A snapshot in time: Sept. 12, 2005. London.
The fifth day of the fifth test of the Ashes cricket series has just ended. England has completed a series win over Australia to recapture cricket's oldest trophy after 16 years.
The joy of the England team, and of the nation, is unfettered, multiplied by sheer surprise. The lame-duck English had been given no chance of beating Australia, who for seasons had no rivals as the best team in the world.
At the center of the English celebration -- a beery blur of street parades, visits to Buckingham Palace and Downing Street -- is the tow-haired Andrew Flintoff, hailed the man of the series and the best English all-rounder since Ian Botham.
Flintoff's star is on the rise.
He modestly deflects praise, saying "everyone in the dressing room plays a part from the captain to the coach" but there could be no doubt about Flintoff's contribution to the English victory.
Prominent Web site Cricinfo said: "He single-handedly inspired England to a two-run victory over Australia at Edgbaston in one of the greatest tests of all time, followed up with a maiden Ashes hundred at Trent Bridge, sealed the series with a marathon five-wicket haul at The Oval, and embarked on a 17-hour bender culminating in an open-top bus parade through the streets of London."
"Arguably his finest hour of all was the manner in which he stepped into the breach as England's captain, on an injury-plagued tour of India the following spring," it added.
Flintoff took 11 wickets and scored five 50s in six innings, as England defied the odds to draw the series 1-1.
Return to The Oval, to that mid-September evening, and contrast with Flintoff the more abject figure of Australian captain Ricky Ponting, forced to step before a threatening arsenal of cameras and microphones to explain Australia's defeat.
The series outcome had not been contemplated in England or Australia and Ponting had now to account for the loss, to be judged by the harsh standard Australians apply to their captains.
He faced his inquisition stoically and told journalists with patent sincerity that England had been the better side.
"Apart from when we won at Lord's we were never as good as England and they deserve to win the Ashes," he said.
Ponting's dignity in defeat amazed his critics. For a man who doesn't do diplomacy, such modesty and candor was disarming.
Move on 12 months and England has arrived in Australia to defend the Ashes. Flintoff is now England's captain, asked to use those qualities of leadership which shone 12 months before to unite and rally a weakened force.
For Australia, for Ponting, last year's defeat has been swallowed, digested and sifted of its nutrient value. Australia is once again at the top of world cricket, supreme in test and one-day styles.
England is in decline. The Ashes victory has not been the dawn of a new age in English cricket that many had expected. Injuries have compounded an epidemic loss of form and the team's confidence is low, last year's series a taunting memory.
Only Flintoff and Ponting face each other on something like equal terms. Both are now their team's best players and their inspirations.