic,” Flintoff recalled, as quoted by the Guardian. “The coaching staff told us to think nothing’s happened, don’t react. I think I went out the back cheering, singing Christmas carols.”

England were handed a further boost at the toss when Ponting called right and, to the shock of Michael Vaughan and the entire English fraternity at Edgbaston, put England in to bat on what looked like a perfect batting track. “With the overhead conditions as they are and the wicket a couple of days behind despite the sun, hopefully we can do some damage this morning,” was Ponting’s explanation. Vaughan licked his palms in joy and gleefully sent his openers, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss, in. Perhaps it was the ego of Ponting and Australia talking — that they can skittle England for a paltry total without McGrath. But Ponting had gaffed; and the English support at all stadia ensured that he did not forget it throughout the trip.

So pleased were England with their unexpected double booster that they scored 407 on the first day itself, at over five runs an over, before being bowled out. This included a stand of 112 between Trescothick and Strauss — England’s first century opening partnership in the Ashes for eight years — that took them to 132 for one at lunch. This was followed by another aggressive partnership, one that the crowd had waited for long, between Pietersen and Flintoff in the afternoon. The duo added 103 in just 17 overs after England lost three quick wickets in the post-lunch session. Flintoff had begun tentatively, surviving a chip shot that went just over mid-off and a French cut that whisked past his stumps. But as he realised that luck was on his side, the typical swagger was out as he began blindly hooking Lee over fine-leg and slogging Shane Warne over cow corner for half a dozen. His 68 off 62 balls, which included six fours and five sixes, reminded the viewers — whoever were old enough to have witnessed it — of Ian Botham‘s 1981 histrionics. Pietersen, on the other hand, was his usual swashbuckling self: he pulled, cut, drove and flicked off both front and back foot as the crowd began to chant: “Easy! Easy! Easy!” Pietersen hit 10 fours and a six in his 71 and became only the sixth Englishman to score three consecutive half-centuries after making his debut.

The English tail also played their part — the last four contributing 75 between them — as the day ended with England being bowled out for 407. Matthew Hoggard got his namesake Matthew Hayden out for the first golden duck of his career to give England the perfect start as they took the field. Justin Langer and Ponting led the fightback via a brilliant counter-attack, both scoring half-centuries. Ponting went from 31 to 51 in a mere seven balls before an attempted sweep off Ashley Giles found his top edge that was taken by Vaughan at short fine-leg. Giles, who had copped a lot of criticism after the first Test, took two more wickets as he dug into the middle order. Flintoff and Simon Jones then got the Edgbaston crowd acquainted with what was an impeccable spell of reverse swing bowling pitched right in the block hole as they tore through the lower order; Flintoff picked up two wickets in as many balls to wrap up the innings for 308, giving England a handy lead of 99.

The beginning of England’s second innings saw a near déjà vu of 1993’s Ball of the Century when Warne bowled Strauss around the legs with an unbelievable delivery that turned square twice over. However, England finished Day Two with a lead of 124 and nine wickets in hand. There was plenty of time left in the Test match for the hosts to set an impossible target and guarantee a win. But the home side were to be in for more trouble the following morning after Lee dismissed Trescothick and Vaughan early in the same over, before getting rid of nightwatchman Hoggard in his next over. Warne then scalped Pietersen and Ian Bell in successive overs and, all of a sudden, England were tottering at 75 for six. The Australian crowd finally found their voice and began chanting their ace leg-spinner’s name.

Flintoff had walked in at No 7 and had just the wicketkeeper-batsman Geraint Jones and the tail to support him. The talismanic all-rounder soon had the hearts of the partisan crowd in their mouths soon as he appeared to have pulled a muscle in his left shoulder. There was shocked silence around the ground as the England physio came out to treat their star player, who was visibly in some discomfort, much to Ponting’s joy.

Ashes 2005: England clinch a photo-finish thriller; Brett Lee-Michael Kasprowicz epic last wicket stand ends three short of a sensational victory

The English physio attends to Flintoff’s troublesome shoulder.

However, to the hosts’ delight, Flintoff soon shook whatever it was off as he eased into his fluent strokes, applying minimal pressure on his left hand. Very soon, he regained enough strength in his shoulder to slog effortlessly over the deep mid-wicket region. One of the best shots of the day came when the burly lad stayed back in his crease on the back-foot and drove Lee straight down the ground and onto the roof for six. “Ohh! Low!! Massive!! Massive!!” yelled Mark Nicholas, in his electrifying voice, in the commentary box.

Flintoff was almost out of support when England reached 131 for nine, with just No 11 Simon Jones left. The lead was 230 runs with more than two days to play, which was clearly not enough. Luckily for Flintoff, Jones stuck around for about 40 minutes in which the duo added another 51 runs in just 49 balls to their team’s total. Flintoff was the last man out for 73 in a total of 182, that came off just 86 balls and included six fours and four sixes. “It was electrifying being at the other end,” Jones was to say. “I usually only get to bat with the other bowlers. I’ve never seen the ball struck that hard by anyone.” Vaughan added to the praise of his trump card, in a column for the Telegraph: “When the Aussies get a sniff, they go for your throat. Then Flintoff went out and played the same way again because of the confidence he’d found in his bowling. He was like Botham in ’81 — this big busty all-rounder hitting sixes off the back foot over long-on and smacking it over cover, and the crowd was football-style. The most crucial stand of my captaincy was that 51 for the last wicket between him and Simon Jones.” Perhaps the best gesture came from Warne, who after bowling Flintoff went up to him and said, “Freddie, well played.”

Australia still had almost two and a half days to get 282. Langer and Hayden got them off to a good start and took the score to 47 in 12 overs, before Vaughan brought Flintoff into the attack. What followed was the one of the best first overs of a spell you would ever see, and possibly one of the greatest overs in Ashes cricket, as Flintoff dismissed Langer and Ponting within six balls. “That’s probably the best first over I’ve ever bowled,” Flintoff admitted later. “I was slightly fortunate to get Justin [via an inside-edge onto the stumps], as [the ball] hit his arm and his thigh — but to Ricky the first four balls were reverse-swinging, and I thought I’ll just swap it round here, and it went! It was great.”

As Flintoff stood tall in an upright position after dismissing the Australian captain, arms raised and fingers pointing to the sky, waiting for his teammates to come and pounce on him, it was the moment when England began to believe that the ultimate was possible. Could they win this match, and actually go on to snatch the urn from their superior rivals? Vaughan was later to admit that it was the very moment when he began to believe so. And to think, it wouldn’t even have happened if umpire Billy Bowden hadn’t called a no-ball on the final delivery of the over: the extra delivery had resulted in Ponting’s wicket.

In just 22 overs, 47 for no loss became 137 for seven as Harmison, Hoggard, Giles and Simon Jones joined the party and ran through the top and middle orders. England claimed the extra half an hour at the end of the day’s play, believing they can bowl out Australia in that time. But Michael Clarke and Warne strung together a defiant partnership and reached the final over of the day unscathed. Harmison, however, decided to have the final say as he foxed Clarke with a slower one that rattled his stumps to make it 175 for eight at stumps. At the end of Day Three, Australia still needed 107 runs to win, with Warne, Lee and Kasprowicz left to pull off a miracle.

A packed Edgbaston greeted the two teams on what was certain to be a super Sunday. England were confident of bowling out their guests out and hit the pubs early. However, Lee and Warne were stubborn as ever as they slowly began ticking off the runs. “With Brett in the middle, we talked about relaxing and having fun,” recalled Kasprowicz, telling much of Australia’s own confidence in their tail. It took nine overs for Flintoff to finally get Warne to tread onto his stumps and be given out hit-wicket. At 220 for nine, Australia were still more than 60 runs short of a win and the advantage was back with the hosts.

However, Lee and Kasprowicz were not going to give up so easily, in spite of Flintoff unleashing bouncers on the former that struck him on various parts of the body. But as Australia’s deficit slowly reduced, England’s panic grew. “They were trying to get us out each ball, bouncers and yorkers,” said Kasprowicz. “Looking at it as a bowler, I think England made a mistake by trying to come up with too many wicket-taking balls, and as a result they were straining a bit too much and giving us some stuff to hit, as well as no-balls and leg-byes… It wasn’t until we got to nine runs that they started bowling good line and length.”

Edgbaston was down to a pin-drop silence as Australia’s deficit cut into single figures. At 267 for nine, Simon Jones lost the ball in the crowd and dropped Kasprowicz at third-man. It seemed like the last nail in the coffin for the hosts. “It’s probably the worst I’ve ever felt in my life,” said Jones. “I lost the ball in the crowd and I just had to guess where it was going. I thought I’d dropped the Ashes.” At 272 for nine, with 10 to win for Australia, the superstitions in either dressing room had well kicked in. “I could see the Aussie viewing room and they were like statues. In our room it was like a game of musical chairs going on,” said then England assistant coach Matthew Maynard.

Ashes 2005: England clinch a photo-finish thriller; Brett Lee-Michael Kasprowicz epic last wicket stand ends three short of a sensational victory

Michael Kasprowicz takes evasive action that led to his heat-breaking dismissal © Getty Images

Then, at 279 for nine, Harmison ran in to bowl to Kasprowicz. It was a short-pitched delivery which seemed to have taken an extra nip off the surface, enough to catch Kasprowicz off guard. The No 11 batsman awkwardly looked to pull it, but the ball clipped his gloves and went to Geraint Jones’s left, who put in a timely dive and snapped at it. It was all over.

“Cue craziness,” is how Pietersen described it in his autobiography, Crossing the Boundary, as England celebrated a once-in-a-lifetime, nail-biting two-run victory, even as the two Australian batsmen slouched to the ground. It was the tightest ever run-margin for a win in the 128-year history of the Ashes, and also the first time England had come from behind to level an Ashes series since Headingley, 1981. What made it even harder to swallow for Australia was that replays showed Kasprowicz’s hand was off the bat when the ball clipped his glove, meaning he was not out. But it would have been impossible for umpire Bowden to have spotted that in real time.

That England would have had no chance to come back into the series had they lost and slumped to a 0-2 deficit was a fact that they were well aware of. “I knew that if they had got over the line, it would have been Ashes over. We now knew we could win,” said Vaughan. With the series at 1-1 and three more matches to go, both teams were still in it, and England definitely had the momentum going into the next Test at Old Trafford. But even before the first ball could be bowled at Manchester, the ‘Greatest Test’ DVD was already selling like hot pancakes. Three more Test matches later, so was the ‘Greatest series’ DVD. England’s win had changed cricket, as a fan was to remind Kasprowicz later: “There was an Indian guy who came up to me later and said thank you for saving Test cricket. If you had got the runs the series would have been dead and Test cricket would have been dead. You single-handedly changed cricket.” That Kasprowicz was actually not out hardly mattered to the fan, or anyone for that matter.

Brief scores:

England 407 (Marcus Trescothick 90, Kevin Pietersen 71, Andrew Flintoff 68; Shane Warne 4 for 116) and 182 (Andrew Flintoff 73; Shane Warne 6 for 46, Brett Lee 4 for 82) beat Australia 308 (Justin Langer 82, Ricky Ponting 61; Andrew Flintoff 3 for 62, Ashley Giles 3 for 78) and 279 (Brett Lee 43*, Shane Warne 42; Andrew Flintoff 4 for 79) by 2 runs.

Man of the Match: Andrew Flintoff

Ashes 2005: England clinch a photo-finish thriller; Brett Lee-Michael Kasprowicz epic last wicket stand ends three short of a sensational victory

Michael Kasprowicz (left) and Brett Lee relax in the spa bath at the Malmaison Hotel after their last wicket partnership of 59 brought Australia within two runs of England in the Second npower Ashes Test on August 7, 2005 in Birmingham, United Kingdom © Getty Images

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)