"Don't bother looking for that, let alone chasing it. That's gone straight into the confectionery stall and out again," said Richie Benaud of a hit by Ian Botham at Headingley in 1981. From a position of nowhere after the first two Tests of that summer, "Beefy" stole the series; so much so that it was immediately christened Botham's Ashes and has remained so ever since.
Andrew Flintoff did much the same in 2005 but didn't quite manage to get his moniker stuck to it. Freddie bowled like the wind that golden summer and struck the ball like the warrior he was from the first day we saw him as an outsize youth to that last Ashes day at The Oval in 2009, when he limped home, spent.
We might have expected the next in the line of great England allrounders to stamp his name all over the 2023 edition, but a dicky knee and the hidden demands of captaincy stole the title from him. Of course, there were heroics that came mainly with the bat and his unwavering message of cricket without inhibition but in the end Ben Stokes gave way to Chris Woakes as gamebreaker writ large across three Tests that so nearly did something only Don Bradman's Australians managed 87 years ago.
The show-stopper, however, was neither Stokes nor Woakes but Stuart Broad, whose sense of theatre is very Beefy and Fred; not that even those two gargantuan figures of the English game could finish in a front of a full house at The Oval by hitting their final ball faced in Test cricket for six and take the wicket that squared the series the following evening* with the last ball they ever bowled in first-class cricket. You couldn't make it up.
This stunning triumph and the amazing scenes that followed were nothing more than England deserved. The cricket played by Stokes' team brings pride to its supporters and inspiration to the generation now growing up with so much else to grab their attention. Various sessions, not least the last two hours yesterday, have been as electrifying as anything in the arena of sport, and some of them more so. It is risk and reward in a way most professional sportsmen look to avoid for fear of the wheels coming off. It is exemplified by names such as Botham, Best and Ballesteros; Flintoff and Federer; Stokes, Senna and Sobers. Only, this time Stokes has press-ganged a whole team to walk in the steps of its leader.
Over-analysing this period in English cricket history is not so much futile as it is unnecessary. Rather, we must applaud the light, the hope, the faith and the brilliance
Probably England deserved the 3-2 margin in their favour simply because of the extent of their ambition. It is one thing to entertain, quite another to avoid becoming only a Harlem Globetrotter. There is a practicality to winning cricket matches otherwise known as game management, and as the series progressed, so England began to log in. When the free spirit joined forces with clear thinking, it became an unstoppable force.
As it was, rain in Manchester denied this result and in a strange sort of way it doesn't now seem to matter too much. Sure, Australia retained the Ashes but everyone knows what happened and who made it so. Two fine teams went at it with an iron will and by the end could not be separated. One took the game to a soaring new height of expressionism, the other did it by the book of words long written into history. This contrast was in itself a fascination.
The clamour in the immediate aftermath is to call it the greatest Ashes ever. How we love to rate things!
Frankly, it is difficult to separate the series of '81, '05 and '23 for the cricket played or the impact they had on the nation, or should we say nations? How do Australians see Ashes defeats that followed a winning start? In 1981, Botham left the field at Lord's to silence from the MCC members: probably not the same ones who gave Usman Khawaja and Co a serve early last month, but members nonetheless. The match was drawn but England had been outsmarted in a low-scoring game and the grim reaper followed England's captain and talisman up those steps to the dressing room, in which he decided upon resignation. Mike Brearley took over and the rest, well, it's thrilling history.
Brearley's contribution was immediate. Twenty-four years later, Michael Vaughan matched it with bells on, though Vaughan had long planned the mission while assembling a gifted team driven by an engine of fast bowling of the sort rarely seen in the storied life of England cricket. After a dramatic and hugely promising first session in the first Test at Lord's, England were humbled - hammered actually - by a great Australian team. What followed was remarkable. Far from retreating into themselves, Vaughan and his troop fashioned a comeback for the ages amid four nail-biters and mighty resistance from cricket's most charismatic talent. Across that draining seven weeks Shane Warne took 40 wickets at 19.9 each and made 249 runs at 27.6 from No. 8 in the order. But still England won.
At The Oval yesterday my mind cast back to Kevin Pietersen's explosive innings which secured the series and led to all manner of eccentricity in celebration. Pietersen was Bazball long before Ben or Baz, an outlier untouched by English reservation and in situ for a good time if not necessarily a long time. Actually, he was around longer than many thought, and never dull. To save The Oval Test, he hooked Brett Lee's searing bouncers from his eyebrows and into the crowd. When finally out for 158, Australian players shook him by the hand. Well, one. Warne.
Eighteen years on and Stokes' team was being picked apart by the finest Australian batter of the day. Steven Smith had a fortunate match, having been given the benefit of the doubt after a review in as tight a run-out call as you can imagine during the first innings and then surviving Stokes' "catch" at leg slip in the second. Eventually Woakes of Warwickshire found his edge and Zak Crawley at slip did the rest.
There has been controversy throughout the series and the sense, from afar, that the players have been more on edge than they have revealed. For once, dignity has not been the first to leave. Probably, the IPL is to thank for players who understand each other better then at any time previously. A few names from the past have grumbled about how "nice" everyone is to one another on the field, but rather there be a kind face for our game than a sneer.
Probably England deserved the 3-2 margin in their favour simply because of the extent of their ambition. It is one thing to entertain, quite another to avoid becoming only a Harlem Globetrotter
It is a sign of the times that the 1981 series was played across 75 days, the 2005 battle fought through 52 days and nights (ask Vaughan about his sleep, or lack of it) and this little corker of a five-match set has taken 46. No wonder Pat Cummins began to look knackered. Remember that he started in early June with the final of the World Test Championship, and has been on the edge of his nerves ever since. It seems mean to question his suitability for the job.
The relevant question is whether such a schedule compromises the quality of the cricket and the longevity of its players. Of the three series, 2005 is the standout for me. England were able to beat an Australia side jammed with a collection of the country's greatest ever cricketers. Each day was hard-fought, won and lost, as against some in this current series that were relinquished.
Truth be told, by throwing all signs of caution to the wind, England made a surprising number of mistakes. Australia judged these to be the cause of an unsustainable method and chose to play more pragmatic cricket themselves. Game management is a skill, albeit an unglamorous one. Self-awareness is an attribute. At various times in the series England have missed the mark on both, and costly it has been. The second-innings freefall with the bat and dropped catches cost them Edgbaston; a first-innings slide into chaos and further missed chances cost them Lord's. But does one come with the other? Is the corollary of inhibition the fallout from consistency?
The same happened at The Oval. Four wickets were lost for 28 on the opening day and five for 35 in the second innings - most of them to batting that was, not so long ago, perceived as madness. We must buy in and watch on with a joyous heart. Over-analysing this period in English cricket history is not so much futile as it is unnecessary. Rather, we must applaud the light, the hope, the faith and the brilliance.
For me, 2005 nicks it but only because 2023 has been a series of flawed genius within the parameters of cricket as entertainment. But when the free spirit kicked in and the clear thinking held its own - think Woakes and Mark Wood bowling and batting at Headingley, and specifically, the manner in which they ushered England over the finish line - well, the potential of cricket seemed to have become endless. For that, captain, we thank you.
03:38 GMT, August 2, 2023: The article originally said Broad hit his last six and took his last wicket on the same day. This was corrected.