An eighth-wicket stand between Warne and May, lasting 77 minutes, saved Australia from an astonishing defeat in a game that had seemed dead two and a half hours earlier. Australia, who abandoned a bold pursuit of 449 only when rain intervened, were then 239 for two. An hour and a quarter later, however, they were 292 for seven; in three overs Fraser scythed down their middle order with a spell of four for four. With play continuing until 7.26, England were handicapped in their final thrust by fading light, which forced Atherton to stop using his pace bowlers. But, with up to eight fielders round the bat, it was a gritty achievement by the tailenders to survive, thus ensuring Australia would hold the Ashes for a fourth successive term.
It was a match of startling fluctuations and surprises, not least the fact that Warne bowled 52 overs for a solitary wicket - Malcolm's! On every day except the fourth, when only one wicket fell for 304 runs, as England constructed a cautious declaration and Taylor and Slater aggressively replied, the faster bowlers took charge. Of 29 wickets to fall, they claimed 27. The pitch had pace and regular bounce but, before Australia's brief first innings, sweated under its ground-level covers. In humid and frequently overcast conditions, the ball often swung.
Atherton had to bat first. But, with McDermott and Fleming exploiting the humidity, England were 20 for three inside an hour; Gooch, opening in Stewart's absence, fell in the second over. Their luck turned when umpire Bucknor denied Fleming a convincing lbw appeal against Atherton. Reprieved, the captain put the innings on its feet, adding 174 with Crawley, who played with composure in his first Ashes Test. It looked like England's day, before McDermott darted an off-cutter with the new ball between bat and pad to bowl Atherton for 88, and four balls later had a hapless Gatting caught behind. Before the close, Crawley edged Fleming to second slip and Rhodes was run out attempting a run off a misfield; Australia had the initiative again.
It was recaptured, however, by Gough with a jaunty innings of village-green innocence and charm. Throwing his bat at anything pitched up and hooking or pulling vigorously when it was short, he cracked 51 in 56 balls, before he mishooked McDermott to deep fine leg. Malcolm followed Gough's example, needing only 18 balls to make 29, his highest Test score. He was bowled whirling at a leg-break after straight-driving Warne for his second six. When Fraser, the night-watchman turned anchor-man, was caught off a skier, Gough's joyous thrash had inspired the addition of 111 runs in even time that morning.
Those extra runs completely changed the picture. For when rain allowed only 3.3 overs after lunch and a downpour next morning forced groundstaff to replace the covers in the hour before play restarted, Slater and Taylor found themselves resuming in ideal conditions for the seamers. Not helped by Boon and Steve Waugh, who shouldered arms to Gough and were bowled, Australia collapsed to 65 for eight, needing another 45 to save the follow-on. Though Taylor was still in, there might have been no escape had Malcolm, at mid-on, run to catch a mis-hit off Gough by McDermott, instead of leaving it to Gooch, more distant at mid-off. When Malcolm came on to bowl, Taylor and McDermott counter-attacked, taking 17 off his first three overs. Then, at 107 for eight, an inept Malcolm bouncer sailed high over Rhodes for four byes and the follow-on was saved. Almost immediately, Gough took a return catch from Taylor off his slower ball, and next ball yorked Fleming, to return six for 49, his first haul of five or more in Test cricket. But England's best chance of victory had gone.
Atherton's respect for the Australian batting was implicit in the tempo of England's second innings. Despite a lead of 193, they took 72 overs scoring 255 for two, and it was not until Thorpe joined Hick that they stepped up to four an over. In what was thought to be the last-but-one over of the innings, Hick, on 98, blocked three successive balls, and Atherton lost patience and ungenerously declared; he had batted far more slowly himself.
No team had ever made as much as 449 to win a Test. But Taylor and Slater set out with such a will that Australia might have had a real chance had the weather held. Overnight, they needed another 310 off 90 overs. Atherton was concerned enough to instruct Tufnell to bowl over the wicket to a five-man leg-side field. But though that held Australia to 67 off 31 overs up to lunch, the openers were still together, despite a run-out appeal which Taylor might not have survived had umpire Hair called for the replay. It was only when rain prolonged lunch long enough to embrace an early tea interval that Taylor decided that chasing 243, at 4.67 an over, was too risky. Officially, only seven overs were lost, because of the additional hour, but the conditions had also turned against Australia.
Both men reached hundreds. Slater was superbly caught by Tufnell, running diagonally backwards at deep square leg, and at 239 Taylor was bowled by Malcolm with the new ball. But it was not until Boon, Bevan, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh and Healy were swept aside in nine overs by Gough and Fraser that England - too late - began running between overs. Thanks to their earlier slow over-rate, it was 6.25 when the umpires signalled the start of the last hour. Seven wickets were down, but Fraser and Gough managed only three more overs before the darkness impelled Atherton to take them off. Warne and May handled what followed so calmly that when Warne was put down at mid-off by Malcolm off Gooch, off the final ball of the minimum 15 overs, there was very little chance that it affected the result.
In the event, a great Test ended bizarrely when, with the batsmen almost through the players' gate and tractors circling the infield, Atherton pointed out to the umpires that the clock indicated 7.24, leaving time for a 16th over. May negotiated four balls from Tufnell safely.
Man of the Match: D. Gough. Attendance: 126,485.
Close of play: First day, England 198-7 (A. R. C. Fraser 3*, D. Gough 0*); Second day, Australia 4-0 (M. J. Slater 4*, M. A. Taylor 0*); Third day, England 90-1 (M. A. Atherton 32*, G. A. Hick 22*); Fourth day, Australia 139-0 (M. A. Taylor 64*, M. J. Slater 65*).