Revisiting England’s overshadowed summer of perfection, 20 years on

<span>Nasser Hussain and Andrew Strauss after <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:England;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">England</a> had won the first Test against <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:New Zealand;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">New Zealand</a> in May 2004.</span><span>Photograph: Philip Brown/Popperfoto/Getty Images</span>

The summer of 2005 was, to state the obvious, special for England’s men’s Test side. The Ashes regained after the misery of the 90s, the wild entry of Kevin Pietersen, an open-top bus around Trafalgar Square – a barely believable sight in today’s paywall era.

But perfection? That came the summer before with seven wins from seven home Tests, a streak of victories that would end at eight in the winter against South Africa. Stephen Fleming’s New Zealand were swept aside in three, Brian Lara’s West Indies in four. Michael Vaughan’s England appeared ready for Ricky Ponting’s Australia.

The run began in May with a twisted knee. Vaughan, who had just led his team to a series victory in the Caribbean, went to sweep a net bowler before the first Test at Lord’s against New Zealand. Cue a stretcher for Vaughan and the call to Middlesex’s Andrew Strauss for a debut. “Everything about him just looked right from the first moment I saw him,” Marcus Trescothick later wrote of Strauss in his autobiography. “He netted right, practised right, prepared right, even walked out to the middle with me right.” A lovestruck opener had found the perfect partner.

Strauss hit 112 in his first innings and was on 83 in a chase of 282 when Nasser Hussain, playing his 96th Test, ran his partner out. The next man in, a battle-hardened Graham Thorpe, was quick to relieve Hussain from the guilt of his error. “Look, you miserable git, stop behaving like a pork chop,” said Thorpe, according to Hussain’s later retelling. “Let’s win this game.” With 139 still to get, Hussain agreed. He secured a hundred and victory with consecutive shots in what was to be his final Test, the decision to retire made in his mind earlier in the game. “When Strauss scored his hundred, I felt a calmness descend over me,” Hussain wrote in his autobiography. “I realised that it was somebody else’s turn now.”

Three days after the win Hussain announced his retirement from all forms of the game. It stopped England from having to make a tricky call for the second Test at Headingley when Vaughan returned. “[Hussain] would have had to play the next game and Strauss, despite his heroics, would have been dropped,” Vaughan wrote in Calling The Shots. Before Hussain’s public pronouncement, Shane Warne had written in the Times that Trescothick should be the man to make way, having “been found out at Test level over the past two years”. Hundreds followed for Trescothick and Geraint Jones in Leeds before Thorpe’s unbeaten fourth-innings 104 at Trent Bridge completed the whitewash.

Centuries flowed across England’s batting order but the series headliner was a 25-year-old quick in his frightening pomp. Steve Harmison, with bounce to follow you round corners, took 21 wickets against New Zealand, only a few months on from his epic seven for 12 at Sabina Park. Mike Selvey, writing in these pages midway through the season, was adamant: “His position as the most deadly pace bowling weapon in the game is unquestioned.”

The West Indies series began at the back end of July, as did the finest few weeks of Rob Key’s career. Replacing the injured Mark Butcher for the first Test at Lord’s, Key was waiting to bat when Vaughan delivered an offhand comment: “A day to get on the honours board, Keysy.” A maiden Test century followed, turning into 221. “Vaughan was clever,” wrote Key in his autobiography. “He knew how to plant a seed in someone’s head … He could make a player feel alive, at the heart of the team, without even trying.”

A resurgent Ashley Giles took nine wickets at Lord’s with his left-arm tweak and did the same in the second Test at Edgbaston. At Old Trafford Key trumped his double hundred with an unbeaten 93 in the chase, the series secured with his pal Andrew Flintoff at the other end. “The one thing I always wanted, after everything we’d been through, from age-group cricket to academies and onwards, was for me and Fred to walk off the pitch together after helping England to win a Test match.” Key later wrote. “That was the dream.”

Flintoff’s career was always about the moments but the numbers were spectacular that summer too, averaging more than 60 with the bat and under 25 with the ball in Tests. Nine one-day internationals brought three hundreds and 11 wickets at 16.81. “I saw no harm before the third Test at Old Trafford in talking him up as arguably the best cricketer in the world at the time,” Vaughan wrote in his autobiography.

Not everything was rosy. For all his on-field success, Harmison struggled with his mental health as the summer wore on. “I could feel the brightness being replaced with a cloak of darkness,” he wrote in his autobiography. “That’s the thing with depression. It doesn’t give a shit who you are, what you are, where you are … It doesn’t care if you’re the No 1 bowler in the world.”

Somehow, Harmison took nine wickets at the Oval for the seventh victory. “Before that Test match I wasn’t in a great place mentally,” Harmison tells the Spin. “But because I’d bowled so much, and my action was so repetitive all I had to make sure was get through five overs of a spell and recover from that. The bowling action looked after itself. I could’ve done it with my eyes closed.”

Despite his inner turmoil, Harmison looks back fondly on the collective efforts of that summer. “Everywhere we went, we all went,” he says. “That group was so tight, so together. To see other people’s success, that was always special – 2005 will always define that team, but 2004 made that team.”

This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.