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A magnificent Test match, to be ranked among the best ever played, produced a finish of such protracted excitement that it had the whole of Australia by the ears. Needing 292 to win, Australia were 218 for nine when Border and Thomson embarked on a last-wicket partnership of epic proportions. At close of play on the fourth day they had taken the score to 255 for nine, leaving another 37 runs to be found on the last morning for Australia, there and then, to regain the Ashes.
Although, on this last day, the match could have been over within moments, 18,000 spectators, admitted free of charge, went to the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the hope of seeing Border and Thomson achieve their improbable goal. All things considered, among them a new ball taken at 259 for nine, Thomson was rarely in trouble; Border never was. By the time Botham began the eighteenth over of the morning Australia were within 4 runs of victory. His first ball was short of a length and wide of the off stump. Thomson, sparring at it, edged a none-too-difficult catch to Tavaré, the second of Botham's two slips. Tavaré managed only to parry it, the ball bouncing away behind him but within reach of Miller, fielding at first slip, deeper than Tavaré. With a couple of quick strides Miller reached the catch and completed it, the ball still some eighteen inches off the ground.
No-one who played in the game or watched it, or who saw it on television, or who listened to it on the radio, many of them from halfway across the world, could have been left unmoved. In terms of runs, the only closer Test match ever played was the Brisbane tie between Australia and West Indies in 1960-61. In 1902, at Old Trafford, the margin between England and Australia was also 3 runs, on that occasion in Australia's favour.
England made two changes from the side that had lost the third Test in Adelaide, one optional, the other not. Randall, having been hit in the face by a short ball from Holding during England's one-day match in Launceston, was unfit, his place being taken by Cook. Cowans was preferred to Hemmings. Australia were unchanged. For the fourth time in the series the captain winning the toss chose to field. With the match being played on a pitch that had been laid only nine months before, Chappell took a calculated gamble when he committed Australia to batting last. In the event the pitch lasted surprisingly well and was, as Chappell expected, damp enough on the first day for England to be in early trouble. When Gower was third out, immediately after lunch, they were 56 for three. The innings was saved by a brilliant fourth-wicket partnership of 161 in only 32 overs by Tavaré and Lamb.
With Cook and Fowler going in first, Tavaré was able to bat at number three, which he much prefers to opening. After his usual slow start Tavaré began to attack the bowling, especially Yardley's, with unaccustomed vigour. By the time he was very well caught in the gully, England had fairly galloped to 217. But Lamb soon followed Tavaré, a fine innings ending a little unworthily when he got himself out to Yardley, and by close of play England, having fallen right away, were all out for 284. Cook, when first out, had given Chappell, at slip, his 111th Test catch, a new Australian record.
Each of the first three days saw one full innings completed. On the second Australia were bowled out in their first innings for 287, on the third England, in their second innings, for 294. By taking the wickets of Dyson and Chappell with successive balls in Australia's first innings, Cowans made his first impact on a match from which he was to emerge as a hero. Chappell hooked the first ball he received to deep square leg, where Lamb had just been carefully stationed. In the end Australia owed their narrow first-innings lead to Hughes's application, Hookes's good fortune laced with strokes of fine timing, and Marsh's belligerence. By now the umpiring of Rex Whitehead was becoming an irritant. On the second day, when they were in the field, and on the third, when they were batting, England were in danger of allowing it to undermine their resolve. After the match it was forgotten, all else being dwarfed by the climax, but it was undoubtedly erratic.
At 45 for three in their second innings England faced their next crisis. This time, however, after Botham had made 46 in 46 balls, their last five wickets made a vital contribution. Pringle and Taylor added 61 together, every run of some concern to Australia, faced by the prospect of batting last. Fowler, too, until hit on the foot by Thomson and forced to have a runner (the injury was to put him out of the next Test match) had played much his best innings of the tour. When Lawson found the edge of Pringle's bat Marsh claimed his 27th victim of the series, a new record for Test cricket.
Although the occasional ball was keeping very low, Australia's final target of 292, on an uncommonly fast Melbourne outfield (a prolonged and serious drought had restricted the watering of the ground), was eminently attainable. The equality of the four totals - 284, 287, 294 and 288 - tells of the unyielding nature of the match, with first one side, then the other, holding the advantage. When, as in Australia's first innings, Chappell fell cheaply to Cowans, splendidly caught low down in the covers by Gould (fielding as substitute for Fowler) off a hard slash from a short ball, England were in front, Wessels having already been bowled off his pads by Cowans. When, at 71, Dyson was beautifully caught at slip, by Tavaré off Botham, it remained that way. Hughes and Hookes then added 100, which gave Australia the initiative. Hughes's departure to a tumbling catch by Taylor off Miller, followed quickly by Hookes's, restored it to England. With Cowans, inspired by his successes over Chappell and generously encouraged by the crowd, claiming Australia's fifth (Hookes), sixth (Marsh), seventh (Yardley) and ninth (Hogg) wickets for 19 runs in seven overs, England had all but won when Thomson, his hair dyed platinum blond, joined Border.
As Thomson took root and Border switched to the attack, Willis adopted tactics which, though they brought final victory, were much criticised at the time. When Border had the strike Willis placed all his fielders in a far-flung ring, which meant that if England were to win they would almost certainly have to get Thomson out. Even for the last two overs of the fourth day, after a brief stoppage for rain, Border was allowed to bat unharassed by close fielders. It was the same next morning, even when England took the new ball.
Thus flattered, Border, whose previous fifteen Test innings had brought him only 245 runs, was now at his fighting best. Thomson, growing in confidence, occasionally pierced England's off-side field, his feet spreadeagled. As Australia slowly closed the gap, every run was cheered to the echo. England, in their fielding, showed understandable signs of panic. Cowans, though he continued to bowl well, failed to find quite his best rhythm; Willis, though admirably accurate, lacked his old pace. In the end, all hope for England almost gone, Botham, their great all-rounder, produced the ball that not only won the match but revived the tour. Botham's dismissal of Thomson made him only the second Englishman, Wilfred Rhodes being the other, to have scored 1,000 runs and taken 100 wickets against Australia.
For the first time in a Test match, Melbourne's huge video scoreboard was in operation, the screen being used to show action replays and advertisements as well as the score and other sundry details. It was, on the whole, well received, although Willis remarked after the match that there had been occasions when, needing to know the score, he found himself looking instead at a picture of a motor car or a meat pie. The first day's crowd of 64,051 might have reached 80,000 but for poor organisation. Thousands of would-be spectators turned back when they saw that it was taking up to 90 minutes to get into the ground. Even so, the total attendance, including the last day's approximate figure of 18,000, was 214,861.