“England expects that every man will do his duty.”
Admiral Horatio Nelson, on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar, October 1805
"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. […] The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him."
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
"Trescothick, Strauss, Vaughan, Bell, Pietersen, Flintoff, Jones, Giles, Hoggard, Harmison, Jones."
England batting order, unchanged for the first four Tests
It is a quirk of received wisdom that, much like cliché, its basis in subjectivity undermines the essential truths it lays claim to.
Almost a decade has lapsed since what we can call – without equivocation or recourse to received wisdom – ‘the best Test series ever’. Unsurprisingly, the 2005 Ashes series has been so occluded by superlatives that it is almost impossible to separate myth from fact, interpretation from truth, cricket from bullshit.
This is the problem with sport, and time. Or rather, sport’s place in time, and how – like the military conflict it sometimes emulates – the collective memory of an event is shaped by the individual: those who participate, those who observe, and those who critique. There are very few occasions when sport transcends this temporality (the year 1966 hangs like a millstone around every England footballer’s neck) – but sometimes it does, in that heightened instant of the ceaseless present, when our serotonin-fuelled-synapses lift us, euphorically, from the mundanity of our everyday existence.
The impact of the 2005 Ashes series on the collective English memory is well documented. It occupies the centre of a zone of triangulation: the mid-point between the media’s appropriation and refraction of national mythology, critical theory (exemplified by Guy Debord's concept of the spectacle), and the personal histories and performances of its participants, for whom the first two positions are, ironically, meaningless.
The media’s de rigeur deployment of Nelson’s rallying cry prior to every major international sporting event is, more often than not, a precursor for the national team’s failure. England always expects, but as my mother always used to say: “‘I want’, doesn’t get.” Hence decades of World Cup disappointment for football fans; hence centuries of lachrymosity for would-be Olympian squash players.
The connection between an Imperial-era naval victory and a Test series separated by two hundred years exactly is romantically serendipitous: both are cultural by-products of the Rule Britannia grand recit. The association, however, serves a grander narrative purpose: granting succour to superstition, plausibility and metaphysics: was there something written in the stars in the summer of 2005?
Debord’s critique of the spectacle disagrees. These narratives relfect the diminishment of social life. Like Foucault, Debord questions the value of structured knowledge, its connection to subjective history and the incorporation of the past within the permanent present. More prosaically, while we believe the present only becomes meaningful when framed by the past – but we depend upon the media to provide and regulate that framework. We remind ourselves how we reached that Ashes denouement – Captain Michael Vaughan and team lifting the imitation urn amid showers of Npower branded confetti – by retracing our steps, poring over archived news reports, youtube videos, old photographs.
The society of the spectacle craves spectacular events, but after their occurrence they recede into a mediatized atemporality. And still our perception of ‘what happened when…?’ grows ever dimmer by the year: the media, collective memory and the individual imagination conspire to conflate, reconfigure and re-imagine. Thus, it seems scarcely credible that Andrew Flintoff was once a talismanic all-rounder, long before he was a washed-up, would-be-boxer raconteur: the Ricky Hatton of the cricket world.
Technology continues to take us to strange new destinations: in 2005 over-by-over blog feeds, digital photography, online articles and comment pieces, retrospective blogs, cricket books, cricinfo reporting, empirical data and interpretation-shaping analytics bamboozle the armchair enthusiast, while social media further flattens the traditional structures of sports reporting. For the spectator, the images are etched in the memory, but watching (or re-watching) the Ashes 2005 DVD reminds us how much we’ve lost, the simulated linearity competing with its heavily edited and reductive narrative: the verticality of those heady days – the personal, political, economic and social contexts which shaped the outcome – are figuratively lost on the floor the editing suite.
Despite – or perhaps because of – this manipulation, our psychological muscle memory kicks in during these recollected moments of tension, despair and jubilation. This is, naturally, grist to the mill of Debordian thought, for whom the spectacle takes over and lives our lives for us: we ceased to exist except within the mediated narrative of a televised sporting contest and the binary possibilities of the outcome: victory or defeat. Situationism presents a bleak picture of our inability to think critically – and yet these unifying instances of national sporting success leave us emotionally exhilarated, breathless, incapable of assimilating what we have witnessed: a form of collective trauma in reverse.
The 2005 Ashes series is inscribed upon and embedded within the personal histories of those who were there to watch and record it. Every England supporter remembers where they were for that last Test at the Oval in September: the skunk-haired repatriate upstart Kevin Pietersen putting England over the line with a mature and assured 158 stand. Every Australian supporter no doubt remembers it too. Over 7 million people watched the final day of the rain-delayed fifth Test. A significant number wagged off work. One wonders what impact that had on the national economy.
As for me, I was blissed out: sunning myself on an Alghero beach in north western Sardinia. I missed the whole show.
At the start of that summer I was living in a shared house in Brixton with three people I barely knew.
I’d just emerged from two badly broken relationships. The first was with a university friend with whom I’d lived intermittently since 1997; the second a doomed relationship with an art history student which had dragged on for months
These were somewhat self-inflicted. None of us behaved well. The fracturing of my friendship I regret the most, a protracted decline which drew in the aftermath of a booze-soaked weekend in Malmo and Copenhagen, months of mutual antipathy, a drunken, late night semi-throttling over ‘food boundaries’ and the near-impossibility of co-habiting equably thereafter. The least said about the other relationship, the better.
The breakdowns fostered each other – mutually assured destruction by emotional torture – in no small part assisted by my capacity to rub my friend up the wrong way over matters of insignificance (see aforementioned the ‘food boundaries’ incident), and my inability to decisively severe what was clearly evolving into a damaging liaison (needless to say it did).
In hindsight, had either relationship survived the spring of 2005 my memory of that summer would be very different. Living in Brixton with three people I’d never met before – two obnoxious nurses (one male, one female) and a slightly-less-than-obnoxious Portuguese developer – set forth a sequence of small moments around which the Ashes series became a fixed locus.
In truth it helped that my housemates were so unlikeable. The male nurse I rarely saw, as he was working in Southampton while living in London. Whenever he was around he behaved like he was auditioning for Big Brother, all high-camp hysteria. The female nurse and her biker boyfriend – who always parked his fucking bike on the front doorstep – regularly enjoyed noisy sex under my bedroom. Neither lifted a finger to clean: I once found a mudslide of shit on the outside of the downstairs toilet bowl. Sharing our top floor garret, the Portuguese guy and I gelled well.
Added to that, it was a particularly hot London summer – sultry and inebriated, dusky and druggy. The city sweltered in a hazy heatwave from late June until mid-September. Brixton, Clapham and Stockwell were engorged with horny, inebriated and laissez-faire twentysomethings. The top floor of the house was stifling: I often left my window open all day. Everyone was hot and hungering for something. It was a rare place to be – but I remained single for well over a year.
I cannot recall drinking as much, or taking as many mind-altering substances, as I did during that period. Most weeknights I drank (courting oblivion to avoid the animal sex below). Most weekends I drank all weekend. I had a friend living in Clapham and we spent days watching the cricket while getting steadily drunk. Most Saturday nights were spent out of my tree on ecstasy at the now-defunct Telegraph on Brixton Hill, or Fabric in Farringdon. After sleeping all day I’d wake in the mid-afternoon, stumble to Sainsbury’s to buy a bottle of wine and a pizza, consume both and go back to bed before work on Monday.
Mid-way through the summer, one of my housemates’ insufferable friends threw a house party. A bag of magic mushrooms was passed around. Going for a pee, I saw a bathmat come to life, swirling like a sea anemone.
Nostalgia is, by its very definition, inherently bogus. It would be years before I encountered Geoff Dyer’s evocation of marginal existence in 1980s Brixton. But given chemical restructuring of my psyche around that time, it’s almost impossible to view it as anything other than a formative moment of delirious escapism, one which was touched – personally and culturally – by the joyous, the heroic, and the tragic.
That was the summer when jubilant crowds filled Trafalgar Square as London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, pipping Paris as host.
The next day, four young Asian men carrying backpacks filled with explosives travelled down from Luton and detonated their suicide bombs on London’s transport network, killing 52 people and injuring over seven hundred more.
On 21 July, four more young Asian men attempted to blow themselves up in central London, prevented only by the deficiencies of their homemade bombs.
The following day, a 27-year-old Brazilian student, Jean Charles De Menezes, was mistaken by police surveillance teams for one of the would-be bombers and was executed on a tube train at Stockwell station (which I passed through every day).
London life took on a Sodom and Gomorrah quality. News tumbled in us. The grainy camera phone footage from the tube trains; CCTV film of the four bombers departing Luton; the still of a double decker bus ripped apart like a can of corned beef; the x-ray of a bombers backpack and its lethal cargo; the bloodied, bandaged man in a suit; the woman with a paper mask covering her face; identities subsumed by the spectacle. We learned the personal stories much later.
The city was divided into those who had been directly affected by the bombings, and those for whom it seemed like a bizarre simulation. The first suicide bombing to take place on British soil was committed by its own citizens, payback for the invasion of Iraq and perceived persecution of their Muslim fraternity. Suicide bombings rocked Iraq every day that summer, killing scores of innocent Iraqis and turning Sunni against Shia in a spiral of fratricidal madness. For the unscathed and otherwise-unaffected of London, walking their commute home on the evening of 7 July was recast into a supreme act of self-sacrifice and solidarity with the bombing victims. In reality, every day felt like it might be your last.
Another irony of history: the first test at Lords got under way on 21 July, the day of the copycat bombing attacks. Situated alongside the palpable terror of that month, the Ashes should have been an irrelevance. Instead, while the aftermath of the London bombings dominated the front pages, the country collectively seemed to seek out something hopeful on the reverse. We needed heroes to offset the tragedy; here was our counter-narrative to the terror. Sport and war: the connection was inescapable.
The ten year anniversary of English cricket’s finest Ashes victory once finds the national team in uncertain stasis.
Having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against New Zealand at Lords, Alistair Cook’s men underwent such a reversal of fortune at the next test at Headingley that it returned supporters to the bad old days of the 1990s. For despite the hubristic adjectives deployed to describe the closely fought two Test contest – ‘pulsating’, ‘exhilarating’, ‘electrifying’ – the frailties exposed arguably give more cause for concern than reason to be cheerful.
Cricketing fortunes wax and wane. The hapless, Ponting-led Australian team trounced by England in successive series have been restored to the ruthless unit of the Border/Waugh-era under the most recent captain, Michael Clark. A swashbuckling New Zealand team now poses a significant threat under Brendan McCullum. India, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka remain dependably deadly. Even the West Indies show small signs of returning from the wilderness of the 2000s. Which just leaves England scratching about for runs and struggling to find any consistency.
Ten years ago things were very different. A new era of English cricket ushered in by coach Duncan Fletcher and then-captain Nasser Hussein had already brought overseas success in the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and South Africa. Modernisations overseen by the ECB and the tutelage of Fletcher stimulated stability and strength in depth within the team. The victory in 2005 not only reclaimed the Ashes after eighteen years, it also confirmed the end of a period of sagging ineptitude that had dogged English cricket throughout the largely unsuccessful captaincies of Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart. The eleven men assembled for the first test at Lords shared a vulpine hunger.
Flintoff drew the plaudits from the media, but every man played at the peak of their abilities (with the unfortunate exception of Ian Bell’s poor form with the bat and the at times abysmal catching of Geraint Jones and Kevin Pietersen). It is the first - and last - time I can recall England having two rock-solid opening batsmen and an effective four-man pace attack.
Michael Vaughan's shrewd captaincy. Marcus Trescothick’s robust opening. Andrew Strauss’ twin centuries. Kevin Pietersen casually hitting Shane Warne for six after six. Yeoman Matthew Hoggard striding to his mark. Steve Harmison's bouncer drawing blood from Ponting. Ashley Giles’ batting to victory at Trent Bridge. Simon Jones’ devastating reverse swing. Andrew Flintoff and his bad shoulder. Flintoff and his Red Bull. Flintoff and his century. Flintoff's over to Ricky Ponting. Flintoff commiserating Brett Lee. Flintoff and the sideways tongue and the shaved head and the emphatic nod and the Christ-like posture. Flintoff urinating in the Downing Street garden.
Cricketing lore captured in images, platitudes and apocryphy: clichés and received wisdom. Even if they had been able to bottle the winning formula, Flintoff probably would have drunk it on that open topped bus. England were ably assisted by rumoured division within the Australia camp and the fading abilities of its leading lights. If Glenn McGrath hadn’t stepped on that ball. If Brett Lee hadn't been ill. If Shane Warne had caught Kevin Pietersen. If Michael Kasprowicz hadn’t been wrongly given out. If Jason Gillespie had regained some form. If, if, if. Small margins, big gains.
It was all over by the following winter in Australia: homesickness, illness and injury scattered the squad. A Vaughan-less England with Flintoff at the helm were thumped five-nothing in Australia in 2006. The psychological toll of the tour forced Trescothick home. Harmison also suffered. Pity poor Simon Jones: crocked during the fourth test at Trent Bridge in 2005, he didn’t play for England again. By the end of the Ashes whitewash, the team which had been almost a decade in the making had fragmented irreparably.
It was the last Test in England to be broadcast on terrestrial TV, courtesy of Channel 4’s innovative coverage (accompanied by the incongruous deployment of Luis Vega’s ‘Mambo No. 5’). National interest in the team stemmed in no short measure from this fact - that and the fact that there was no international football tournament for the nation to pin its hopes on. Everyone could, and did, watch the cricket. Sky figures for recent Ashes series pale into insignificance against the 7 million who watched the final day's play at the Oval: the proliferation of plurality continues to shred social and cultural cohesion. The impact of a sport being awash with money at the highest level has been its disappearance from our TV screens and the dwindling of grassroots participation.
The summer of 2005 was bookended by two moments of jubilation in Trafalgar: in the centre, terror, horror and fear. At the time few picked up on the symbolic resonance of England's cricketers crossing the capital on an open-topped bus. We were too tied up in the Flintoff myth, the joy of the moment to assimilate it. But it was there in the crowds lining the streets, just as we had done on the morning of 8 July. Perhaps the 2005 Ashes was governed by spectacle – but what a spectacle. Those of us who had grown up during a decade of atrocious cricket could scarcely forget it; a nation of bereaved and ruptured families, healing survivors and traumatised witnesses needed it.
Photo credit: Tim Jenkins for The Guardian.