TO the question “what is the greatest sporting event that you have covered, or are indeed likely to cover?”, I can answer as confidently now as I could when I climbed into a taxi to leave The Oval cricket ground on the evening of Monday, September 12, 2005.
The sporting event in question had just concluded, England having won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years under Michael Vaughan’s captaincy.
It brought to an end almost two months of nerve-shredding tension and unremitting drama, which saw a great Australia side – arguably the greatest in the game’s history – sensationally toppled.
“Where to, guv?” I remember the taxi driver asking.
“Anywhere that sells a stiff drink,” I recollect returning, knowing that the first few pints – on The Yorkshire Post expenses, of course – would not have touched the sides.
Ah, happy days...
Even more so now, of course, in these unhappiest of days, with cricket in abeyance due to what Donald Trump describes as the “Chinese virus” – proof positive, some would say, that oafs are not disqualified from the office of Leader of the Free World.
Almost 15 years on – can it really be that long ago? – I can still reel off what happened in that series without even a cursory look at any scorecard/reference book.
England lost the first Test at Lord’s by 239 runs (“here we go again,” everyone thought) before winning the second Test at Edgbaston by two runs in perhaps the greatest Test match ever played.
The third Test at Old Trafford was drawn with Australia nine wickets down in their second innings and clinging on for dear life, while England won the fourth at Trent Bridge by three wickets in another nail-biting finish.
With only a draw needed by Australia to retain the Ashes as holders and tie the series 2-2, England knew that they had to avoid defeat at The Oval in the fifth and final Test.
Thanks to Kevin Pietersen’s incredible, hair-raising, frankly absurd 158 they emerged with a draw, sparking unforgettable scenes in and around Kennington, and, indeed, all around the country.
I distinctly remember that the first time that I actually thought that England were going to win the series was on my taxi journey in the other direction – ie, to the ground from my hotel for that historic last day.
Until then, I was pessimistically adamant that Australia, by hook or by crook, would somehow find a way to pull it off (after all, they nearly always did), and they still surely would have done that time had Shane Warne not dropped Pietersen at first slip early on day five off pace bowler Brett Lee.
What a cruel irony it was that Warne, whose bowling during that series was the greatest that I have witnessed in the flesh (40 wickets at 19.92), should be the culprit, as it were.
Indeed, the sight of Warne bowling to Pietersen that summer was the closest thing that I have seen to cricketing nirvana: two all-time greats going at each other hammer and tongs with all their heavenly skills on show.
In fact, I find it difficult to believe that anyone has bowled better than Warne did that year, which only made England’s triumph all the more remarkable.
Just as the final day of that series sticks in my mind, so, too, does the opening day.
I covered it not from Lord’s cricket ground, as should have been the case, but off the television at the Marriott Hotel in nearby Regent’s Park.
It’s all right, The Yorkshire Post knew about it, so I will not get into trouble for owning up now, and it wasn’t caused by a particularly bad hangover or anything like that.
No, it was simply because the demand for places in the Lord’s press box was so high, and, if memory serves, because it was a relatively late decision on this newspaper’s part to staff the series, so there was not enough room for yours truly.
Even so, as one or two sharp-witted satirists pointed out at the time, it was a bit rich that the cricket correspondent of The Yorkshire Post was unable to get accreditation for the opening day of the series whereas a certain BBC weatherman somehow managed to find his way into the press box.
Why, it would be a bit like John Kettley – to pick a totally random example – finding that he could not get in front of the camera to do his job because yours truly was presenting the forecast instead.
For the rest of that Test and series, however, I had the necessary accreditation and a bird’s-eye view of a remarkable rollercoaster, a privilege for which I shall always be grateful.
It was emotionally draining at times – not least because you’d find yourself waking up in the middle of the night with various scenarios racing around your head, and more than one “intro” was sleepily jotted down by bedroom light and adapted, or ditched, depending on events.
Even now, simply writing these words and recalling those times, I am reminded how sport gets into the soul and never lets go.
At the moment, we do not have any sport to watch, of course, and are no doubt appreciating its value all the more because of it, while perhaps also reminding ourselves of its proper place when set against the much more urgent business of life and death.
In the final analysis, sport is nothing more than glorious entertainment and escapism, and, for me, never were those desires more satisfied than in 2005.
I remember after it was all over feeling physically ill.
For days afterwards, I had stomach cramps that seemed to come and go (I suppose it could have been the 10 pints a night), as if the tension was slowly draining away from the body.
Goodness knows what it must have been like for Vaughan and his players.
Indeed, when that much emotional energy is invested into something, both physical and mental, it has to have an impact and take time for everything to get back to normal (Eoin Morgan and his players must have experienced something similar last summer when they won the World Cup).
As great as that triumph was, and as much as the Ben Stokes-inspired ‘Miracle of Headingley ’19’ was similarly memorable, I have not seen anything to compare with 2005.
The backstory was a factor, with England having not won the urn for almost two decades, and the slow build-up of drama, like an ‘unputdownable’ crime thriller, only added to it all.
It was, when you think about it, a great England team, as well as a great Australian one, featuring Vaughan himself, the openers Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss, Pietersen, Ian Bell, Freddie Flintoff, and so on.
The pace bowling quartet, led by Flintoff and including Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones, was up there with the best that there has even been, while spinner Ashley Giles and wicketkeeper Geraint Jones also played their part.
I felt gratitude when I climbed into that taxi outside The Oval on that distant September evening, most assuredly, but also a sense of underlying sadness.
For I instinctively knew that I would never see or cover anything like it again.
Best of the rest – some other highlights
AS a Lincoln City supporter, it did not get much better than covering the Imps’ 5-1 aggregate success against Manchester City in the League Cup second round in 1996.
I was in my second year as a journalist and working for the weekly Lincoln Chronicle.
The Imps won the first leg 4-1 at Sincil Bank and the second leg 1-0 at Maine Road.
Sticking with Lincoln City (and why the devil not?), another highlight was covering their FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal for this newspaper in 2017.
Why, it was the only way that I could get a ticket for the game at the Emirates, and I successfully persuaded the sports editor that, seeing as The Yorkshire Post’s tentacles do stretch down to Lincoln, the match was worth staffing.
Not even a 5-0 defeat for a Lincoln side then managed by Huddersfield Town brothers Danny and Nicky Cowley took the gloss off a memorable day.
Cricket-wise, other great highlights were covering Yorkshire’s Championship titles in 2014 and 2015.
If I was to pick one especially memorable Yorkshire match, it would be when I covered Notts’ visit to Scarborough in 2001 for the Nottingham Evening Post.
The incredible Darren Lehmann smashed 191 from 103 balls, still Yorkshire’s highest one-day innings.