England, as a nation, entered the summer of 1997 under attack from 'Mad Cow Disease,' with grave warnings that the affliction could spread to sheep.
It was a deeply worrying and difficult time for farmers but those with a passion for cricket at least received some unexpected joy, in early June, from England’s cricket team.
The Ashes series opened at Edgbaston with all evidence pointing towards another emphatic Australia win after four successive Ashes series triumphs. But after four extraordinary days in the Second City it was 1-0 to England – thanks mainly to an opening day which, even by the lofty standards of the Edgbaston Effect, delivered an almost unbelievable script.
England planned to bat if they won the toss. They lost it and Australia batted.
Good toss to lose. By stumps on day one, the scores read: Australia 118 all out, England 200 for three.
First, the Aussies’ batting was unpicked by pacemen Andrew Caddick, Darren Gough and Devon Malcolm. Then, after England wobbled, in familiar style, to 50 for three, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe unfurled strokes all over the field in front of an ebullient crowd to add an unbroken 150 up to the close.
It was a day’s cricket which left even the most longstanding and, having covered England through a very poor era, long-suffering scribes emotional.
“It was truly one of those ‘I was there’ occasions,” commented one, adding, perhaps ever so slightly pompously: “By the end of the day, Edgbaston was awash with communal stupefaction.”
The second day, Friday, brought news that the European Space Agency was to plough £123million into a ‘Mars Express,’ planned to land on the planet in 2003 (the expensive plan came together -it landed there on Christmas Day 2003) and more feasting for England’s fans. Hussain (207) and Thorpe (138) extended their partnership to 288 to underpin their side’s first-innings lead of 360.
Inevitably, Australia fought like tigers in their second innings. Centuries from Mark Taylor and Greg Blewett lifted them to 327 for one but, after both fell to Glamorgan spinner Robert Croft, the last nine wickets fell for 150.
England required only 119 to win and knocked them off in just 129 balls with captain Mihael Atherton passing 5,000 Test runs on his way to an unbeaten half-century. When Alec Stewart hoisted Shane Warne over mid-off to seal victory, spectators teemed on to the field. It was an amazing win and performance out of nowhere – suddenly Lord’s could have been sold out three times over for the second Test start a week later.
“England favourites for the Ashes” screamed the front pages. Those headlines proved slightly premature. In the first innings at Lord’s, England were all out for 77 and the Aussies were 3-1 up, with the urn safely retained, before the final Test.