December 30, 2002

England show fighting qualities at last

"Glorious" and "defeat" are not two words which sit comfortably together. This is however, the best phrase to describe a rousing England performance at Melbourne. While the tourists may never have seriously fancied their chances, they made Australia work and sweat for the first time in the series.

The fact that a five-wicket defeat is applauded highlights the gulf between the two sides. Suffering their first injury worries of the tour, Australia brought in debutant Martin Love and Stuart MacGill, who would have taken 300 Test wickets if only he had been born into a different generation. Love is in the form of his life, and he impressed even the most cynical of observers. MacGill is no Warne, but he still managed to destroy England's tail. The impact that the two new faces made suggests that Australia could afford to lose four or five more players and still be more than a match for any side in the world.

This has been the toughest of tours, but the Boxing Day Test highlighted the fighting qualities which England had appeared to leave at home. Even on the first day, when they were plundered for 350 runs, Steve Harmison was impressive with the ball. It was only the baffling Andrew Caddick and rookie Richard Dawson who seemed to be offering up belated Christmas gifts to the ever-grateful Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer.

There is a photograph doing the rounds of Craig White stood at an MCG Test as a youngster sporting an England T-shirt. It showed - in an admittedly superbly unfashionable display - where White's loyalties have always lain. His unbeaten 85 revealed his antipodean roots. An aggressive, combative innings, it showed the freedom he usually reserves for Yorkshire. He is a naturally aggressive batsman, and used his feet well to MacGill. He was well supported by James Foster, who has shown fighting spirit with the bat throughout his fledgling Test career. A shocking-leg before decision removed any slim hopes of avoiding the follow-on and an innings defeat loomed large.

Australia cannot have reckoned on England's gutsy effort second time round. Michael Vaughan was typically superb, becoming 2002's leading Test run-scorer with his sixth century of the year. This series was vital for Vaughan, and he has emerged with such flying colours that he looks capable of being the best English batsman in a generation. Happy to play a supporting role before stumps on day three, Vaughan emerged on Sunday with aggression in mind. Plundering 78 runs in the first session, he was dismissive of one of the great bowling attacks. Cutting and pulling anything short, he also warmed the heart with that cover drive. He rarely seems to miss out on a bad ball, and was only dismissed after attempting an extravagant cut against a good one.

Robert Key is not in the same class as Vaughan, but is showing the qualities which suggest he could occupy a place in England's plans for a long time to come. Though his promise has not yet been backed up by big scores, he could become a more-than-useful stable influence in the middle order.

So to that extraordinary final day. For the third time in the series, England lost a bowler in the middle of a match. With White injured and Dawson fragile, it was up to Harmison and Caddick. Caddick struck first, as Hayden's arrogance got the better of him. In spite of a combative performance by Ricky Ponting, England clung on. The over where Harmison could have dismissed Steve Waugh twice must rank as one of the most dramatic in recent times.

With the target growing closer, England pushed on. Caddick, fully emerged from an extended hibernation, passed 89 mph. Perhaps Caddick likes to antagonise with lacklustre performances, just so he can prove in the second innings what a potent force he could be if only he were more consistent. Harmison still found pace in his tenth over of the morning; this was breathless stuff. In the end England were maybe fifty runs short, but if they can perform in a similar vein in Sydney, there is no reason why they cannot push Australia hard again.

All the way, they were roared on by the Barmy Army. The truth about some of the most dedicated supporters in sport is far removed from the nonsense Justin Langer talked. One day, they will witness an England side regain the Ashes. Until then, they will continue to bring humour and noise to foreign grounds.