England v Australia, NatWest Series final, Lord's July 2, 2005

Australia halted in their tracks



Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath wonder how they failed to win the final © Getty Images
Australia have threatened to get away, to start a winning streak that will lead them steamrolling into the main event over the last two weeks - but at each turn they've been held back. First the Bangladesh defeat, then Pietersen at Bristol, then rain at Edgbaston (262 was too many for England under lights), then the Banglas again, at Canterbury this time, refusing to roll over and take a drubbing. Now this.

The pattern was the same: Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden smashed it everywhere in the first six overs. Then Hayden mistimed, Gilchrist scooped, the out-of-touch Ricky Ponting scratched, pulled a great six, then was suffocated down the leg side. The run-a-ball merchant Andrew Symonds came in too early, was not happy with the attacking Test-match field settings and couldn't get it off the square. The Aussies just could not pull away.

Then reality appeared to bite hard and brutally. Australia found the energy and rhythm to put England back where all antipodeans think they belong. England 33 for 5 is, they believe, natural order. But this is New England. England dug in with Paul Collingwood and Geraint Jones mustering a rearguard action. The luck was with them from the moment Jones played at his first five balls and only hit one of them. Then the ball landed in gaps, outside edges went for four and that final ball from McGrath dribbled from Ashley Giles's pad in front of middle stump and fetched England the two runs which levelled the game. By this stage, Ricky Ponting was finished.

England no longer give up. From the position they found themselves in, to tie the match was beyond astonishing. Australia are firmly within reach. Both captains thought they should have won the match but it was clear that Michael Vaughan was relieved and Ponting numb. Vaughan: "I do not know what to say - a tie in an Australia-England final at Lord's ... I haven't been involved in a tie before." Ponting: "I feel pretty empty at the moment." Both captains praised Jones and Collingwood. "They didn't do much wrong," explained Ponting. And McGrath did seem genuinely surprised by the competitive edge to this England outfit. "They are playing with a lot more confidence and they are more match aware. When you have won as many games as them, you have an edge."

What does it all mean? In truth, England failed to beat Australia at Lord's. Again. Since 1900 the two teams have met here 33 times in all forms of cricket and England have triumphed on only five occasions. But Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff have Australia's batsmen in knots, although England haven't exactly mastered McGrath and Lee (who will surely play in the Tests). At the moment, it is not a case of who will make the most runs but who will do least badly. There has been so much made of bowlers gaining a psychological edge over various batsmen that every batsman has a voodoo against every bowler (the exception being Jason Gillespie who is really struggling for form). It is not pretty to watch.

Something England have done well over this two-year renaissance is fight hard. They did bowl superbly. Harmison was terrifying - quick, straight, ruthless. Flintoff miserly, Simon Jones aggressive and bullish after a mauling from Gilchrist in his opening spell. Giles as tight and tedious as ever. These are the figures that matter for the Ashes. And then there was Geraint Jones in a seemingly hopeless situation.

The personal battles are hotting up as well. Flintoff and Lee - Freddie is ahead in this one. McGrath and Trescothick - McGrath has his number. Hayden and Simon Jones - he had a few words during Jones' brief innings. Actually, Hayden and just about anyone, including the kids who hold the flags as the players run onto the field.

What can you learn from the NatWest Series about the Ashes? In truth, very little. It looks like it may be the tightest Ashes encounter for 18 years but this probably won't materialise. One-day internationals prove nothing, especially when key personnel change so much (see 1997), and there are still three more to come. Any early psychological or actual (in the case of Hayden) blows that were dealt or felt will mean nothing when the Australians pull on that bloody baggy green for the first Test in front of a packed house at their home from home: Lord's.

Edward Craig is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer