September 3, 2019
On 15 August 2005, around 6pm, in that fug of early motherhood, I pushed my 15-month-old daughter out of the ground at Old Trafford and down the Great Stone Road. Away we went, buggy and all, away from one of the greatest Ashes Tests.
Why I did not stay that extra half-hour and watch the last gasps I cannot remember – I think I was worried that she was hungry or tired – but what does stick with me is the noise that followed us the two miles home, roars and gasps tracing every step to the front door – still the only time I can remember hearing the cricket ground from our street, though aural flotsam and jetsam from the other Old Trafford often flies by on the wind.
That morning the queues for the final day had started long before dawn – Lancashire had set the prices at £10 for adults and £5 for juniors in the hope that a few people would turn up on what was forecast to be a sunny day. By 8.30am the gates were closed with 20,000 locked outside and the England team ran out to warm up in front of a full house for the first time in their lives.
After the two-run thriller at Edgbaston cricket fever had started to spread with seismic speed and centuries from Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss and a 600th wicket for Shane Warne had only stoked the mood – on a workday Monday nearly eight million people were watching on television.
It was a mini epic as Australia attempted to bat out for the draw – spearheaded by Ricky Ponting’s chanceless 156 against a ball reverse‑swinging at 90mph and Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones at the height of their powers. When Ponting was finally out (just after I had left) the No 11, Glenn McGrath, and Brett Lee somehow saw out the final four overs.
Australia celebrated as if they had won, something seized on by Vaughan, and at Trent Bridge a week later England inched into the lead and finally, famously, regained the Ashes thanks to some Kevin Pietersen sorcery at the Oval.
But despite its No 1 status in the Old Trafford Test pantheon – a claim that may have raised a modest eyebrow from Jim Laker, whose 19 for 90 in 1956 was not all bad – England did not win in 2005. In fact England have not beaten Australia at Old Trafford since ye olde 1981, when a fresh-faced, neatly bearded, slim, helmetless Ian Botham put on his spurs and gracefully slashed Australia for 118 – the innings he and Mike Brearley consider the greatest of his career.
A wander down YouTube’s memory lane reveals a perfect gem, something even better than in the mind’s eye – a cavalier in a short‑sleeved cable knit blind‑hooking Dennis Lillee off his eyebrows and driving on tiptoe as Richie Benaud quietly, and repeatedly, despairs: “They really musn’t give this fellow room to play outside the off stump.”
Old Trafford looks on ecstatic, vast open stands and a few tin shacks, with what looks like factory chimneys and Del Boy’s car lot in the background.
Australia’s batsmen then gave valiant chase of just over 500, with gritty centuries from Allan Border and Graham Yallop, but England won by 103 runs and the Ashes, against every single odd, were theirs.
Unfortunately I have no memory of this game as I spent the summer sticking newspaper cuttings into my Royal Wedding scrapbook. But I do remember the next six Manchester Ashes games – three Australian wins and three draws. The first came in 1985, when Australia batted out the Test thanks to another century from Border, 146 runs carved out of obstinacy, to hold off Phil Edmonds and John Emburey – neither Botham nor any of the other seamers took a wicket in the second innings. But no matter, England were on the way to winning the Ashes gloriously at the Oval – inhale deeply, it was to be their last home victory for 20 years.
Four years later and England had hit their nadir and fallen deeper. Australia took the opportunity during the summer of the four captains to clinch the Ashes at Old Trafford with two games still to play. Robin Smith and Jack Russell made centuries but England were done over by Geoff Lawson and Terry Alderman and the announcement mid-match that a rebel team was to tour South Africa – three of the members were on the pitch for England at the time.
To ring the changes, Old Trafford held the first Test of the 1993 series but the result was the same. A 179-run win for Australia was dominated by Warne’s ball of the century, bowled from what was then the Stretford End – now, aptly enough, the home of the party stand. Four years later Australia won again, this time with Steve Waugh grinding out two centuries and by sheer willpower pulling Australia back into the series they had been losing 1-0. Not, alas, for long.
Then came 2005 but that drama could not disguise the fact that Old Trafford had fallen on hard times and it dropped off the Ashes rota in 2009. During the eight years between 2005 and the next time Old Trafford held an Ashes Test in 2013, the ground was transformed. The east-west facing square was lifted 90 degrees, so that the sun no longer blinded the players in late afternoon, the pavilion was extended and the first of the huge red cuboids landed.
England, in celebration of their return, then regained the Ashes in 2013 in the most anticlimactic way possible, after unrelenting rain curtailed the final day.
Which brings us to Wednesday, a Test starting the day most kids go back to school. Can the tables be turned after 38 years? The tea leaves read well: a pearl-clutching 1-1 after the second Headingley miracle, the first four days sold out and Jack Leach’s optician appearing on BBC Radio 2. There is just the small problem of the weather forecast …