It is half my life-time ago that England last held the Ashes and tonight they are regained after the most nerve-wracking series I have watched.
Cricket is a finer sport than any other. It is as complex as chess and as strenuous as triathlon. It requires physical and mental courage, patience, dexterity, control, natural skill and supreme endurance.
The pleasure is not just in beating Australia but in the manner that England have beaten Australia. This is a team with living legends like Warne and McGrath, players of the last decade like Hayden and Gilchrist and emerging players such as Brett Lee and Michael Clarke. No. The real thrill comes in having watched our players out perform them and the averages speak for themselves.
The real difference between the two teams was exactly that - England were the better team. A collection of exceptionally talented players more tightly bound than the other side. In so many areas of the game our players just pip the other side. So many players shone and someone always stood up and did the job no matter how perilous the situation. I make only two changes to this team for the immediate future. Only Ian Bell failed to deliver any resounding contribution in any game and I felt all along that Collingwood or Thorpe should have been there in his place. With Thorpe retired, Collingwood or Robert Key must step in. And Geraint Jones, who struggled behind the stumps, must be replaced with a specialist wicketkeeper. We need a keeper who can bat, rather than a batsman who can keep.
Of the Aussies, so many players failed to turn up. Hayden, Langer, Gilchrist, Gillespie, Kasprowicz, Katich and Martyn. Warne, McGrath, Clarke and Lee were the only men on the pitch half the time. (Brett Lee is the real deal. He was their best player besides Warne and he is the next great name in Aussie fast bowling).
Warne and Flintoff were the biggest contributors and to be fair it is hard to separate them. Warne took 40 wickets (thats 40% of the possible total and in the event he took very nearly half of all Aussie wickets!!!) and scored 249 runs. Flintoff took 24 wickets and scored 402 runs. Flintoff wins, but Warne is a living legend and we will never see spin bowling like that again.
But I have determinedly not mentioned two men so far. The defining difference between the two teams was leadership and the biggest cheer of all is reserved for Michael Vaughan. He designed this victory, he lead this victory and he played his part in it too. He inspired, controlled, contained, encouraged, calmed and calculated. He also scored the highest single innings score of all (166 at Old Trafford). He was awesome. Ponting on the other hand was panicked, scared, lost and clueless. He had no plan and could not even respond when the world realised what Vaughan and Fletcher had done.
Vaughan enabled England's bowlers to suffocate the Aussie batting with plans and imaginative fields and they bowled like a relay team (of doctors performing "the snip"!). It was constant and un-relenting. The most destructive batsman in the world, Gilchrist never made it beyond 49 and in the first four test matches only one Aussie scored a century!
So once again, just as in rugby, leadership, discipline, respect and team work have carried the national team to the top of the world (albeit a small world in cricket!). Sport is more than skill and fitness. Sport is desire, confidence, character, sportsmanship and most of all self-sacrifice for the team. Whilst cricket right now is awesome, Football in this country is, and has been for sometime, awful and it will have to understand that before it will ever rise to the top.
The back pages will now be given back to the world of self obsessed, violent and obscene soccer players but for now the beautiful game is Strauss diving for a catch or cutting through point, Flintoff pulling for six or moving a ball back off the seam, Vaughan driving through the covers or plotting a wicket, Trescothick clipping through square leg, Pietersen hooking for six, Harmison bowling a yorker, Jones reversing the swing, Hoggard swinging and beating the bat, Giles just holding everything together and England lifting the Ashes.
Well done and thank you.