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August 7, 2005
Perspective, perspective. That's what's needed at a time like this. It's only a game, we tell ourselves. Victory and defeat, it's all immaterial in the grander scheme of things. There have been tight matches in the past - tighter even than the two-run margin that England squeaked today - and life goes on regardless of the result. Even for the losers.
But this was different. This was so, so different. In the heady aftermath of what, without hyperbole, can already be bracketed alongside the Tied Test at Brisbane as the greatest game of cricket in a generation, victory and defeat meant absolutely everything. For England to have come so far, and to have been squashed at the last, would have been a mortification beyond comparison - and quite possibly, beyond salvation.
Let's face it, the match was already over when the fourth day began. Steve Harmison's exquisite slower ball had nailed Australia's last remaining batsman, Michael Clarke, and the rest ought to have been a formality. Oh, such foolish assumptions! Instead, Harmison had a later, greater invention to come.
Three balls from batting out the day is one thing, three runs from sealing the Ashes in a game that England had bossed from the opening morning is something else entirely. Harmison had had a quiet game by his recent standards, but those who have questioned his bottle in the past had to salute the vigour he summoned when all others - even, by this stage, the mighty Flintoff - seemed to have allowed those long-surpressed seeds of doubt to germinate. One vicious lifter, a brush of an instinctively raised glove, and the Ashes were ablaze once more.
Up until that point, this heady tale of redemption was taking the bitterest of twists. The pitch was bland and England were flat, drained no doubt by the enormity of their third-day performance, and as Shane Warne and Brett Lee countered every threat and whittled down the requirements, a creeping sense of dread throttled every stakeholder in the game. For, without putting too fine a point on it, the future of English cricket seemed to hinge on this very result.
The fans had been sucked in all right. During Flintoff's Saturday onslaught, Channel 4 had postponed its coverage of the racing from Redcar; during Australia's Sunday fightback, BBC Radio took an even more extraordinary step and delayed that sacred cow of the airwaves - the shipping forecast. But now, they were about to be spat out in the most deflating of fashions. One game apiece would leave everything to play for, but 2-0 down and the floating voters would drift away and the finest England team of a generation would have been exposed as just another herd of nearly-men. It was a fate too horrific to contemplate.
Where would that have left the game in England? As from next year, there will be no domestic coverage of Test cricket, so no opportunity for hungover passers-by to accidentally chance upon such a thriller while looking for their weekend dose of Hollyoaks. And where would defeat have left the shreds of this season? The FA Community Shield kicked off three hours after the end of the match, but it's a safe bet that football will not enjoy its usual blanket coverage on tomorrow's back pages.
England were fortunate in this match, no question. Australia were magnificent in adversity, with Warne resplendent with bat and ball, and Lee and Kasprowicz playing out of their skins until the tightening of the sinews that occurred as the requirement reached single figures.
But, from the moment that Glenn McGrath was felled to throw the Aussies' preparations into disarray, England grabbed their luck and ran with it. Defeat for Australia is not the end of the world, for they possess the players and the self-belief to bounce back, especially at a venue, Old Trafford, that is tailor-made for their one remaining champion, Warne.
Defeat for England, however, would have been unthinkable. The end of the Ashes, the end of the summer, the end of the game as we know and love it - who knows? But happily, that awful eventuality was avoided, and in a manner that showcased everything that is wonderful about Test cricket at the absolute highest level. If anyone doubted how good this game can be, their queries have been answered in emphatic and lasting fashion.