The Strauss and Warne show
Everyone at The Oval, and the millions watching the action around the world, hoped for a day that would stand the test of this amazing series and begin a fitting finale - they were not disappointed. There was something for all; from the watchful accumulation of Strauss, the stunning strokeplay of Andrew Flintoff, the mastery of Shane Warne and the sheer determination of Australia not to let go of their little urn.
Each of the sessions was its own mini-drama. Following a rollicking start by Strauss and Marcus Trescothick, Warne began yet another master class of legspin. Then Strauss and Flintoff built their brilliant fourth-wicket stand of 143 as England took control in the afternoon. But, Australia weren't finished and with three late wickets they claimed the final-session honours.
Following the opening stand of 82 the major contribution to England's innings was the partnership between Strauss and Flintoff, which produced two contrasting knocks from two contrasting players. Strauss has not always been at his most fluent during this series but had his game in top working order from the start of play.
His judgment of what to play and what to leave was excellent, as was his shot selection. He played carefully against Warne and was content to pick his runs off the quicker bowlers as England consolidated following their mini-collapse against Warne where they lost 4 for 49. Flintoff played well within himself - aware of the importance of his wicket to both teams - but still timed the ball with effortless ease.
Ricky Ponting was faced with a familiar problem of who to bowl in place of McGrath and Warne. Brett Lee was not at the top of his game - firing too many balls down the leg side - and for every impressive delivery Shaun Tait produced there was another four-ball just around the corner. Strauss and Flintoff waited for these looser deliveries and generally found the boundary despite the now-obligatory defensive fields. Even when England were four wickets down, following their midday wobble, Ponting often resorted to one slip and only had the confidence to attack the batsmen while Warne was bowling.
Confidence is something that exudes from Flintoff and he opened his shoulders after playing himself in, taking three consecutive fours off Warne to reach his fifty before launching him into the stands for a majestic straight six. Strauss moved along in more measured fashion and reached his second Ashes century off 150 balls.
But then another shift in momentum took place. McGrath removed Flintoff, with Warne again in the thick of the action - but this time with his catching. Flintoff prodded at a ball outside off stump and Warne took a sharp, low catch stood at the solitary slip. Paul Collingwood, England's only replacement player throughout this Ashes series, did not last too long as he attracted one of the few balls from Tait that would have threatened the stumps. Collingwood was beaten for pace by a yorker, although replays showed the ball struck him just outside off stump. The Australians won't care about that - they will think they are owed a couple of decisions in their favour.
Warne claimed his fifth wicket when he removed Strauss half an hour before the close thanks to a brilliant piece of anticipation from Simon Katich at silly point, holding on to the pad-bat chance inches from the ground. It was fitting that Warne claimed the final wicket of the day as he was the man who ignited Australia during the morning session.
Although it had all been plain sailing in the opening hour for Trescothick and Strauss, Warne said, before this match, how determined he is to make a mark in his final Test in this country and again he let his actions to the talking.
With the seamers being taken at over four-an-over Ponting was again forced to throw the ball to Warne inside the first hour. The outcome - certainly on the form of this series - was predictable. There has hardly been a moment when Warne hasn't been having an influence on the situation. On almost every occasion when Australia have needed a wicket Warne has put his hand up. He came to the fore again as he removed Trescothick - courtesy of a stunning catch by Matthew Hayden at slip.
He struck again to remove Michael Vaughan, who clipped a catch to Michael Clarke at midwicket before capping a great morning fightback when Ian Bell was trapped lbw for a duck by the slider. Warne was producing all his variations, including the rarely seen googly and Australia had suddenly grabbed the advantage out of nowhere. Their position was further enhanced when Kevin Pietersen fell shortly after lunch to a poorly judged and executed whip across the line. It was not the consolidation that England required.
But any thoughts that England may start to think about playing for draw were rapidly banished by Strauss and Flintoff, and any thoughts that Australia were going to lose their grip on the Ashes without the toughest of struggles was dispelled by their subsequent surge of wickets. The series deserves a fittingly thrilling and gripping finish and on the evidence of today that is what it will get.
Marcus Trescothick c Hayden b Warne 43 (82 for 1)
Edged low to slip, superb catch
Michael Vaughan c Clarke b Warne 11 (102 for 2)
Whipped to midwicket
Ian Bell lbw Warne 0 (104 for 3)
Trapped by the slider
Kevin Pietersen b Warne 14 (131 for 4)
Missed a work to leg, clipped pad
Andrew Flintoff c Warne b McGrath 72 (274 for 5)
Guided an edge to slip
Paul Collingwood lbw b Tait 7 (289 for 6)
Fast inswinger, hit on toe
Andrew Strauss c Katich b Warne 129 (297 for 7)
Pad-bat to silly point, great low catch
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo