England hold their nerve in yet another thriller
England held their nerve to seal a three-wicket triumph at Trent Bridge and take a 2-1 lead into the final Test. For the third time in this series the match went down to the wire as Shane Warne and Brett Lee led a courageous Australian fightback after England set off in pursuit of 129. Wickets kept falling and it was left to Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard to play the most important innings of their careers.
This Ashes series continues to defy belief at the extraordinary situations each match is throwing up - and you know amazing feats are afoot when Hoggard plays a sumptuous cover drive to bring the target within grasp. He joined Giles with 13 runs required when Warne claimed his fourth wicket during another a mesmeric spell of leg spin. But Giles and Hoggard were the two coolest people on the ground - if not in the country - as they slowly but surely picked off the runs.
Lee bowled his quickest spell of the series, regularly hitting the mid-nineties, and peppered Hoggard with a mixture of bouncers and yorkers - but the batsman was equal to everything. When Hoggard connected with a full toss and sent it scooting through cover the target was down to four and victory was within England's grasp. Hoggard clipped a two to fine-leg and then Giles, in Warne's next over, played a ball through mid-wicket to the delight of a joyous England balcony.
But this series has been played in a superb spirit - Ricky Ponting's outburst yesterday was the exception not the rule - and both teams took time to congratulate each other on a stunning exhibition of the toughest cricket imaginable. However, the end of this match is only the beginning of the tale.
As England went to tea, having dismissed Australia for 387 in their follow-on, they would have been highly satisfied with their work. A bowler light, due to Simon Jones's ankle injury, Hoggard and Steve Harmison put in mammoth efforts to whittle their way through the Australian batting order. And when Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss raced to 36 without loss after five overs, the target was rapidly coming into view.
Warne, though, thrives on a challenge and struck with his first ball when Trescothick was sharply snapped up at silly point by Ponting. First-ball wickets for Warne have a habit of starting a wobble for England (his Gatting delivery left a whole generation unsteady on their feet) and when he struck with the first ball of his second over, to remove Michael Vaughan, Australia sensed they had a chance.
Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell steadied the innings with a brief partnership but Warne wasn't finished yet. Strauss was well held at leg-slip by Michael Clarke but he was unsure whether the ball carried and waited for the third umpire to confirm it was a clean catch. Next over Bell fell, playing an ill-judged hook shot at Lee and at 57 for 4 the game was back in the balance.
Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen playing intelligent innings to eat away at the target, and some sharp running between the wickets and strokes of fortune reduced the runs required to 26. Every single, leg-bye and no-ball was cheered to the hilt as the crowd sensed that the middle-order pair would carry England over the line.
But it didn't turn out to be that simple. Ponting recalled Lee who had Pietersen caught behind with the first ball of his second spell and then he produced a searing off-cutter to rearrange Flintoff's off stump with the runs required down to 18. Everywhere you looked heads were in hands, nails were being chewed by English and Australian fans alike. The groups of Aussies in the crowd were still clinging to the thought that their side could pull of an outrageous upset.
That possibility came a wicket closer when Geraint Jones holed out at mid-on attempting to break the pressure. With England's quick-bowling tail now exposed to Warne and Lee anything was possible but Giles and Hoggard added the most important 13 runs they have ever squeezed out.
For Hoggard, it was a fitting way to finish a match that has finally seen him have a key role in this series. It was him and Harmison who did most of the damage to Australia's second innings as they resumed still 37 runs behind England. The first session of play gave little indication of the pulsating scenes that would follow a few hours later as just 48 runs were added. However the key moment came when Hoggard had Clarke caught behind 10 minutes before lunch for a dogged half-century, which ended a stand of 100 with Simon Katich.
Hoggard then trapped Adam Gilchrist lbw at the beginning of the afternoon session but the Australian lower order wagged, as it has done at almost every stage of the series. England benefited from a poor decision which ended Katich's fine resistance and finally opened an end. Harmison rapped the pads but the ball had pitched outside leg stump and would have carried over the top. Katich had battled through 183 balls and didn't deserve to be seen off in such unfortunate circumstances.
Warne has been a constant thorn in England's side this summer, with bat and ball (as he would dramatically remind everyone later), so much so that this is turning into his greatest all round series. He showed he was not going to go down without a fight by taking the long-handle to England moving along at a run-a-ball before getting over excited and charging down the track to Giles, two balls after dispatching him into the stands.
Jones reminded everyone of his fallibility behind the stumps with a missed catch of Lee and a fluffed run out when he knocked the bails. But after finally stumping Warne he snaffled a comfortable catch off Michael Kasprowicz and England - just about - got away with his lapses. Harmison wrapped up the tail to end with a well deserved three wickets.
But to think England's chase was simple, well, that would have just been foolish, wouldn't it? Warne tried his hardest to add another chapter to his never-ending cricketing story but at the end of the match, while England celebrated with a sigh of relief, he was left to reflect on the Trent Bridge balcony . This had been the ground where Australia have celebrated their last two Ashes triumphs in England - but not this time. Now they go to The Oval having to win or Warne - and the rest of this Australian team - will experience Ashes failure for the first time.
Michael Clarke c G Jones b Hoggard 56 (261 for 5)
Pushed at an outswinger
Adam Gilchrist lbw b Hoggard 11 (277 for 6)
Trapped by an inswinger, hitting leg
Simon Katich lbw b Harmison 59 (314 for 7)
Pitched outside leg, too high
Shane Warne st G Jones b Giles (347 for 8)
Missed a huge swipe
Michael Kasprowicz c G Jones b Harmison 19 (373 for 9)
Thick edge from attempted drive
Shaun Tait b Harmison 4 (387 all out)
Exposed his stumps as he stepped across his crease
Marcus Trescothick c Ponting b Warne 27 (32 for 1)
Pad-and-bat to silly point
Michael Vaughan c Hayden b Warne 0 (36 for 2)
Outside edge to slip
Andrew Strauss c Clarke b Warne 23 (57 for 3)
Taken low-down at leg slip
Ian Bell c Kasprowicz b Lee 3 (57 for 4)
Hooked to long leg
Kevin Pietersen c Gilchrist b Lee 23 (103 for 5)
Outside edge, well pouched
Andrew Flintoff b Lee 26 (111 for 6)
Beaten for pace, hit off stump
Geriant Jones c Kasprowicz b Warne 3 (116 for 7)
Lofted to mid-off
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo