Fifth Test Match

Australia v England

At Sydney, January 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 2003. England won by 225 runs. Toss: England.

England carried over their Melbourne momentum to inflict Australia's first home defeat in four years. It was tempting to blame it on dead-rubber syndrome, but this was a hard-fought, fair-dinkum English victory. Their two previous Test wins against Australia hinged on a miraculous spell by Dean Headley and an even more miraculous innings by Mark Butcher. This time, they played grinding cricket for five days. They did it under a hot sun and an unflinching leader. And maybe, just maybe, they exposed the first crack in a mighty empire.

The match was witnessed by the second-biggest Sydney crowd in history. A further 2.1 million TV viewers - one in nine Australians - tuned in for the gripping second evening. And yet, for all of them, this was about one man. Steve Waugh's 102 was not, contrary to local hyperbole, the greatest century in Ashes folklore; next day, Gilchrist and Vaughan produced a couple every bit as good. But few, if any, have hit hundreds with such a sense of inevitability.

The looming US invasion of Iraq dominated the New Year, but Australians were preoccupied with a different Waugh. Should he stay or should he go? Waugh entered the Test - his 156th, matching Allan Border's record - knowing it could be his last. He entered the final over of the second day needing five runs for 100. Then came the magical bit. Dawson's first three balls were dead-batted down the pitch. Waugh square-drove his fourth for three, but Gilchrist did the right thing and pushed a single. One ball left, two runs needed. Unflustered, Waugh leaned back and drilled a flattish delivery through extra cover for four, sparking a roar that the writer David Frith reckoned was the loudest he had heard in 52 years' watching at the SCG. Pink-skinned revellers at the nearby Captain Cook Hotel were still chanting Waugh's name two hours later.

For the first time since November 1992, Australia started with neither McGrath (side strain) nor Warne (shoulder). Without those two, as many had long suspected, they were half the side. Still, a half-strength Australia is troublesome enough. After Hussain chose to bat on a true pitch, England were soon in a familiar fiddle. Lee swung the ball both ways at high speed, before Butcher and Hussain combined for what was briefly England's highest third-wicket stand at Sydney. They were dropped three times, underlining how much Australia missed their superslipper, Mark Waugh, who made a lunchtime lap of honour round his home ground atop a 1967 Mustang. But few begrudged Hussain, in particular, his luck. Gone were the frazzled, manic starts of earlier innings. Instead, he seemed to smile more. Butcher's 124, peppered with delicious cover-drives and neat tucks off his body, was the performance he had hinted at all series. As with Headingley 2001, however, it was only once the Ashes were lost that he loosened up enough to produce it.

Steve Waugh eventually brought himself on, mesmerically trapping Key lbw with an innocuous half-volley. But it was another endangered old-timer who swung things England's way. Stewart had been restored after his Melbourne injury, only to be taken to Sydney's Clinic of Infectious Diseases before the match with a mysterious rash across his face. The rash proved undiagnosable and Stewart unflappable, swiping 15 boundaries; with his eighth, he eclipsed Geoff Boycott (8,114) as England's third highest run-scorer. Though Bichel, standing in for McGrath, bowled him on 71, England stretched the total to 362.

The Australians went one run better, thanks largely to Waugh's Bradman-equalling 29th Test hundred. This was not the methodical, crablike Waugh of recent years, but the footloose version of the late 1980s, thriving on crunching cover-drives and meaty slashes over the slips. He became the third man to scale 10,000 Test runs, after Gavaskar and Border, and took only 130 balls over his hundred. (The next morning was an anticlimax; Hoggard, recalled to the team because of White's injury, removed him in his first over.) Yet Waugh looked almost pedestrian beside Gilchrist, who required only 94 balls for his century, despite barely hazarding an unconventional stroke. The exception was the shot that got him there: instead of ducking a Harmison bouncer, Gilchrist lifted his bat vertically above his head and swatted the ball tennis-style into the empty expanses of mid-on for three.

Even more praiseworthy, and only slightly more prosaic, was Vaughan's seventh hundred in eight months. This was his best yet. He erupted in the third over of the innings, swinging Gillespie for a glorious six off his hips, before settling into an almost flawless rhythm, which brought 27 fours in 278 balls. Trescothick became Lee's 100th victim, nudging an armpit rocket on to his stumps, but Vaughan, ever methodical but never monotonous, sailed on. He sat on MacGill's stock big-turner and feasted on his plentiful loose offerings. MacGill appeared overanxious, too eager to impress, while Gillespie, always deadlier at the start of a series, conspicuously failed to lead the attack. Vaughan put on 189 with Hussain - an upgrade on the first day's third-wicket record - before succumbing to a recklessly idiosyncratic lbw decision, one of several by umpire Tiffin. But as the bowlers wilted, the lower order, better late than never, took advantage; when Hussain declared on the fourth evening, Stewart and last man Harmison had added 43 unbeaten runs in seven overs.

That set Australia 452. Fat chance turned swiftly to no chance. Langer, Hayden and Ponting were despatched leg-before on a tense fourth evening, Langer Tiffined by a ball pitching eight inches outside leg. Hayden inadvertently smashed a glass panel on his stomp back to the dressing-room and was fined $A2,200. Bichel was mystifyingly sent in 18 overs before stumps - a pinch-watchman, perhaps? - and swung sensibly before falling to Caddick, that other golden oldie rumoured to be past his use-by date, at the start of the final morning. Banging the ball in purposefully, Caddick made the most of some uneven bounce and undisciplined batting to collect ten wickets in a Test for the first time. Martyn and Love lingered briefly but the rest went down swinging. Waugh's men have achieved many wondrous feats; they don't, however, do draws. Batting seven hours to save a match proved hopelessly beyond them.

Their whitewash ambitions scuppered, it completed an irksome few days for the Australians. The previous day, thanks to a mathematical quirk, they had bequeathed their No. 1 ranking in the ICC Test Championship to South Africa. Hussain, long-sleeved white shirt buttoned to his throat and wrists, was his usual gloomy self at the post-match press conference. But he had glimpsed a new world, a brighter world, a world without McGrath and Warne. It was hard to shake the feeling that, after 14 years of ritual Ashes humiliation, the worst for England might finally be over.

Man of the Match: M. P. Vaughan. Attendance: 174,357.

Man of the Series: M. P. Vaughan. Close of play: First day, England 264-5 (Crawley 6, Stewart 20); Second day, Australia 237-5 (Waugh 102, Gilchrist 45); Third day, England 218-2 (Vaughan 113, Hussain 34); Fourth day, Australia 91-3 (Bichel 49, Martyn 19).

© John Wisden & Co