Sixth Cornhill Test

ENGLAND v AUSTRALIA

Matthew Engel

Toss: England. Test debut: S. Young.

Too late to rescue the Ashes, but not too late to rescue their self-respect, England won a sensational victory after a contest fit to rank with the great games of Ashes history. The match was over at 5.24 p.m. on the third day, but the cricket that did take place was amazing, and the climax utterly riveting. Australia, needing only 124 to win, were bowled out for just 104. The Oval crowd celebrated England's triumph in a manner not seen at least since the Edgbaston win, 11 weeks earlier - but that seemed like an awfully long time ago.

Australia's collapse maintained their reputation for vulnerability in a run-chase, and for flunking the Tests that matter least. It was the third time in 1997 they had lost the last match of a series they had already won. It did not much dent their reputation as one of the great Ashes teams. The result meant far more to England. In advance, they would have settled for losing the series 3-2, a result that suggested tangible progress after all the bleak years. And though the ECB had to refund £400,000 to ticket-holders for Sunday (a 16,500 sell-out, like the first three days), the gain was incalculable. The English public had grown weary of failure.

Like so many great matches, this came about thanks to what is conventionally known as a bad pitch. It was too dry, and by the second day it was crumbling. This came as a surprise to just about everyone. When England were all out on the first day, it was assumed to be yet another pathetic batting failure, and perhaps a terminal one for Atherton's captaincy. The first assumption was correct, because the pitch was still mild and there was no excuse at all for their collapse from 128 for three to 132 for seven.

But for once the luck favoured England in this contest. After five successes in a row, Taylor's habit of shouting his nickname - tails - at the toss let him down. England were able to bat first and hoped to give Australia the runaround in steamy, Brisbane-like heat. They must have fancied 500; even afterwards, Atherton thought 350 was par; they made 180, a useful total only at darts.

No-one had imagined two spinners would be of much value; Croft, his declining reputation further dented after an on-pitch shoving match at the NatWest semi-final, was told not to bother turning up. He had been in the 14-man squad along with Headley, who was ruled out injured, and Ben Hollioake, who was left out. Crawley failed to make the party at all, and the final eleven had four changes from Trent Bridge: Butcher was quickly recalled, along with the in-form Ramprakash and Martin, plus Tufnell, in the squad but not the team for the previous five Tests. Australia made two changes: Gillespie and Reiffel had flown home, so Kasprowicz came back in, along with Young, who had been making heaps of runs for Gloucestershire but seemed like a potential weak link in a four-man attack.

On Day One it made no difference. After the openers were out cheaply, Stewart, Hussain and Thorpe gave England hope of a decent score. But McGrath once again was both insistent and persistent, and the middle order suddenly crumpled in a sort of cataleptic fit. Hussain, who had been unconvincing even against Young, drove to mid-on, and the rest of the flock followed. Caddick and Martin each hit a six, which was something, but England were all out before tea. McGrath finished with seven for 76, including England's top six; he did little more than bowl fast and straight.

Tufnell removed Australia's openers in the evening session, but even so England's position looked dire, and direr still when Australia were 94 for two. But then the game changed. Over the years, Tufnell had displayed more than his share of the slow left-armer's traditional eccentricity; now he displayed the breed's quieter virtues. He kept his line and his patience and, in the afternoon, as the pitch began to wear visibly, he reaped his reward. Bowling unchanged for 35 overs, he worked his way through the Australian batting. He, too, finished with seven and, until Warne began slogging him, he conceded hardly more than a run an over.

And so, after tea, England were in again, their hopes renewed. But the first three batsmen were gone before they had even wiped off their narrow deficit. And Saturday began with two blows. Firstly, Australia's first-innings lead was recalculated from 38 to 40 because a four hit by Blewett was ruled a six after the third umpire, Ken Palmer, had pored over the TV evidence. And in this game every run mattered. Then, to the third ball of the morning, Hussain toe-ended a cut straight to Elliott. England were effectively 12 for four.

But the luck had turned. England supporters had long since assumed that injuries happened only to their side. However, Warne had been struggling on the second night, and now it was obvious he had a nasty groin strain. He was only able to lope in off three paces, and it seemed to curb his variety. That did not stop him turning the ball viciously out of the rough, and could not save the likes to Hussain, bent on doing something daft. But the next pair avoided the daft, and put on 79.

Thorpe, not for the first time, failed to convert a fifty into a century but, since he scored the only fifty of the match, that was wholly forgivable. It was an innings of exceptional quality and tenacity. Ramprakash made 48, which was worth at least double, and began at long last to bat for England with the certainty he showed for Middlesex.

At the time it still did not look enough. The England tail was useless yet again - the last four wickets fell for three - and Kasprowicz followed McGrath and Tufnell in taking seven in an innings; three bowlers had never done this in the same Test. Australia needed just 124 to win. But there was a sense that the situation was not hopeless. The crowd roared Malcolm in as he took the new ball, and he responded by straightening his fourth delivery to dismiss Elliott.

Tufnell bowled over the wicket to turn the ball from the crumbling pitch rather than the footmarks, and applied enough pressure to help the bowler at the other end. The beneficiary was Caddick, who removed Taylor and Blewett, given out caught behind, though TV replays suggested this was a quaint decision - by no means his first - by umpire Barker. The Waughs soon followed. Australia were 54 for five and suddenly all England was agog, even if it was the first day of the league football season.

Ponting and Healy battled back, with a stand of 34. But Tufnell finally trapped Ponting on the back pad, and Caddick took a return catch from Healy, juggled with it one-handed twice, and then clung on. Warne, batting with a runner, tried to lash out again. This time Martin got underneath his first big hit. Since Martin's fielding is willing rather than athletic, and he had dropped Warne badly 24 hours earlier, he seemed a plausible candidate to be the modern answer to Fred Tate. But he took it easily. England were confident now. The last act was Thorpe catching McGrath at mid-off - Tufnell's 11th victim - and his sunglasses falling off as he did so.

This was the first three-day Test at The Oval since 1957. On the Saturday evening Mark Taylor received a replica Ashes urn from the master of ceremonies David Gower, who had waved around a similar copy 12 years earlier. But this was greeted with only casual applause. It was a moment for England, and not just for the team. For the administrators, desperate to keep the game alive in the hearts of the public in difficult times, it was a priceless victory.

Man of the Match: P. C. R. Tufnell. Attendance: 60,123; receipts £1,595,945.

Close of play: First day, Australia 77-2 (G. S. Blewett 10*, M. E. Waugh 13*); Second day, England 52-3 (N. Hussain 2*, G. P. Thorpe 22*).

© John Wisden & Co