Toss: West Indies. Test debut: M. V. Nagamootoo.
Earlier in the season, a critic of the sport had described cricket as "a grey game played by grey people". The misguided journalist should have been at The Oval on the final day to see the conclusion of a momentous contest, itself the culmination of a memorable series. This was sport at its vibrant, colourful best, and it rekindled the public's love affair with cricket. Some 18,500 spectators crammed into the ground; thousands more were turned away, left to wander the Harleyford Road, hearing the roar that urged England on to triumph. In a show of admirable common sense, the Surrey club - who also admitted children at no cost - gave several hundred luckier fans access to the executive boxes.
Consensus suggested it was the first sell-out on a final day in England since Hutton, Compton, et al. recovered the Ashes here in 1953. Now, as then, England needed merely to hold their nerve. A victory would complete a summer that had already seen Zimbabwe beaten in a Test series, and both West Indies and Zimbabwe overcome in the one-day NatWest Series.
When Cork trapped Walsh 12 minutes after tea to complete the 3-1 win, the jubilant crowd packed in front of the pavilion and stretched back as far as the square to witness the presentation ceremony. Some of them, a year previously, had booed Hussain, the England captain, after a miserable defeat by New Zealand, but such churlishness was long forgotten as England celebrated a first series win against West Indies in 31 years. There could be no doubting the choice of Man of the Match. Atherton, who hinted during the game at retirement after the 2001 Ashes series, top-scored in both innings, in all batting for more than 12 hours on a pitch that showed enough life to keep the bowlers interested throughout.
Even so, Adams's decision to bowl was surprising, and once Atherton and Trescothick had put on 159 in 62 overs for the first wicket, England never ceded the initiative. Mahendra Nagamootoo, the debutant wrist-spinner from Guyana, and McLean at least gave Ambrose and Walsh better support than their colleagues had earlier in the series. Indeed, Nagamootoo, flat but accurate, ended the opening stand when Trescothick cut to slip on the stroke of tea; he then forced a thin edge from Hussain two balls after the resumption. Atherton remained ever vigilant but, next day, after Thorpe had succumbed to Walsh's slower ball for the second time in three Tests, the lower order offered only flimsy resistance between showers. For almost an hour on a gloomy evening, Campbell and Griffith remained resolute under a searching examination of bounce and swing from Gough and Caddick. However, the frailties of the tourists' top order, which had become increasingly evident through the summer, resurfaced spectacularly on Saturday morning. Eight wickets fell for 73 runs before lunch, including five batsmen for seven runs in 22 balls, the collapse begun when Campbell dragged one that kept low on to his stumps.
For a moment, it looked as if they might not get past the follow-on target of 82, but some lusty hitting by McLean saw them over that hurdle. White, who had shared the first six wickets with Cork, was rewarded for bowling fast and straight with the last two wickets, giving him figures of five for 32, the best of a Test career rejuvenated under Fletcher's tutelage. His victims included Lara, bowled leg stump going too far across the crease, for his first golden duck at Test level. Trescothick's stunning catch at gully to remove Sarwan typified the general improvement in England's fielding.
Not even the dismissal of Hussain for a pair, completing his woeful series with the bat, could dampen home optimism. Atherton, largely eschewing the drive, again dug in courageously against the pace attack, as though roused by the challenge of the indefatigable Walsh, who on the fourth morning conceded just four runs in a magnificent 11-over spell. Regularly he would narrowly miss the edge. But Atherton, beaten three times in one perfect over, would smile ruefully, and then concentrate on the next ball rather than worry about the last.
Stewart, White and Cork all chipped in, but Atherton's 108, chiselled out in 444 minutes from 331 balls, was more than four times greater than the second-highest contribution. His century, modestly acknowledged, prompted a standing ovation to match that given Stewart at Old Trafford. It seemed he would carry his bat until he gave a thin edge to Jacobs, and became Walsh's 34th victim of the series, one short of Malcolm Marshall's record for England-West Indies series. As the leading wicket-taker in this rubber, though, Walsh became the first winner of the Malcolm Marshall award. West Indies needed 374, their highest-ever winning fourth-innings total, to level the series, but wickets fell steadily once Hick held Campbell at second slip. Gough and Caddick managed to pin down Lara, as well as making further inroads, and an underarm throw by Thorpe accounted for Sarwan. Then as Lara began to expand his range, he was unfortunate to be given lbw to Gough. England formed guards of honour for Ambrose, playing his final Test, and Walsh, his last in England, as they strode to the crease, but there was nothing either man could do to reverse the result.