They called it the ball of the century. Wrist snapping as the ball tore from the young leg-spinner's hand, it swerved improbably through the air. Twisting away to Mike Gatting's leg-side, the bemused England veteran instinctively thrust out his left lag and jabbed the bat against it to create what should have been an impervious shield between man and wicket. But as the ball pitched up from the rough it spun back implausibly, miraculously, wide of man, bat and pad,thundering into off stump. Pandemonium.
It was the first Test of the 1993 Ashes series at Old Trafford. And the first ball bowled against England by a cocky 23 year-old with look-at-me hair and pie-in-me paunch. Shane Warne had arrived.
Fast forward 12 years. They called it the greatest ever series. Warne, by then the finest spinner the world had ever known, had privately decided this would be his Test swansong: to reclaim the famous Urn on English soil, conjuring victory through an almost superhuman force of will and talent, capping off a glittering career of personal achievement and ruthless international dominance.
But on the final day of the final Test at the Oval, one man above all others refused to play to the script. And having been clumsily dropped, with savage irony, by Warne himself at slip on 15, Kevin Pietersen produced one of the great innings, a knock of breathtaking audacity, defiance, skill and aggression against unbelievable pressure, to drive England on to an unforgettable victory.
For cricket lovers, there's nothing like a Test match. And on the international stage, there's nothing quite like the Ashes. Making a cricket game is one thing; creating one that captures the unique emotions of this rivalry is quite another. That's the starting point for Ashes Cricket 2009, the latest cricket game from Codemasters, whose last effort in 2007 featured Brian Lara's mug on the box.
But last time we checked, Lara wasn't a bowler hat-wearing lager lout or a kangaroo-riding Neighbours extra, so his services have been dispensed with, Codies has snapped up the official nPower Ashes licence, and Pietersen and Warne have been called to the promotional crease.
Superstars that they are, both players achieved arguably their greatest feats against each other. Speaking at the Oval the day before pulling out of the current series with a knackered ankle (not my fault, guv), KP tells me of "the hatred the English team faces in Australia"; Warne, meanwhile, recounts with understandable relish the 5-0 humiliation administered to England when they returned to Oz in 06/07. He got his swansong in the end.
We'll be bringing you our exclusive interviews with KP and Warney on the game, the Ashes and each other next week via the magic of Eurogamer TV. But in the meantime, I've been spending some time in the nets with the game.
On PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, Ashes 2009 is developed by Aussie outfit Transmission Games. Superficially, it's clearly familiar if you played the last Lara title. This ain't no wheel reinvention; the differences are in the detail.
Boot up the game and the first thing to do is choose your nationality - out of 12 cricketing nations - which themes game menus accordingly. The game offers up all major forms of cricket - test, one day and 20 overs - but the Ashes is the only fully licensed competition to feature.
An extensive training mode, Legends Coaching, is the essential first port of call. Split fairly obviously between batting, bowling and fielding, at basic and advanced levels, Warney and Ian 'Beefy' Botham lend their voices and expertise here not only to talk through the controls but also offer an explanation of different batting and bowling styles, how they work, and when they should be employed.
For batting, Defence, Attack and Loft shots are mapped to X, A and B respectively on 360. You can also elect to play off the front or back foot via LB or LT. Running between wickets is manually triggered with Y and can be queued with multiple presses. A diagram in the bottom corner shows the position of the batsmen while the main camera focuses on the ball.
With bowling, the power meter from Lara has been dumped in favour of a timing bar that determines accuracy - with the margin between hitting the sweet spot and chucking out a no-ball perilously fine.
When a fast bowler is selected, LB and RB switch between the types of delivery (swing, cut or reverse swing, if the ball's old enough), then A bowls it straight while X and B turn it to the relevant side (with LT and RT employed to add extra turn where applicable).
Spinners can select between Spin and Slide, with Leg, Flip, Top and Wrong (the controversial Doosra) mapped to the buttons. You know you're onto a winner when the tutorial instructs you to, and I quote, "Press the WRONG 'UN button". A bowler's ability to pull a 'Gatting ball' out of the hat depends on individual stats. Swing is further affected by the in-game weather conditions.
Once a delivery is selected, an aiming reticule appears (defaulting to ideal line and length), which can be repositioned before you press again to bowl. Timing with the bat is a more mysterious art, and in the absence of any real-time meter, you're advised to watch the ball and press accordingly, directing your shot with the thumbstick.
Another vital factor to consider is confidence. Mental strength in a test match is every bit as crucial as sporting ability at the highest level. To maintain composure and perform over five consecutive days requires immense reserves of self-belief. Not for nothing is it called 'test' cricket.
This is reflected in the game via a confidence rating for each player, a graded scale comprising Timid, Hesitant, Confident, Bold and Fearless, its position determined essentially by form. A bowler smashed around with contempt will start doubting his technique and lose focus; equally a batsman struggling to score a run is more liable to self-destruct in a moment of ill-judged madness. Confidence can be quickly regained, however, with a spate of wickets or a few imperious boundaries.
That's the premise for the AI; for your own team, although it isn't glaringly apparent during the couple of innings I play, in theory it should be an extra factor in determining accuracy. In the real thing, sledging - slagging off the opposition to unsettle them - became a brutal art form and deadly psychological weapon under the Aussies. It's what former skipper Steve Waugh charmingly refers to as "mental disintegration".
Sadly, Transmission has failed to code in any facility to employ foul abuse. But online play creates the conditions for live sledging; and I have no doubt the internet community will duly oblige. Asked for any tips, KP helpfully suggests I call any Aussie gamers "convicts" and take it from there.
A quick word on fielding. A wide range of preset formations are available, with the option to set your own custom fields. Fielding itself is automated in the main, though you can choose which end you throw the ball back to from the outfield. And catching takes the form of a close-up Quick Time Event. I have little love for QTEs, but here it actually works pretty well in creating a snap moment of drama, proving all too easy (in my cack-handed case at least), to mistime and bugger up. Just like Warney in '05.
With the best will in the world, presentation is resolutely 'no frills', a far cry from the polish and attention to detail of an EA Sports spectacular - more PES than FIFA, if you like. And that applies to the hit-or-miss likenesses, too (Flintoff looks like a fuzzy Pac-Man).
In the commentary box, Beefy and Warney are joined by the experienced and loquacious likes of Aggers and Tony Grieg. In the tutorials, with scripted delivery, I've heard livelier eulogies; but in-game once they loosen up a bit and go off on one there's some decent, insightful chatter on offer. And Hawk-Eye is a nice addition for anoraks, popping up at the end of each over with CBeebies-bright diagrams of your bowling/batting genius/shame.
After playing a couple of innings of an Ashes test, batting and bowling depth is certainly intimated, and will probably take time to master. Pacing, like the Lara series, will likely divide opinion. It does require you to think "cricket" rather than "videogame": bowling demands patience and application; batsmen, particularly high up the order, need wearing down.
A loose ball flung down in frustration is easily belted to the boundary. And if you go in trying to slog every ball for six, your team will collapse faster than England's real middle-order. A solid innings, it seems, must be ground out. Which should really be the point.
For Wii owners, the big excitement is in having a dedicated cricket game in the first place. While many, on picking up the Wiimote for the first time, thought "lightsaber!", "Harry Potter wand!", or "terrible third-party mini-game collection!", others dared to dream of virtual leather on plastic willow.
First the bad news. Ashes Cricket 2009 on Wii, developed by Gusto Games in the UK, is not MotionPlus-compatible. For this year at least. The game was already underway before Nintendo's accessory emerged, I'm told, and so the team ruled it out. "It needs to be handled carefully," says producer Jamie Firth. "Just bolting it on would be a waste".
Also, nope, you don't use the Wiimote exactly as you would a cricket bat, as the game adopts the same TV-style viewpoint of the HD version. (Incidentally, the team toyed around with including a first-person mode on the HD platforms, but canned the idea because it believed it would be a lousy gameplay experience).
Instead, it takes a "layered" approach to batting, since Codemasters sees this as the version it wants dads to be able to play with their sons without getting in a confused flap. So swishing the controller at the right moment strikes the ball perfectly well by itself. Direction and shot selection options are then added by using the nunchuk and buttons in combination.
On the demo machine at the Oval, KP, true to form - and defying the injury that rules him out of the series the very next day - has already mastered the batting, and shows off by smashing six after six. Shame you couldn't do that in the first two Tests, eh?
But bowling does allow you to go through the full motion should you wish, since you're already looking over the bowler's shoulder. Or for the bone idle, a stiff flick forwards does the trick. Again, there are layers of depth here: rotating the controller in either direction applies spin, for instance. And one lovely touch is shining the ball by rubbing the Wiimote against your leg, which Codemasters says has the palpable benefit of delivering more swing.
Wii is strictly offline, but does boast four-player local multiplayer, which sounds like a good lark, though I haven't tried it. Both versions also include a scenario mode to boost single-player longevity, dumping you in any number of tense situations to slog and hurl your way out of.
As I write, on day one of the third Test, the series is in that thrillingly clichéd "finely poised" and "too close to call" phase - much to the delight of Codemasters. Whatever happens at Edgbaston - piss it down, I expect - when the game hits next Friday, "everything is still to play for", with the turmoil of Cardiff and Lord's recapturing the excitement of 2005 and thrusting cricket back into the spotlight with last-ditch drama, individual heroics, and the infinite joy of seeing Ricky Ponting play onto his own wicket.
So Ashes Cricket 2009 has our attention as it strolls out to the crease. But can it produce a truly memorable innings? We'll let you know very soon.
Ashes Cricket 2009 will be padding up on PC, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 on 7th August.