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At The Oval, September 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Drawn. Toss: England.
The Ashes series ended in the sort of obscure anticlimax which baffled outsiders were inclined to associate with cricket before the summer of 2005. But this time it did not produce bewildered shakes of the head. It delivered one of the most exhilarating moments in the history of English sport, never mind cricket.
As England moved towards the draw that clinched the Ashes, the roads went quiet as the nation headed for the TV screens to concentrate on the moment. Next day, the noise was on the streets as England paraded the replica trophy from an open-top bus, and the game's new fans jumped into the Trafalgar Square fountains in delight as they awaited the team's arrival.
Could stuffy old cricket really have caused all this? The answer was yes. The euphoria released when England brought back the Ashes after an absence of 16 years 42 days confirmed that cricket's place in the country's soul had survived eight successive humiliating series against the Australians.But more than that, what was noticeable was how young those in Trafalgar Square were: many were unborn when Mike Gatting's team won in 1986-87. A new generation had been enticed to the game by this amazing summer. Cricket was unmissable; cricket was cool.
Perhaps it should have been no surprise. This was the climax of what was already being called the Greatest Series Ever. And despite that impossible billing, it matched expectations in all but its very end. It helped that the stage was perfectly set: with England 2-1 up, only defeat could prevent the triumphant restoration of the Ashes. It meant that tension suffused every move. And Ponting had two enemies to overcome: England were a known quantity, the September weather was not.
The buzz beforehand was so loud even the Arabic television channel Al-jazeera came to see what the fuss was about. Actually, it was about arms and legs. One of each was what it would cost to buy a ticket on the grey market. (Figures of £1,000 for a £66 seat were bandied around, though seldom substantiated.) The other limbs fascinating the media were Glenn McGrath's elbow and Simon Jones's ankle: each was suspect, each vital to the plot. Australia sighed with relief when the elbow passed a fitness test, England with dismay when the ankle failed. Forced into their only change of the series, the selectors overlooked poor Chris Tremlett, twelfth man since Lord's, and called up Paul Collingwood to deepen the batting: not a positive statement. McGrath gently elbowed aside Kasprowicz.
The crowd were so partisan that even the toss was greeted with a bellow of delight: Vaughan had won it, and naturally batted. This had become the pattern of England's success, and in no time the openers were singing along at around five an over. A true pitch, lightning outfield and hot sun - belying the latest-ever start for a Test in England - made scoring look easy. At least it did for an hour, until Warne made an early entrance. Suddenly, the game wore a different face. By his 11th over, despite scant turn and little more bounce, Warne had single-handedly rescued Australia, doing something new in his 128th Test: never before had he taken the first four wickets in a first innings. The score lurched from 82 for nought to 131 for four.
It looked as though England had squandered the advantage. But if one thing was certain this summer, it was that nothing was certain. Strauss and Flintoff knuckled down, initially defending against Warne and attacking the others. Soon after tea, Flintoff opened his shoulders and hit Warne for three successive fours. As Strauss reached a hundred dripping with quality cuts and drives, England were smiling again. The pair added 143, but with both going before the close the Australians still narrowly shaded the first day. Next morning, the tail lifted England to 373, almost par on this pitch.
After a wretched series, Australia's opening partnership had to come good. Langer was all fight, lofting Giles for two sixes in his first over, and heavily outscored a hesitant, scratchy Hayden, traditionally the more fluent, but now playing for his place as well as the Ashes. At least the runs were coming - until they weren't. To general disbelief, the batsmen took the light immediately after tea. The skies had filled in but, with the forecast iffy, it made no sense. Play eventually resumed 30 minutes late next morning, and it was a case of stop-start thereafter.
Australia were 185 when a wicket finally fell. In his 13th over, Harmison, largely anodyne till now, was riled by two bouncers being ruled wides and by two fours, the first bringing up Langer's century, the second his 7,000th Test run. Harmison instantly bit back, beating Langer for pace and fury. Rain interrupted again, though Hayden later found time to reach his first hundred for 14 months, more gritty than pretty. At 277 for two on the third evening, Australia looked impregnable. Impregnable, though, was no use; victory was Ponting's only currency, and the decision to go off for light again was unfathomable.
The murk on the fourth morning was similarly unfathomable, but now the batsmen did stay on, heralding a prodigious passage of play. Bowling unchanged from the Pavilion End from the start until six overs after lunch, Flintoff was awesome. Relentlessly hitting a length, he found seam, a hint of swing, four wickets and a place in Ashes legend. His figures of 14.2-3-30-4 (for an overall five for 78) could only hint at the intensity of the battle. Australia lost seven wickets for 44, their last five for 11. Hoggard, his late swing the perfect foil for Flintoff, contributed a sublime spell of four for four from 19 balls to finish things off.
Far from a commanding lead, Australia trailed by six, failing to make 400 in a series of four or more Tests for the first time since 1978-79. Ponting's only option was to blast England out double quick, but the light remained sepulchral. McGrath idiotically bowled a bouncer, and they were off - though not before Warne found extravagant, anxiety-inducing spin to remove Strauss. On their return, in marginally brighter conditions, all the Australian players sported sunglasses. The pantomime caught on: with Warne a constant threat, some spectators theatrically unfurled umbrellas against non-existent rain. Nearby Aussies promptly stripped off their shirts and basked in illusory sunshine. The umbrellas won. To applause that might have been thunder, everyone trooped off. It meant no more cricket; the paying public, for once, didn't care.
The final day dawned, brightly, with every result possible and tension upgraded from danger level to crisis point. England were 34 for one, but they had to get through a notional 98 overs without giving Australia a look-in. With the score on 67, McGrath struck twice with two exquisite deliveries. The hat-trick ball looped into the slips, sparking huge appeals and much queasiness. Somehow, umpire Bowden got it right. Not out: it had hit Pietersen's shoulder. Next over, he was dropped off Warne; had it stuck, England would have been 68 for four. They were nurturing the shoots of a recovery when Lee found Pietersen's edge. The ball flashed at head height to Warne, safest of first slips. He parried it. As his despairing lunge failed to grab the rebound, the stands erupted.
The release of tension was short-lived. Warne snaffled Trescothick and Flintoff to give Australia the edge: at lunch, they were 133 behind, just five wickets to filch and more than 70 overs left. Some found it all too much. David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, headed for the car park to calm himself down, missing an epic shoot-out between Pietersen, oozing conviction, confidence and courage, and Lee, touching 95 mph. Supported by Collingwood, whose 72-minute ten justified his selection, and then Giles, Pietersen reeled off shots outrageous in any circumstances, unimaginable in these. By tea, he had pulled, punched, slashed and smashed his way to an extraordinary maiden Test hundred, applauded by Warne (his Hampshire captain), 23,000 in the stands and millions in their living-rooms.
Even then, Australia - 227 behind, three batsmen to dislodge, nearly 50 overs available - had a chance of victory. Not for long. No one could say precisely when the draw and England's Ashes became inescapable: certainly before Pietersen fell for an unforgettable 158, including seven sixes. Giles consolidated his reputation for reliability with 59, his highest Test score, and Warne wheeled away for a lion-hearted six wickets - 12 in the match, a staggering 40 in the series.
Yet the denouement of this Test, unlike the previous three, was pure bathos. Even though there was nothing to be gained from Australia starting their second innings, ICC regulations dragged the players back out. Four meaningless balls later, they came off for the umpteenth and last time, in fading light. The game theoretically remained live for another 16 minutes, and then, to a roar audible in Sydney, the umpires, adding their own piece of theatre, removed the bails: the Ashes were England's.
Man of the Match: K. P. Pietersen.
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