England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 5th day September 12, 2005

Frayed nerves and chewed nails

Andrew Miller joins the frayed-nerves brigade at The Oval

Some people went the extra mile ... © Getty Images

England's day of reckoning dawned cloudy and anxious. "Last fight of the Poms" screamed the rousing headlines in the tabloids, but there was more flight than fight in the body language of the early birds at The Oval. It's a truism of sport that the more it matters the less you're likely to enjoy it, and that was indubitably the case today of all days.

"I'm very, very, very anxious," murmured Helen, an off-duty nurse from South London, sat chewing her nails in the Peter May Enclosure. "It's not going to be a pleasant day at all. I'm on the edge of my seat already."

Despite her anxieties, there was never any danger that her chance to witness history would be passed up. "This man here," explained Helen triumphantly, waving three seats down the row, "bought ten tickets last November. He's one of my friend's brothers, and I love him!"

Did Alex have any temptation to flog them on Ebay? Maybe, but he might just have been lynched. ""This vacant seat here is Jenny's," added Helen. "She got back from holiday seven o'clock this morning, and she's in Tooting at the moment.

"That guy down there is wearing his work clothes, which is where he was at 9.30 this morning. But a few cancelled meetings later and here we are. And I've been working a nightshift at Guys. But I will stay awake no question. It's going to be a long day and my nails are already quite short!"

"Ian Bell is due an innings," chirped up Alex, demonstrating that his foresight wasn't always of Mystic Meg proportions. "I haven't seen McGrath bowl really well and I don't think he will, but Lee and Warne have been so competitive and it's a real worry they'll turn it on, get us out, and then it's game on. But Freddie's a matchwinner and I hope he'll do it again today."

"It'll go down to the wire, no question, but we're quietly confident," added Haas from Milton Keynes, despite an equally premature opinion of McGrath's demise. Haas had also bought his tickets months ago, but he was never going to let them out of his sight. "We resisted temptation, but there were no shortage of buyers!"

The queues outside The Oval ... with more than a few people on office sickies © Getty Images

One of those might have been Robert from Birmingham. "I got my tickets in the ... err ... unapproved fashion," he whispered. "I paid £40, which I thought was pretty good." Jerry from Rickmansworth shelled out rather more for his seats - £100 - but then, he had no doubts that the end result would be worth it. "I'm supremely confident," he announced. "If you can't bat two-and-a-bit sessions on a good track, you need help." Better ring for the ambulance ...

Such bravado was the exception, not the rule, however. Bill and Martin from Chelmsford were "nervy, extremely nervy," while a white-faced Trevor from Rochester admitted he had come within moments of giving his ticket away. "I figured if we won, it would have been worth not watching it," he explained with the sort of tortured logic that only a sports fan can understand.

Only a smattering of Aussies dared to express their sentiments. "Of course I'm confident," shrugged a rugby-shirted girl as she trotted past to her seat. "All over by lunchtime!" Meanwhile, hope sprung eternal for Brian, once of Down Under, now from Ruislip. "The odds favour England," he conceded, "but you can never stop hoping! Warney's always been a sporting legend, so it'd be the perfect swansong for him to come out with something special on his last day."

By the end of the first hour, the confident had morphed into the anxious, and the anxious had become the terrified. As for the rest, it was simply unbearable to watch any longer.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo