Australia survives extraordinary Test of mettle
By the time the last ball was bowled in this Third Test between Australia and New Zealand, the scoreboard at the WACA Ground in Perth was indicating a draw. But it revealed only an infinitesimal part of the story.
After four days of pulsating cricket, this was a fifth and final day to rate with some of the more unthinkable and incredible in Test history.
There was undeviating defiance from Mark Waugh (86), Steve Waugh (67) and Matthew Hayden (57) as New Zealand initially struggled to adapt to the task of snaring eight Australian wickets from a total of 93 gripping overs.
And an extraordinary late blitzkrieg from Adam Gilchrist (83*) as he clouted 32 runs from nine deliveries at one stage to improbably accept the challenge of carrying Australia toward a victory target of 440. An Australian win which would, no less, have rendered the innings the most productive among all successful fourth innings Test run chases.
Only a pair of run outs at the other end, one of them involving a freakish Daniel Vettori deflection of a straight drive into the stumps of the home team's captain, foiled the brilliant wicketkeeper-batsman's plans.
Yet a plucky Black Caps outfit was never far from snatching the Trans-Tasman Trophy from Australia's clutches either, bravely keeping its ambitions of victory burning until the very last over of the match by continuing to collect wickets at crucial times and limiting the score to 7/381.
In the end, the effect of two controversial rulings from Zimbabwean umpire Ian Robinson on caught behind decisions against Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie (1*) was inestimable. Waugh was on just 13, and the total at 4/203, when he moved back, tried to drive forcefully at Vettori (2/142), and appeared to top edge a catch to wicketkeeper Adam Parore.
The Black Caps also seemed justifiably convinced of the merits of their shout against Gillespie. The number nine batsman hadn't scored, and the match was still six overs from its conclusion, when he was adjudged not to have brushed a Chris Cairns (1/72) delivery with his gloves down the leg side.
The ever-threatening Vettori had already made two crucial inroads by that time, luring Hayden to guide a catch to slip shortly before lunch and beating a drive from Damien Martyn (30) in the shadows of tea. There had been an important contribution from part-time medium pacer Craig McMillan (1/15) too when just his fourth delivery of the match seamed sharply back in to Mark Waugh, mowing down his stumps as he backed away to cut.
As each of those wickets tumbled, acquisition of the Trans-Tasman Trophy and the ending of Australia's reign as the official world Test champion still seemed far from impossible. In practice, though, the difficulty of the task was always about akin to the prospect of snowboarding with safety down the length of Mount Cook.
Accordingly, joy probably would have known few bounds for the New Zealand players if a first victory on Australian soil in 16 years had been snared.
And it still remained a fascinating end to a series that continued to defy almost all expectations in any case.
Even around the near-serial interference of poor weather - there were two brief showers again today - both teams continued to play their cricket with flair and an imaginative and attacking ethos that reflected great credit on the combatants.
Today's finish itself - particularly when set within the context of a series that somehow ended at 0-0 - must also rate somewhere among the very finest in Test cricket. As a former Prime Minister of the home country was once prone to say, this is about as good as it gets.