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September 11, 2005
The sense of a world order being turned upside-down was matched by the perverse sound of raucous cheering, as England's batsmen accepted an offer for bad light and fled for the pavilion to bring their Ashes dream into full, tantalising technocolor. One more day remains - one nervy, sweaty, nail-chewing day - and then the dream may finally be accepted as reality.
If England's destiny really is to be fulfilled - and by the standards of this series, that's about as close to absolute certainty as one dare to encroach - then this day has demonstrated just how acutely they deserve their glory. Doubtless, the weather has played its part, but the incredible surge with which they seized the first-innings lead was every bit as stunning and unforeseen as their comeback from oblivion after the Lord's debacle.
The fourth day of a Test has long been held in high regard by this England team. It is their day of action, of galvanisation. Whatever jumbled messages they may have emitted for the early part of a game, the Sunday of a match has invariably featured a surge of adrenalin, when their superb spirit and unrivalled fitness carries them clear of the chasing pack. Both aspects of England's game are personified in Andrew Flintoff, for whom no superlative is any longer sufficient. He has been truly immense all summer. It is hard to believe how truly immense immense can truly be.
In the feverish build-up to this match, Flintoff was featured on the front page of The Sun, along with the following pledge. "I promise all readers that every drop of sweat we have in our bodies will be left at The Oval. We will give everything we have and more to win back the Ashes." The initial instinct was to read it with the sort of "yeah, yeah, whatever" attitude that such trumpeted proclamations usually deserve, but somehow, because this was good, honest, salt-of-the-earth Freddie, you never quite doubted it was true.
Even so, his intercession today was sweat and skill intermingled with certainty to produce a heady, irresistible cocktail. In the absence of Simon Jones, and in the knowledge that England's first-innings 373 was insufficient, Flintoff bowled an incredible 18 overs straight off the reel, starting last night, to finish with 5 for 78 - his second such haul in Tests. Initially England had been missing the services of that all-important fifth bowler, but in the last hours of the last match of the series of his life, Flintoff was not about to let such trivial matters as fatigue get in his way. Once again, England's selection has proved spot-on. The extra batsman may turn out to be insurance, but the missing bowler has already been an inspiration.
The stock cliche at such times is "Australia didn't know what had hit them", but that would be quite wrong. They saw Flintoff's menace looming way back on Friday evening. At the earliest signs that the ball was beginning to bend, Australia vacated the middle, immediately after tea. It was a decision that set an inadvertent precedent, and Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick were only too happy to take stock themselves two days later. What the Aussies would now give for the game to be advanced by those 37 overs they forfeited.
But if Flintoff was inspired, then who knows what miracles Warne has in store. He is already revelling in his final appearance in England, and as he has amply demonstrated already this series - at Lord's, Edgbaston and Trent Bridge - there is no such thing as a done deal when it comes to England's second innings. In those matches (Old Trafford doesn't count as Warne was on the defensive in a game the Aussies couldn't win), England mustered totals of 180 in 58.1 overs, 182 in 52.1, and 127 for 7 in 31.5.
With 98 overs to play tomorrow and the weather set fair, there is no room for premature celebrations. England realistically need both their highest and their longest second-innings of the series to put the contest out of reach. Every run will count double and is sure to be cheered to the rafters, but it would not be in the spirit of the series if tomorrow's grand finale followed the path of the banal.