'How much more can we take?'
Even the most ardent pessimists are daring to dream that the Ashes will be regained by England. "In racing terms, we have our noses in front," said a cautious Geoffrey Boycott in The Telegraph. For some ardent optimists, though, victory is already in the bag. "The Ashes are coming home" roared a premature headline in The Mirror.
England, of course, were kept in the hunt by that victory at Trent Bridge, and just how important keeping the Ashes alive is to the future of English cricket was underlined by The Guardian's Richard Williams. "English cricket was briefly threatened with the most damaging defeat in its history," he wrote, "given the hopes invested in this series. Had Australia forced the win [...] many of the game's gains of the past five weeks would have been forfeited."
Whether or not England regain the urn remains to be seen. But whatever happens, journalists are talking excitedly about their belief that this series is second-to-none for intense drama. "For spectacle and sheer unrelenting excitement, if not for the quality of the cricket," began Christopher Martin-Jenkins in The Times, "this really must be accounted the greatest of all Test series."
"Never in the 129-year history of Test cricket can three consecutive matches have ended in such dramatic circumstances," agreed The Independent's Angus Fraser, while Simon Barnes wondered how much more the nation could take. "Just when Wimbledon was safely over," he wrote in The Times "the England cricket team have set to outdo Tim Henman as a cause of national neurosis.
"One unbearable climax has followed another as England have repeatedly outplayed Australia and have repeatedly found it hard, if not impossible, to make the killing stroke. The finger freezes on the trigger. England simply cannot believe in their own superiority over the old enemy."
"For once a tense endgame didn't look likely," wrote Derek Pringle in The Telegraph. "Vaughan's men looked like they might give the Aussies a good towelling. Yet with Ricky Ponting's side unable to say die, at least not yet, the drama began to wind its way to another tortuous resolution. England's batsmen made it hard for themselves. What began as positive intent quickly began to look like blind panic."
The papers re-enacted the tense moments of England's chase to the line, with The Independent's Glenn Moore adding: "Turmoil invaded the minds of the England team as their run-chase coughed and spluttered like a Ferrari running on diesel." At the helm in the final push were Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard, and Giles admitted in his Guardian column that his nerves were on the edge of fraying.
"I would rather just watch," he recalled saying prior to his innings, but in the aftermath he was naturally delighted. "To go out there and get the winning runs was awesome." Hoggard, he reported, was in a much calmer, determined frame of mind. ""Come on, let's you and me get it done," he said, with a bit of a smile."
That they did is to the whole team's credit, as Simon Barnes acknowledged. "Giles and Hoggard stuck it out in a cheer-every-run nerve-stretcher," he wrote, "and that, perhaps was most appropriate of all. This has been a team performance in a summer of team performances [...] when one English player fails, another stands up for his time of glory."
Credit is due in no small part to Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher, as Derek Pringle observed. "Old England might have folded," he wrote. "But Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher have built a team not only hungry for success but who back themselves fully."
And Vaughan's superior captaincy when compared to that of Ricky Ponting is a key factor in England's series lead, suggests Richard Williams. "At every turn Ricky Ponting has found himself outmanoeuvred by Vaughan, even in the psychological contest whose rules his own predecessors invented."
Mike Selvey, in The Guardian agreed, but suggested that there was a brief passage of play where Ponting had got it right - and this nearly cost England victory. "For two hours Ricky Ponting, such an unimaginative captain for much of the game, cast off his cloak and abetted by Warne's influence became inspirational," said Selvey.
Attention hovered over the two Joneses, with Geoffrey Boycott acclaiming Simon for producing "the biggest improvement out of all the bowlers in this series." But he gave short shrift to Geraint, whose keeping, he said, "means the bowlers have to strive much harder. Instead of having to take 10 wickets in an innings, they have to take 14 or 15. Everyone makes mistakes but Jones makes too many. The problem is, I don't know who you would stick in his place. But if he doesn't improve soon, his errors will cost a Test match."
David Hopps is not convinced, either. "To believe that Jones' wicketkeeping will rise to the challenge at the last requires an evangelical zeal. He is the perkiest of batsmen [...], but the wicketkeeping, oh the wicketkeeping. How much more pressure can we take?"
We are set to find out when this series heads for its dramatic climax at the Oval at the start of September. The Telegraph's Paul Hayward knows just how big a match this will be for English cricket: "There will be a five-day hole in the English economy, a flooding back to the sport that dominated our childhood summers before football rolled its tanks on to the village green and the local rec.
"Thumb through the catalogue of great sporting events on English soil since the honeyed summer of '66," he added, "and few reach the magnitude of the Oval Test." If you think the matches to date have been big, the final act will be huge. Don't go away.
Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo