At The Oval, September 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
England won by nine wickets. Toss: South Africa.
At the start of the second day, bookies were offering 40 to one against an England win - not quite the 500 to one that tempted Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee at Headingley in 1981, but an indication of the mountain England climbed to claim this epic. South Africa had lost a wicket to the last ball of the first day but, even at 362 for four, a huge score beckoned, and with it victory in the series. That wicket turned out to be the fulcrum on which the match pivoted. From then on, England produced far the sharper cricket. They were especially ruthless in the morning sessions, plundering five wickets for 70 on the second day, hitting 106 without loss on the third and 102 for two on the fourth before scattering the tail to the four winds on the last. On this sublime pitch, South Africa's 484 simply wasn't enough. Only once before in a Test in England, when Arthur Morris and Don Bradman triumphed at Headingley in 1948, had a first-innings total of 450 or more led to defeat.
It was not just the delicious reversal of fortune that made this a classic: there were myriad subplots to intrigue and absorb a packed house for five days. Alec Stewart, at the age of 40 and in his record 133rd and avowedly final Test appearance for England, wrapped himself in the cross of St George for the last time, at least on a cricket pitch. Thorpe, back from the wilderness only because another of Nasser Hussain's brittle bones was broken, achieved redemption with a beautiful hundred. And Bicknell, strutting his stuff on the big stage, hinted at what he might have done as a regular Test cricketer. Huge roars from the crowd regularly filled the air at the exploits of these three, Surrey stalwarts all.
As Graeme Smith walked out that first, late-summer morning, he could have been forgiven a glow of confidence. More luck with the Edgbaston weather and the Trent Bridge toss, and he might have been contemplating a 5-0 whitewash. And his fortunes seemed to have changed now: a full-strength team for the first time in the series, a psychological edge after England's Headingley implosion, an important toss and a forecast of three fine days and two wet.
On a pitch aching to give up its runs, Gibbs was first to make hay in the September sunshine, crafting a big, full-blooded hundred bursting with drives and cuts. When he reached three figures, he had studded his tenth Test century with 20 fours and a six; only Flintoff, 18 months earlier in Christchurch, had hit more in boundaries en route to a Test century. Gibbs had reason to spurn ones and twos: in the morning, he had run out his captain, though Smith later had the grace to say he did not back up far enough. It hardly mattered, as Gibbs and Kirsten revelled in the conditions, adding 227 untroubled runs for the second wicket. True, both fell in the last session as Giles gained reward for perseverance, to be followed by McKenzie to the day's last gasp, but South Africa held the match in an iron grip.
It was loosened on the second morning, when they could - and should - have taken the game beyond England. More of what had gone before would have done the job, but England bowled with heart, fielded with zest, and South Africa floundered. There were two early wickets - which meant three had gone for 23 - but Kallis and Pollock looked as safe as houses. They had taken the score well past 400 when disaster struck. Inside 28 balls England's morning lurched from the good to the miraculous: Giles ran out Kallis with a fluky deflection on to the non-striker's stumps, Hall fell for a single, and Adams was beaten by Butcher's throw from the deep. But with the score 432 for nine, was it all too late? Once the resourceful Pollock eked 52 from the last wicket, the door seemed firmly shut.
Gloom-mongers pointed out that England needed 285 to avoid the follow-on, and had adopted an I-told-you-so air when Thorpe, whose last three Test innings against South Africa were ducks, joined Trescothick at 78 for two. But the next five hours left the pessimists squirming. Neither batsman gave a genuine chance as runs came thick, fast and handsome. Thorpe, who likened the occasion to a second debut after dropping out of international cricket 14 months earlier, did what he had done first time round and hit a hundred. Even Pollock, who became the 19th bowler to 300 Test wickets - and at 20.45 the one with the lowest average - when he whipped out Vaughan, came in for uncharacteristic stick during the partnership of 268.
A deafening cheer greeted Stewart, collar up, as he strode through the South Africans' generous guard of honour. Several bat twiddles and knee squats later, he was slotting the ball between the fielders - though not for as long as the crowd wanted. On 38, he played across a straight ball, and a career totalling 8,463 runs at a shade under 40 was almost over. Cue more rapturous applause. Trescothick, meanwhile, was in consummate touch. Recently upbraided for a susceptibility outside off (and for the bad-light nonsense at Headingley), he silenced his critics with a glorious hundred later converted into a maiden double; his best shot was the leave. He faced 374 balls, batted nine and a half hours, and swatted 32 fours and two sixes before holing out for 219. Yet despite these riches, there was a danger the innings would peter out as the South Africans' had. Early on the fourth morning, England, eight down, led by a gossamer 18. With the forecast predicting that the tail-end of Hurricane Fabian would drown The Oval - and with the pitch as immaculate as Stewart's whites - the sensible money was on a draw.
Flintoff treated that logic with utter disdain. Beefy shots flashed from his bat as if it had been Ian Botham's; he hit cleanly, he hit hard and he hit often; 85 came from his last 72 balls. If there was an occasional slog-sweep, it disappeared for six, and the only thing agricultural about his innings was the assured way he farmed the strike: Harmison's contribution to a stand of 99 was a level-headed three. For South Africa, the psychological damage of watching ball after ball sail over the rope was as telling as the runs themselves; for the first time all series, Graeme Smith looked lost.
Shortly before lunch, Vaughan declared 120 ahead. England had bowled decently on the first day, but without fire. Now the South Africans wilted in the heat. Harmison subtly honed his "They don't like it up 'em" technique and deservedly reaped dividends. Bicknell slanted two away-swingers across Rudolph, then bowled a majestic in-swinger, unwisely ignored. By the close - and still no rain to speak of - South Africa, effectively 65 for six, had nowhere to hide.
The noisy fifth-day crowd craved victory, yet hankered for drama. They had to make do with the win. The South African lower order keeled over feebly against more lionhearted bowling, and England, finding it all very easy, tore to their target at nearly five an over. The massive victory allowed Stewart to end his Test career - which also numbered 54 defeats - as he began it, on the winning side.
Man of the Match: M. E. Trescothick. Attendance: 80,000; receipts £1,600,000.
Men of the Series: England - A. Flintoff; South Africa - G. C. Smith.
Close of play: First day, South Africa 362-4 (Kallis 32); Second day, England 165-2 (Trescothick 64, Thorpe 28); Third day, England 502-7 (Flintoff 10, Bicknell 0); Fourth day, South Africa 185-6 (Boucher 22, Pollock 19).