Fifth Test, The Oval

England v Australia 2001

Matthew Engel

Normally, the glow from a sensational Test match victory ought to last for weeks or months; in the case of Headingley '81 it has lasted 20 years. The last embers of English joy from Headingley '01 were snuffed out inside 72 hours, thanks to the first back-to-back Tests in England in 89 years, and a dramatic and total reversion to the familiar pattern of Australian mastery. This was only Australia's second win at The Oval since 1948, when Bradman led them to an innings victory despite a duck in his final Test. The other came in 1972, when the Chappell brothers both scored centuries: this time, the Waughs did the same.

Steve Waugh was not what anyone else would have called fit but, with awesome courage and determination, not to mention skill, he came back from injury to ensure that Australia returned to business as usual with astounding rapidity. He started by winning the toss, yet again, and England sensed what lay in front of them. Before the opening day was gone, the only question was, yet again, whether they might save the game.

But there was more discussion about the sub-plots: whether Mike Atherton really was going to retire (he was) and whether Gough and Stewart would he allowed to cherry-pick which parts of the winter tour they wanted to go on (they were not). Monday's hero, Butcher, who had increased his standing with one innings in a way reminiscent of Derek Randall at the 1977 Centenary Test, was loudly applauded to the crease twice by his home crowd - and back again, without achieving anything much.

Katich, as expected, had to make way for Steve Waugh. but Australia also dumped Slater. Being dropped by Australia is always a more fearful and sometimes final blow than being dropped by England, and in this case Slater's replacement, Langer, seized his opportunity on day one.

He was up against another makeshift England attack, with the retread Tufnell and debutant Jimmy Ormond replacing Mullally and Tudor, whose inability to stay fit remained a source of exasperation. Tufnell's triumph at The Oval four years earlier, however, seemed a lifetime away, and all the England bowlers had their hearts broken on the opening day. The pitch was benign, but the faster men might have been helped by a day of late-summer haze had even one of them struck up a rhythm. Instead, the new opening pair of Langer and Hayden put on 158 and, after a patchy start - understandable after batting so little on tour - Langer scored his eighth Test century in his familiar, understated style. Four overs later, he retired hurt, having been hit on the helmet trying to hook Caddick, but there seemed no other way to remove him.

It got worse for England. On Friday, the sun shone and, in four hours 35 minutes, Australia raced from 324 for two to 641 for four, their highest score on the ground since 1934, when double-centuries from Ponsford and Bradman propelled them to 701.

Mark Waugh's 20th Test century was a thing of beauty. as ever, and took him ahead of David Boon into fourth place on Australia's all-time run-list. But Steve's 27th - only Gavaskar (34) and Bradman (29) had scored more - showed that class is not the only determinant of quality. About 99 per cent of cricketers would not have dreamt of turning out in his condition: he winced his way to 157 not out.

England began their response in something of the same spirit, with Trescothick racing to a run-a-ball 55 before the close. But by then Warne had turned one massively on to Atherton's leg stump. And, next morning, Trescothick lasted only two balls and Butcher, having briefly displayed his new-found dominance, pushed a catch to short leg. The main business, thereafter, seemed to have more to do with fringe players establishing themselves than saving the follow-on. Ramprakash and Afzaal achieved their personal objectives without quite doing what the team required. Afzaal showed spirit in his 54, and something of the judgment the selectors had sensed when they picked him: Ramprakash survived until the fourth morning, scoring 133, his second Test century (on his new home ground). For the time being, it ended a decade of doubts about the gap between his ability and his temperament.

But no one ever truly mastered either McGrath or Warne, whose seven for 165, his best Test analysis overseas, made him the first Australian to reach 400 'lest wickets. The landmark was not quite the moment of mellowness Warne deserved: Stewart was convinced he had not touched the ball on its way to Gilchrist, and made that clear enough to be fined 20 per cent of his match fee. Gilchrist concluded the innings with his own record, his 100th dismissal in his 22nd Test; previously, Mark Boucher was the quickest, in 23. England missed the follow-on target by ten.

They still had hopes of survival, even though Warne was getting ever more unplayable, because the Sunday was wet and only 21.3 overs were bowled. That was enough time for one last episode in the McGrath v Atherton saga, which ended in McGrath's 19th personal victory, a catch at first slip. Atherton, however, was determined to control what happened next: there would be no unseemly fuss, none of the showbizzy demonstrations that accompanied the farewells to Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh here a year earlier. The only clue he gave that this really was goodbye was an extra wave of the bat. Thus ended the career of England's best batsman of the past decade. No flowers, please, by request. Cussed to the last, our Mike.

England as a whole were far less cussed. They lost four wickets to Warne and McGrath in the first hour on Monday, and the biggest stand of the innings was 58 for the ninth wicket between Ormond and Gough. It was over before teatime. Australia had won the series 4-1 and, in case anyone had taken Headingley too seriously, had reiterated that their reign goes on - ad infinitum, England fear.

© John Wisden & Co