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July 24, 2005
You take the rough with the smooth if you give your heart to cricket. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, it's a lifelong commitment that demands steadfastness in adversity and a healthy appreciation of the good times, when they deign to make an appearance. On days such as the Sunday of the Lord's Test, it requires a doctorate in psychology to understand the full gamut of emotions that your average fan is subjected to.
In what other sport but cricket could you get 26,000 people splashing around in the puddles of a filthily overcast ground, waiting in vain for a game that might never resume? There was no question of giving up the ghost for the vast majority of the fans huddled beneath the stands, around the bars, under the awnings and in the sponsor's tents, even though - and here's the rub - many of them would have been overjoyed to see no play in the day whatsoever.
That's the tricky trade-off you get when your side has played like mugs and been left needing a miracle to salvage a draw. Years of anticipation, months of queuing, weeks and days of bribery, arm-twisting and finger-crossing to secure your golden ticket for the pivotal fourth day of the Ashes opener, and the contest is already over bar the downpour.
Australia's numerous fans - most of whom had passed the time by paying their respects to the Ashes urn in the Lord's Museum - were left with no such dilemma, but for the remainder of the ground, the choice of denouements was stark. Take your beating or leave empty-handed. In the end, once it became clear that the miracle had blown over, along with the clouds, there was no more appropriate finish to a breathless game than another masterclass from Australia's two champion bowlers.
The day had begun with Shane Warne needing two more scalps to fulfil one of his few remaining ambitions in cricket, to post his name on the dressing-room honours board. He did his damnedest, suckering Steve Harmison with a first-ball flipper and shaving Simon Jones's off stump with his biggest ripper of the match. But the day was ended by his co-legend, Glenn McGrath, a man who has never failed to post his name on that same board.
Three appearances in eight years, three Man of the Match performances, and in this game, two devastating, decisive spells. If McGrath's 5 for 2 in 31 balls in the first innings was an insurmountable display of skill and - in the circumstances - nerve, then his 4 for 3 in 23 balls today was a ruthless purging of England's last vestiges of resistance. Nine wickets in the match, and all of them different batsmen as well. The only notable scalp to escape his wrath was, in fact, England's heroic villain, Kevin Pietersen, who became the eighth England player to record two half-centuries on debut.
England are getting used to futile displays of resistance at Lord's. Two years ago against South Africa, Andrew Flintoff clubbed a bat-splintering 142 to reduce their margin of defeat from an innings-and-a-lot to merely an innings-and-a-bit. On that occasion it was a crumb of comfort that germinated into a loaf of hope, because four Tests later, Flintoff replicated his heroics but this time in a winning cause, with his series-turning 95 at The Oval.
At present England will take any succour going, so the sight of Pietersen fronting up to Australia's greatest - belting Warne for six and showing a broader bat than had been feared to McGrath - was to be savoured, along with that still sparkling memory of Steve Harmison's opening-morning ferocity.
The rest must be swiftly forgotten, just as England's last great hammering, the New Year Test in Cape Town, was forgotten. Achieving that, however, will be a task as tough as facing McGrath's 80mph offbreaks as they zipped down the slope from the Pavilion End. At least McGrath and the slope will never again be reunited in Tests, and the jinxed ground is now out of the equation for the rest of the series. Roll on Edgbaston, at least that's a ground that holds better memories for England.