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At Birmingham, August 4, 5, 6, 7. England won by two runs. Toss: Australia.
If Australia had been rolled over in a couple of balls on the fourth morning, which was wholly possible, this would still be remembered as a great Test match: it produced exciting, fluctuating, often brilliant cricket from day one. But the crowd that turned up and filled Edgbaston on the Sunday seemed to sense they would be seeing something more worthwhile than three minutes' cricket and a victory singsong.
They still got the win they desperately wanted and expected, but in a manner that will never be forgotten. When the Old Trafford Test began four days later, The Greatest Test DVD was on sale. And no one was arguing with the description. On that sunlit fourth morning, England strode out on to the field with Australia 175 for eight, chasing 282. The main batsmen were all gone, and so was the swaggering confidence that had characterised Australia's Test performances for almost the whole of the previous 16 years.
But sometimes there is nothing quite as invigorating as a hopeless situation. Warne started brightly, Lee jumped solidly behind the ball, collecting bruises as well as runs, and the target ticked down. Warne trod on his stumps with 62 wanted, but still it wasn't over. The bowlers dug the ball in too short and too straight, aiming for catches off the splice rather than in the well-stocked slip cordon. England's confidence turned to concern to alarm to panic. And the last pair, Lee and Kasprowicz - with plenty of help from Extras - whittled the target down towards single figures.
With 15 required, Kasprowicz flicked Flintoff uppishly to third man, where Simon Jones failed to hold on to a difficult catch as he dived forward. England's last chance appeared to have gone. But finally, with just three wanted, Harmison banged one into the left glove of Kasprowicz, who hunched down horrified as the ball looped down the leg side and Geraint Jones plunged for the winning catch, the signal for tumultuous celebrations. A mournful Kasprowicz said afterwards. "It just got big quick, and I didn't see too much of it." Nor did umpire Bowden.
After umpteen TV replays, it was possible to conclude that Kasprowicz's left hand was off the bat at the moment of impact and, technically, he was not out. Bowden, however, would have needed superhuman vision to see this, and an armed escort involving several regiments to escape the crowd had he actually refused to give it out. It was also the right decision for cricket: 2-0 to Australia would have been the signal for the football season to begin; 1-1 lit the blue touchpaper. The Greatest Test became the Greatest Series, and the pyrotechnics illuminated the summer. The final margin wa the closest in England-Australia Tests, edging the three-run thrillers at Old Trafford 1902 and Melbourne 1982-83 - and neither of those could match this one in its relentless unmissability.
The drama began before the toss, when McGrath trod on a ball during practice and tore his ankle ligaments. Despite losing his leading fast bowler, Ponting decided to field on a cloudy morning, influenced by some gloomy predictions about the pitch, which had been under water less than a week beforehand after Birmingham was struck by a mini-tornado. But, in keeping with Australia's flawed backroom work throughout the tour, Ponting's decision ignored well-informed local opinion on both the weather and the tendency of Edgbaston wickets to deteriorate.
Vaughan could hardly believe his luck, and Ponting rapidly got the sinking feeling of a captain who has made a very, very big mistake. Against a McGrathless attack, England shed their inhibitions and their vulnerability, and hurtled to 407 inside 80 overs - not the full 90 - the most conceded by Australia on the fiirst day of any Test since 1938. Trescothick led the way with a blazing 90, as the bowlers obligingly served the ball into the perfect groove for his crunching cover and off-drives. He hit 15 fours and two sixes, but was out shortly after lunch, in sight of his first Ashes century. Bell followed third ball, and Vaughan hooked straight to long leg, but that set up a crucial stand of 103 between the big-hitting pair of Pietersen and Flintoff.
Unsure at first against Warne, who wheeled away through 25.2 overs, Flintoff hit his way out of trouble, carting Warne into the stands and once swatting a Lee bouncer over the rope despite taking his eye off the ball and trying to withdraw the bat. Few innings of such power and importance have conveyed so little authority: Flintoff was feeling his way uncertainly into the series but, once he got there, he commandeered it. After 45 overs, the official halfway mark, England were already 236 for four, a day's ration in the dour 1950s and '60s.
Flintoff had carved five sixes and six fours when he became Gillespie's 250th Test victim, just after tea. But then Pietersen, who had intelligently held back while Flintoff flailed, took over to score his third half-century in his first three Test innings, this time wafting a forthright 71 with a six and ten fours, several from a whipped forehand drive to midwicket reminiscent of the tennis court, more Borg than Border. The tail joined in too: Simon Jones was the fifth man to hit a six on a day which featured ten of them, as well as 54 fours, and the eventual scoring rate was a breathless 5.13 an over. Australia did manage to bowl England out on the first day - but for 407.
Rain prevented Australia from batting on the first evening, and they started badly next day when Hayden drove his first ball straight to cover, his first Test duck for 40 months and 68 innings. Langer dug in after being hit on the head in Harmison's first over - he said his old coach always liked to see him get hit early on, as it sharpened him up. And he resisted for four and a half hours, lasting long after Ponting had gone for a pleasant 61. But the middle order misfired, and Gilchrist was stranded on 49 when Flintoff struck twice in two balls, leaving England with a handy lead of 99. That increased by another 25 on the second evening, for the loss of Strauss, who was fooled by Warne's second ball, a huge turner which fizzed across his body and crashed into the stumps. It made Warne the first overseas bowler to take 100 Test wickets in England, and brought - for England - unnerving comparisons with the Gatting ball of 1993.
Indeed, after an initial burst from Lee reduced England to 31 for four - Vaughan's off stump was sent flying by a 91mph nip-backer - Warne dominated the third day. He bowled unchanged from the City End, usually round the wicket into the rough, often turning the ball unfeasible distances. Bell and Pietersen might have been unlucky to be given out caught behind, but Pietersen, whose 20 included two huge sixes over midwicket off Warne, had survived a confident caught-behind appeal from Lee first ball.
Warne's fifth wicket reduced England to 131 for nine, 230 ahead, but Flintoff then cut loose, slamming four more sixes to take his match total to nine, an Ashes record, outbeefing Ian Botham's six at Manchester in 1981. Now, this was Flintoff in full command of both his shots and the situation. One Kasprowicz over went for 20, despite a ring of fielders on the boundary, then Lee disappeared for 18, with one of two sixes being fished out of the TV cables on the pavilion roof by Graham Gooch. Flintoff was finally bowled for 73 - Warne's tenth wicket of the match and 599th in Tests - but the last-gasp stand of 51 with Simon Jones had swelled the lead and given England's dressing-room the scent of victory.
The frenetic pace continued in a three-and-a-half-hour session on the third evening. Australia galloped to 47 in 12 overs before Flintoff, almost inevitably, shook things up. Langer dragged his second delivery into his stumps, and Ponting nicked the seventh (after a no-ball), a leg-cutter, having kept out some searing inswingers. Hayden grafted to 31 before being well caught by the tumbling Trescothick at slip - Simon Jones's over-the-top send-off cost him 20% of his match fee - and three more went down before Flintoff, in his second spell, thudded a straight one into Gillespie's pads.
With the score at 140 for seven, England claimed the extra half-hour in a bid to polish the match off in three days. But Warne went on the offensive, lofting Giles for two sixes, and the only casualty of the extra period was Clarke, bamboozled by Harmison's rare slower ball after another easy-on-the-eye innings. That turned out to be the final ball of the day. At the time, it seemed slightly unfortunate that there would probably be so little left for a full house on the fourth day. But for the crowd the simple prospect of beating Australia was unmissable. Soon, their enthusiasm was to ripple out across the whole country.
Man of the Match: A. Flintoff.
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