A crash course in cricket education
For four insanely nerve-racking overs, pundits across the country were wondering if they'd spilled into hyperbole too soon. Last week's second Test at Edgbaston was widely acclaimed as the greatest of all time but, had England's seamers managed to steam through the breach that appeared when Ricky Ponting's magnificent and immeasurably significant century came to an end this evening, the clamour for a recount would have been too great to ignore.
These past three weeks have been a learning experience for the British public. Cricket is suddenly the sexiest sport in the western hemisphere, and the countless conundrums that have been thrown up in the last two matches have opened the eyes of even the most ardent non-believers. To witness the immense snaking queues winding round the perimeter of Old Trafford was to witness the rebirth of a much-maligned and marginalised summer sport.
The final day encapsulated all that is truly great about the game of Test cricket. There was courage and conviction in the form of Ponting's century - an innings of stunning defiance and intense skill, made all the more amazing by the carping about his captaincy that preceded it. There was tactical nous that would have graced a chess grandmaster from Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones, whose manipulation of the old ball resulted in two of the best passages of play in the series - Flintoff's outfoxing of Matthew Hayden, and Jones's incomparable inswinger to uproot Michael Clarke's off stump.
There was patience as the rain came down on the Saturday, elation as the wickets tumbled on the Monday; there was human error - both from the umpires and the fielders - and there was raw fingernail-tearing tension. And late this evening, there was even a scenario to confuse the seasoned observer: the sight of an entire English amphitheatre willing an Australian straight-drive to reach the boundary, thereby ensuring that the weakest batsman on display would have to face the start of a new over. And most wonderfully of all, as if to complete a crash course of a cricketing education, it all ended in a draw. All that for a draw! How deliciously deflating.
Non-believers have never got the draw. How can you plug away for five days on end and walk away with a shrug of the shoulders? This evening not a soul could fail to grasp the significance, as a team that had been playing catch-up since the very first morning grabbed its glimmer of a get-out clause. Had this been a one-day game, the tension would have dissipated the moment that Shane Warne fell and the distant prospect of an Aussie win had been banished. Today, however, the breakthrough had the absolute opposite effect.
By the end of it all, Australia celebrated as if it was a victory and little wonder - by resisting England's late surge, they have halved their requirement from the remaining two matches. One win at either Trent Bridge or The Oval, and the Ashes are secure for another 18 months. On this evidence, they will take the 2-2 draw and run.
England were a desperately deflated mob at the close - who wouldn't be? - and the ten-day break in the series could not have come at a more opportune moment. The danger now is that this great escape will have precisely the same effect on England's series as their own get-out against South Africa did, on this very ground in 1998.
Then as now, it was a beleaguered captain, Alec Stewart, who led a desperate rearguard with a magnificent 150; once again it was the team's spinner-batsman (for Shane Warne, read Robert Croft - and no, it's not a typo) who chipped in with an invaluable thirtysomething; and yes, it was the No. 11, Angus Fraser, whose job it was to resist a fast bowler, Allan Donald, at the peak of his powers. England rallied after that result and turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win - their first major series triumph since the 1986-87 Ashes. They'd happily have forsaken that great escape to guarantee a victory here.
But England need not panic. They have shown in this match and the last that they are at least the equals of Australia's batting line-up, and for all the magnificence of Warne and McGrath, streets ahead of them in the bowling stakes. Their mastery of reverse-swing is a development that not only stands them in good stead for two more dry summer-baked wickets at Trent Bridge and The Oval, but further afield, for a dart at world domination in India and Pakistan this winter. It is Australia who have to make their changes, and they cannot delay any longer.
No-one who has witnessed the last fortnight's cricket will allow the game to be declared boring ever again. With that in mind, it is somewhat apt that this match provided a hinterland for the uninitiated as well. Shane Warne's 600th Test wicket was not a collector's item, but his presence - and the supremacy of his performances in these two matches - are a reminder to the thousands who have been turned away over the past decade of what they have been missing.
They are a reminder, as well, of why it is that England has been deep in Australia's shadow for so long. The Ashes are ablaze and the world is watching - and that in itself is a reason to rejoice in today's epic finish.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo