Real Test cricket returns ... if briefly
For two extraordinary hours on the fourth morning at Trent Bridge, it was just like watching Test cricket, and a packed house - packed with expectancy and ever-mounting uncertainty - did not like it one little bit. A subdued attack, shorn of Simon Jones and his ability to produce jaffas on demand, were being thwarted for over after over, and though the runs had been reduced to less than a dribble, a dreadful fear of yet another missed opportunity was beginning to envelop the ground.
It's a two-way relationship between fans and players. To lift a team out of its torpor, the crowd needs something to cheer. And yet, if there's nothing cheering about the degree of comfort with which two batsmen are grinding through the overs, then that elusive spark will remain under a bushel. The Trent Bridge masses came to see a procession - indeed, one Sunday tabloid was declaring "Let the party begin!" - but for 90 galling minutes, there was nothing to witness but desperate party-pooping defiance.
Simon Katich and Michael Clarke have both been embarrassed this summer by shouldering arms and watching their off stumps being extracted, but their judgment of line and length was impeccable this morning, as they embarked on the long winding road to safety. While the pair were still together, notions of an England victory and ultimate Ashes glory looked as much of an empty promise as the free "Greatest ever English cricket" DVD being advertised by another of the Sunday papers. (Free at a well-known high street retailer, while stocks last, read the small print.)
The fourth morning of a Test is invariably a special occasion, however, and the mounting anticipation of this series could not be ignored - even at 9 o'clock in the morning, when none but the most cash-strapped of touts had made it to the Trent Bridge traffic island. As I walked down the river bank from my hotel, an old lady with an unruly Scotty dog engaged me in a scattergun conversation.
"You going to the cricket? Ooh, lucky you! It's been extraordinary, hasn't it? Now, tell me, how's that lad Jones? There are two of them aren't there? He's the bowler isn't he? Ooh, we must beat them this time, surely!" Then the dog strained at the leash upon sighting a lamp-post, and I found myself three steps ahead and back on my own.
It's been like that all week. Cricket has become the talk of the town - this town, that town and every town. Nottingham has not known fanaticism like this since the days of Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee. Banners have appeared on the side of the most improbable low-brow chain pubs, declaring that "So-and-so Inc. loves cricket! Watch the Ashes here!", while the delicatessen on the Bridgford Road is adamant that "You'll be bowled over by our baps!"
Factor in the open-top bus that has been bombing up and down the Ratcliffe Road all match, bedecked in a sponsor's logo and blaring out that anthemic cricket tune, "Soul Limbo"; the taxi drivers who declare proudly how they "had that Brett Lee in the back of their cab last night", and the buzz around the city centre as random passers-by discuss the nuances of reverse-swing, and it is clear that Nottingham has been turned into the cricket capital of the world - albeit for one week only.
Cricket may not be the new football, as some publicity merchants have been announcing this week, but for the moment at least, it is the new something, and it is rightly revelling in a joyful sense of rediscovery. But Nottingham is an apt city for maintaining a sense of perspective. From the higher points of the ground, it is possible to peer directly into the rusting hulk of an empire that was once the pride of the city.
The red and white might of Nottingham Forest's Brian Clough stand is a stark reminder of how sporting dynasties rise and fall. From the pinnacles of Europe to the depths of the football league, Forest are currently lost in the woods. And so too, as Michael Clarke swished at Matthew Hoggard and Australia slipped to 2 for 5, were Australia. One breakthrough at the end of an attritional morning was all it took for the stands to begin to believe once again.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo