England get a glimpse of the future
For 87 overs there was hope, but two late strikes including the crucial capturing of Alastair Cook has all but sealed the deal. At some stage tomorrow, Australia will recapture the Ashes, just 15 days into this latest contest, and just 15 months after surrendering them at The Oval last summer. Even so, England's performance today was a glimpse of a rosy future. A future into which a crop of youthful and battle-hardened veterans are ready to step.
The aplomb with which Cook and Ian Bell batted today, adding 170 for the second wicket with confident and classy strokeplay, was further evidence of the richness of England's current resources. Aged 21 and 24 respectively, Cook and Bell are set to be the rocks of England's batting for the next decade, and certain to be richer for the experience of running headlong into a great Australian side hell-bent on vengeance.
Cook turns 22 on Christmas Day, and is already the youngest Englishman to score an Ashes century since Denis Compton in 1938. Bell, who was himself 22 when he froze in the glare of the 2005 Ashes, demonstrated today that he is a player transformed by the experience of that epic series. His treatment of Shane Warne, whom he smashed for two sixes and a four to coast to his third half-century of the series, drew appreciative comments from Glenn McGrath afterwards.
"Warnie had it all over him in the last series, but he's matured a lot and he's got a lot of confidence," said McGrath. "He's happy to take it to him. He's come a long way and it's looking good for England's future." And Bell himself admitted to Cricinfo that he was a player transformed by the experience of 2005. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to me," he said of making seven single-figure scores in ten innings. "It opened my eyes as to how short I was in terms of playing for my country and playing against the best teams in the world. I'm glad that something like that happened."
Of course, England have been glimpsing that brighter future for quite a while now - in fact, it is coming up for four years since the Sydney Test of January 2003, when Australia took the field without either of their champions, McGrath and Warne, and were duly thumped by the hefty margin of 225 runs. At the time it was talked up as the beginning of the end of a long reign of terror but today, incredibly, McGrath was still steaming in to end England's last hopes of salvation with two wickets in three balls.
This time, however, the changing of the guard can no longer be delayed. The magnificent violence with which England's brief reign has been ended simply underlines what a genuinely great era this has been for Australian cricket. The 2005 Ashes have now to be dismissed as a glorious freak - a riot of sporting entertainment, made possible by the most tightly knit unit of English cricketers ever to take the field, combined with the untimely unravelling of three key players - Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and - in terms of fitness - McGrath himself.
But England will be better prepared when the challenge next comes around. The ridiculous rigidity with which Duncan Fletcher clung to his heroes of last summer will pay dividends if it means that men such as Monty Panesar and Sajid Mahmood, who are both 24, take on board the frustrations and the lessons, and return - as Bell has done in this series - stronger for the experience.
For Australia, tomorrow's anticipated achievement will surely mark the start of a gradual retreat from their current hegemony. There are other goals, as Gilchrist hinted at the start of this match - and foremost among them must be a defence of their World Cup crown in the Caribbean in March - but the satisfaction of righting the wrongs of 2005 will surely rank the highest. This group of magnificent players has nothing left to prove. The likes of Cook and Bell, however, are only just starting out.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo