To general astonishment, England reversed the form of the summer, outplayed Australia and won the final Test deservedly and decisively. The result came more than six and a half years or - as one paper recorded - 2,430 days, 11 hours and 49 minutes after England's last win over Australia, at Melbourne in December 1986. It brought about a halt, at least temporarily, in the mood of national teeth-gnashing that had accompanied England's previous failures. For Australia, who had enjoyed a triumphal progress round the British Isles with only trivial setbacks, the defeat came hours before they flew home; it was like having the perfect holiday and then being nabbed by customs.
The win was a particular triumph for the England captain Mike Atherton, in his second game in charge; he was immediately named as captain for the winter tour to the West Indies. It was a cause for quieter satisfaction for Ted Dexter, the much-vilified chairman of selectors who had announced his resignation two weeks earlier. This was the last team for which he was responsible.
It was a greatly changed team too, but if England finally found the right combination there was as much accident as design and, at last, a bit of luck. Smith was dropped, for the first time, after 45 Tests, along with Ilott and Emburey. Back into the squad came Hick, Tufnell and Malcolm. But the selectors took what might have been a gamble by naming Fraser, whose brief but brilliant Test career had been halted two and a half years earlier by a serious hip injury, as cover for Martin Bicknell, who had a dodgy knee. The evidence that Fraser was back to his best was based on only a couple of games but when Bicknell did pull out he had to play. It was a turning point. The combination of Fraser, Malcolm and Watkin (who made it into the final 11 this time, while Tufnell did not) on a pacy wicket transformed England. None had played a game before in the series; they shared the 20 wickets between them.
England had to make a fifth change less than an hour before the start when Thorpe was hit on the hand by a net bowler, broke his thumb and fainted; Ramprakash was summoned from Lord's. The short notice meant it had to be someone playing nearby; had Middlesex been at Swansea or Darlington, someone else might have got the change. As it was, Ramprakash - in his tenth Test - finally passed thirty and began to add a little achievement to his unquestioned promise.
The next bit of English luck came when Atherton won the toss. England made their familiar good start, racing to 143 for one. Australia were again unchanged, except that they were two weeks further along a hard tour and even someone as great-hearted as Hughes was beginning to show signs of weariness. The batsmen were right on top all day but, in familiar English fashion, they got themselves out, often for no good reason - Hick, in particular, was blazing away and hit a regal six to reach 80 two balls before being caught at third man off a thoroughly ill-judged cut.
In the field, Australia seemed more intent on getting mad than getting even and the verbal battle appeared to reach new heights, or depths: the managers were called in for a quieter word by the referee, Clive Lloyd, after the first day. Next morning, England were all out for 380 and the consensus was that they had scored a hundred too few. But that assumed England's attack would live up to past form. Instead, Malcolm's speed, Watkin's resilience and Fraser's relentlessness completely transformed their prospects. The wicket was hard enough to favour strokeplay and to ensure that class bowlers could always make a batsman uncomfortable. England fielded tightly, with the young men darting everywhere and Gooch loyally putting on the short-leg helmet. Australia crumpled to 196 for eight. But then England could not finish them off and the last two wickets took the score past 300.
Australia could have got back in the game but, once again, the top three England batsmen tore into some jaded bowling and by the middle of Saturday afternoon England, at 157 for one, already looked fireproof. The runs included an off-driven four off Reiffel by Gooch which took his score to 21 and his total of Test runs to 8,235, more than David Gower and every other England player. The applause was unstinting, though the moment had a bittersweet touch: Gower might have scored many more if Gooch, as captain, had let him play.
The innings meandered later and England's prospects were hindered on the fourth day by the loss of two hours' play to the weather - only 41 minutes had been lost throughout the series while Australia had been on top. But the presence of the seventh specialist batsman, Ramprakash, enabled England to take the lead to 390 before they were bowled out to save Atherton having to decide whether to risk a declaration.
The rain effectively ruled out the remote chance of an Australian win. Could England do it? Again the luck was with them. The weather improved and umpire Meyer gave them two successive decisions that might have gone the other way: replays showed that Slater was given out caught off his armguard, and the first-ball lbw decision against Boon was not a certain one. Then Taylor played on and it was 30 for three. There was a stand between Mark Waugh and Border, who was caught behind - another decision that was not universally approved - straight after lunch and left an English cricket field for what was presumed to be the last time without once looking up. Mark Waugh and Healy were both out hooking and, though Steve Waugh dug in with Hughes, Malcolm was getting ready for another burst. His first ball back had Waugh leg before.
At 5.18 p.m. England won. The heroes of the hour were English but the heroes of the summer were Australian: it was Border who was presented with a replica of the Ashes. What England had won, at the very last minute, was some self-respect.
Man of the Match: A. R. C. Fraser. Attendance: 70,650; receipts £l,242,400.
Men of the Series: England - G. A. Gooch; Australia - S. K. Warne.
Close of play: First day, England 353-7 (A. R. C. Fraser 15*, S. L. Watkin 8*); Second day, Australia 239-8 (I. A. Healy 39*, S. K. Warne 14*); Third day, England 210-5 (A. J. Stewart 14*, M. R. Ramprakash 12*); Fourth day, Australia 1-0 (M. J. Slater 1*, M. A. Taylor 0*).