ENGLAND’S cricketers will be in a rather relaxed mind-set for this week’s fifth and final Ashes Test at The Oval.
Thanks to some shoddy Australian batting displays topped by a total of 60 all out, the urn is already in the bag.
But matters were rather different 10 years ago when Michael Vaughan’s side benefitted from a majestic innings from Kevin Pietersen to secure the series on the final day of a rollercoaster fifth Ashes Test of 2005.
In doing so, England regained the Ashes for the first time since 1987 as part of an encounter that the BBC hailed as “the most thrilling series ever”.
That statement is of little surprise considering the tight margins by which each Test was decided. One match was clinched by a two-run margin with one match drawn with only one wicket remaining and another won by three wickets.
Yet the naysayers predicting a 5-0 Australian whitewash looked on good terms with themselves after the First Test at Lord’s in which the visitors cruised to victory by 239 runs.
This time it was England guilty of two shoddy batting displays as they were sent tumbling for 155 and 180, no match for Australia’s efforts of 190 and 384.
Yet England hit back in thrilling circumstances in the second Test at Edgbaston when Steve Harmison dismissed Michael Kasprowicz with the Aussies two runs short of a tie. The outcome was the narrowest result in Ashes cricket history thus far and a sign of the helter-skelter excitement to come.
In an almost mirror image of the Second Test, England were then within one wicket of taking a 2-1 lead by winning the Third Test at Old Trafford yet Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath clung on doggedly to see out a draw.
The hosts paved the way for an elusive series victory with a thrilling success in the Fourth Test at Trent Bridge in which it was left to Ashley Giles (7no) and Matthew Hoggard (8no) to complete a nervy run-chase.
It meant England could not lose the series but, more importantly, gave the hosts the chance to end an 18-year drought and regain the Ashes if they could avoid defeat in the fifth and final Test at The Oval.
The hosts struck a blow before a ball was bowled as Vaughan won the toss and elected to bat with Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss putting on 82 for the first wicket. Shane Warne soon redressed the balance by taking three quick wickets to leave England 115-3 at lunch with Warne hungry for more victims after the break and snaring Kevin Pietersen for 14.
But in came Andrew Flintoff to form a partnership of 143 with Strauss, whose second century of the series took England to 319-7 at the close of play, though the opener was removed by Warne off an acrobatic catch by Simon Katich.
With showers forecast, England began day two in the ascendency with a tail featuring Geraint Jones, Ashley Giles and Steve Harmison taking them up to 373 by the time they were dismissed.
The Australians were in no mood to let go of the urn and openers Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden put on a century before bad light and light rain came to England’s rescue with the tourists 112-0 at the close of play.
The elements were again on England’s side on the morning of day three where just 14 overs were possible though the Australians, too, had luck on their side as both Langer and Hayden survived strong lbw appeals.
Harmison eventually dismissed Langer after he had made his 22nd Test century but Hayden went on to make three figures before Flintoff struck a blow as the wicket of Ricky Ponting allowed him to equal Ian Botham’s achievement of 300 runs and 20 wickets in an Ashes series.
But the Australians ended day three just 96 runs shy of England’s total with eight wickets in hand before bad light again brought a much-interrupted day to a halt. Everything pointed towards the tourists building a sizeable lead yet the first two sessions on day four transformed the Test in England’s favour.
Wickets tumbled like tenpins starting with the early dismissal of Damien Martyn and, crucially, the removal of Hayden, who was sent packing by Flintoff.
That wicket proved the catalyst for a collapse as the Australians were dismissed for 367 – still six short of the target set by England, who were left thanking a five-wicket return from Flintoff and a four-wicket haul from Hoggard.
With a maximum of four sessions left, it was clear that any sort of decent second innings total would see England at long last regain the Ashes.
There were early scares, however, as Warne quickly removed Strauss for his 167th wicket against England, equalling Dennis Lillee’s Ashes record. Just 11 balls later, umpires Rudi Koertzen and Billy Bowden took the decision that the weather was again that afternoon’s winner as England moved into a 40-run lead without further loss.
It meant anything was technically possible approaching the final day which Australia began in style as Glen McGrath skittled Vaughan and Ian Bell for a pair. Warne and McGrath joined forces to take four wickets before lunch, leaving England 133 runs ahead with five wickets remaining. A quick collapse in the afternoon session and the hosts could have been in trouble.
Yet the stage was set for that man Pietersen, who blasted 15 fours and seven sixes as part of a thrilling innings of 158 which guaranteed England the Ashes.
As cricket writer Simon Barnes put it: “An innings of neurotic violence, of eccentric watchfulness, of brainless impetuosity and incontinent savagery – it was an extraordinary innings, a masterpiece and it secured the Ashes for England.”
Pietersen was admittedly the beneficiary of three dropped chances but The Oval crowd could not care as, with Ashley Giles also adding a fine 59, it was clear from that point on that Australia had run out of time chasing 341 runs halfway through the final day, especially given the deteriorating light and weather conditions.
The Australians were offered the light and accepted it with both teams back in the pavillion waiting for a formal finish which was finally announced at 6.17pm.
England had regained the Ashes – winning the most thrilling series 2-1 – and cue the wild celebrations and Flintoff’s blurry eyes during the triumphant tour of the capital.
It will be rather different this week with the urn already secured and we will miss the thrills and spills and excitement of 2005. Then again, victory assured before the Fifth Test even begins is also a rather sweet feeling.