Serene England glimpse the promised land
Now it's official. England can start to believe. A day that began with the match in the balance but the ball in England's court finished with a clatter of Australian wickets and a scramble for respectability, as all their worst nightmares were played out before them. From the outset of the match, it was clear the Aussies were playing for the draw. Now they are batting for their lives, and we haven't yet reached the halfway mark of the match.
In a fortnight's time, today might well be recalled as the day the Ashes battle was finally won and lost. But for the moment at least, England will make do with one final and whispered admonishment to the critics. Before this match, Geraint Jones and Matthew Hoggard were the two softest targets in a largely bulletproof squad, but their efforts today have been a vindication of the selection policy that, all things being equal, will ensure that England's eleven remains unchanged for the entire series, for the first time in the Ashes since 1884-85.
The story of England's past 18 months has been a Boy's Own tale of awakening and discovery. Test by Test, they have been realising the full extent of their powers, and in a glorious piece of timing that owes equal amounts to planning and circumstance, they are reaching their zenith in the most important year of their lives. That the Australians are buckling at the knees to meet them is what gives this series an added frisson. An epoch could be passing before our very eyes.
England's dressing-room is currently an oasis of calm and stability, but that is because all the difficult decisions were made months in advance, when not a whiff of an Australian was in the nostrils. The most contentious of these, and the last truly ruthless move that Duncan Fletcher has been forced to make, came in Antigua last April, when Chris Read was purged from the squad for failing to make the grade as a Test No. 7.
It was harsh and it has rankled. Yesterday, Rod Marsh - the outgoing England selector and wicketkeeping purist - was telling Test Match Special listeners that Read was still the best man for the job. But would Read, with all the good will in the world, have been able to stride to the crease at 241 for 5 as Jones did this morning, and carry the match (and perhaps even the series) out of Australia's grasp?
What Jones and Andrew Flintoff pulled off, in adding 177 for the sixth wicket, was the sort of spirit-sapping onslaught that England have suffered all too often at the hands of the Australians themselves. In 2001 and 2002-03, the most deflating moment of an Australian innings generally arrived as the fifth wicket fell, because for all the headway that might hitherto have been made, Adam Gilchrist was always on hand to wrest back the initiative and more.
Gilchrist is a phenomenon whose achievements may never be equalled (not least, on this series' evidence, by the man himself), but today Jones and Flintoff were the sum of his parts and more. England saw the effect that this Little and Large partnership could have in each of their first three Test outings, but it was at Headingley against New Zealand last summer, in circumstances remarkably similar to today's, that they really came to the fore. Jones made 100, Flintoff 94, and the day ended, just as this one did, with a helter-skelter of wickets as Hoggard and Steve Harmison made hay against a bewildered opposition. It was the day that England discovered just how good they were capable of becoming. Today, they took that development one stage further.
Andrew Flintoff's maiden Ashes century was a thing of rustic beauty. He awoke to headlines that demanded a performance, and though Kevin Pietersen fell early, he continued to unfurl his shots as if on cue. His solitary six was a sweep into the stands off Shane Warne, off the sixth ball of the 79th over, a move that stole all the thunder from the impending new ball. Shaun Tait, promoted to responsibility beyond his tour remit, was eased for 21 runs in three overs, and Michael Kasprowicz suffered further dissection, as Flintoff plundered three fours in four cherry-picked deliveries.
England have now passed 400 in three consecutive first innings, and seeing as they didn't even pass 400 for the match at Lord's, that is quite some achievement. The final session, delayed by that now-familiar sight of Simon Jones's irreverent blade, belonged to Hoggard and the virtues of line, length and - for once - traditional swing. His colleagues may be quicker, but no other seamer will plug away for 11 overs on the bounce as he did. Sweeping the shop-floor is his oft-derided role, but rarely can his cuttings have been as illustrious a trio as Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn.
And yet, the image of the series is fast becoming that of Harmison, legs akimbo and roaring in triumph, as the last act of a day is played out. Twice at Edgbaston, his was the image that sent the crowds home happy, and today that was once again the case. It brought a completion to England's most complete day of the series, and took them one giant leap closer to the promised land.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo