England v Australia, 4th Test, Trent Bridge, 4th day August 28, 2005

It's the not losing that counts

England are winning...but the hard way © Getty Images

One by one, Australia's fingers are being prised off the urn, but by God they are putting up a struggle. As if it was not already common knowledge, this series is now officially the greatest ever to have been played, and it is still not over. The battle for the Ashes will go all the way down to the wire in the final Test at The Oval, and at this rate, fingernails that have already been chewed to the knuckles will be scrunched all the way down to the palms.

The country was in enough of a frenzy about this series already, but one other thing is now certain. The fifth and final Test is set to become the most significant sporting occasion in England since the 1966 World Cup, and in that perverse British manner, the threat of rain won't just fail to dampen the spirits, it may ultimately lift them to the rafters. Certainly, on the evidence of the last three Tests, England cannot rely on dominance alone to secure the prize that has eluded them for 16 years. They'll need some divine intervention as well.

Are England the new Australia? On today's evidence, the answer is an unequivocal no. For a decade and more, Australia have been world-leaders in the art of winning, while England (prior to the last 18 months) has been a byword for defeat and ignominy. Today, however, even with the wind in their sails and their opponents on the rack, England showed they did not know how to win. Australia, meanwhile, simply refused to lose.

By win, of course, I mean really win. Ignore the statistics that tell you that England have rumbled their way to 16 victories in their last 22 Tests. Apart from two non-events against Bangladesh, the vast majority of these have been nailchewers up until at least the fourth day, and frankly, that makes the team all the more thrilling to watch.

It has ever been thus. England's last match before their run of victories was an innings-and-215-run trouncing in Colombo in December 2003, their third-worst result in history. They have lost just two other games since then - another innings debacle in Cape Town, followed by their magi-mixing at Lord's this summer. Oh yes, for all of you who pine for the certainties of old, England still do defeat in style.

Victory, however, is something rather more elusive. Especially against these pesky Australians. There were two schools of thought after the traumas of Edgbaston and Old Trafford. On the one hand, there was the growing suspicion that England were the new bigwigs on the block. On the other, there was the straw of hope that all of Australia was clinging to - namely, England had played out of their skins in both games, and yet had come perilously close to a 3-0 series scoreline.

Shane Warne couldn't quite pull this Test out of the bag for Australia © Getty Images

That, however, says more about Australia than England. They simply do not know how to lose. Ricky Ponting's outburst on Saturday evening was an act of petulance borne of his unfamiliar surroundings, but today, with cooler heads screwed into position, Australia embarked on a rescue mission of heroic proportions. In Shane Warne, they possess one of the greatest serial champions that sport has ever known. His intervention with bat and ball was once again the talk of the world game.

The only trouble with Australia's approach today was, because of their unfamiliarity with defeat, they didn't at first know what approach to adopt. As Simon Katich and Michael Clarke, the cream of the next generation, shouldered their arms en route to the slowest century partnership of the season, it almost felt like a glimpse of the future - Australia's princes reduced to paupers and forced to feed off scraps as the kingdom crumbled around them.

At that stage, the only fear among England's supporters was that, with bad weather in store for Monday, they would once again be thwarted with the winning post in sight. Ironically, it wasn't until the dismissal of Adam Gilchrist (sadly, to yet another disputable lbw decision) that Australia shed their cagey attitude, and set about doing what Australians love best - making England sweat.

Warne, once again, was at the vanguard of that. His batting this series has been a revelation. Who knows what they put in the water at Hampshire, because he has imbibed the exact same certainty of purpose that Kevin Pietersen brought to the crease with him in his early exchanges of the series. Pietersen has since spilled much of his cocksureness, along with six catches, but Warne keeps rumbling along. His is the last Australian finger still wrapped entirely round the urn, and he intends to keep it that way. He simply does not deserve to be defeated.

Strangely, as Warne began to tee off, joined in his alacrity by Brett Lee, it did not feel as though a remake of Headingley 1981 was being shot before our eyes. For starters, England never realistically envisaged wrapping up an innings victory (perhaps another manifestation of their uncertain approach to winning), while the sheer indomitability of this pair's batting meant resistance was pre-ordained.

Warne and Lee have now scored 401 runs in the series between them, a tally that most of their frontline batsmen would kill for. Their self-assured attitude with the bat translated effortlessly into a full-frontal assault with the ball, as England choked in their haste to gobble the target as quickly as possible.

Warne's magnificence was predictable - in such asphyxiating circumstances, no other bowler in the world could have struck with the first ball of each of his first two overs and make it look like the most scripted event of the year. Lee tapped into the same confidence, and as the runs/wickets equation started to make England squeak at the pips, he bowled Andrew Flintoff with a delivery that had the makings of an epoch-crushing blow.

But in a fitting finale to another incredible day, it was England's bowlers - and their two most targeted as well - who saved the day. For Giles, it was a re-run of his heroics on this very ground in 2004, when he and Graham Thorpe saved the day in a four-wicket win. That, however, was to complete a 3-0 whitewash over New Zealand. This, on the other hand, was something entirely and gloriously different. England may not know how to win, but they are learning how not to lose, and in this summer of tilting balances and shredded nerves, that makes all the difference.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo