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At Melbourne, December 26, 27, 28, 2006. Australia won by an innings and 99 runs. Toss: England.
Shane Warne stole his own show. From the moment he announced his retirement a few days beforehand, this Test was always going to be about Melbourne's farewell to its favourite cricketing son. Glenn McGrath's decision to quit, too, sharpened the sense of a grand occasion. Already, record crowds had been forecast to flock to the spectacularly refurbished MCG, which billed this as its 100th Test, though most records disregard the abandoned game in 1970-71. Now the match would surely be five festive days of farewell.
Two forces of nature intervened. One was rain over Christmas - much needed in a parched state, but not here, not now. It was a cold rain too, and trimmed the crowd figure on Boxing Day to a mere 89,155 (an Ashes record, but 1,645 below the 46- year-old record for any properly audited day's Test cricket). It also meant the pitch spent a sweaty Christmas under covers, leaving it underprepared. Mike Gatting, one of the innumerable guest stars invited to speak at innumerable functions attending this series, described it at breakfast one morning as a "slow shitheap".
The other force was Warne himself. His five wickets on the opening day thrilled the crowd, but put an end to the match before it had properly begun. It took Australia just two more days to complete victory, forcing Cricket Victoria not only to refund $A2.3m (more than £900,000) worth of tickets for day four, but to wring its hands at the thought of the takings lost on day five. Melbourne might not have been gasping for more, but the administrators were.
England brought in Read for Jones, and so at last fielded the side critics felt should have begun the series. Flintoff won the toss, prompting roars from both sets of fans: the English because they would bat first, the Australians because Warne would bowl on Boxing Day, needing one wicket to become the first Test bowler to claim 700. But gloomy weather necessitated floodlights, rain delayed the start by half an hour, and squalls interrupted twice, apparently making it a propitious day for seamers, rather than spinners - or heat-seeking English spectators.
McGrath began with a cultured but luckless 14-over spell, prolonged by two rainbreaks, as Strauss burrowed in. Australia betrayed their own cause with two dropped catches, two missed run-outs and later a botched stumping. Midway through the day, England were 101 for two and glimpsing light beyond the pylons.
Warne's introduction had the effect of a detonator. Extra security appeared inside the fence. Soon, Collingwood fell to Lee, then Strauss, so watchful for three and a half hours that he managed just one four, suddenly hit over and around a conventional Warne leg-break and was bowled. Warne had his milestone wicket, the crowd its keepsake moment. England's resistance thereafter was minimal. Pietersen, again left with the tail, hit out and got out, and they finished up with 159. Warne took five in an innings for the 37th time in Tests, again transfixing England in conditions that should have put him at their mercy.
Australia lost Langer and night-watchman Lee to consecutive balls from Flintoff that evening, and were fortunate not to lose Hayden, too: twice he looked to be lbw to all except struggling umpire Koertzen. Nonetheless, an hour into the next day, Australia were 84 for five and cut off at the pass. Not for the first time, England, with the high ground, found their rifles were all jammed.
Symonds, still on probation, took 21 balls to break his duck, but his boon companion and fellow-Queenslander Hayden was at the other end to temper rushes of blood. Separately, they composed high-class innings, together a pivotal partnership. England, so menacing in the morning, again retreated too quickly, conceding singles to Symonds when mental pressure might have ruined him, and setting no close fieldsmen for Panesar. The pitch settled, the outfield sped up. Emboldened, Hayden and Symonds were soon rushing along at five an over.
Hayden reached his fifth century in his last six MCG Tests, with lofted drives for six and four from Panesar; Symonds reached his maiden Test hundred by driving a six from Collingwood, bowling for the first time in the series. Hayden did not celebrate with an outsized flourish, figuring his job was not yet done; Symonds let out a primordial scream and leapt into Hayden's arms, but was speedily back at work, facing up to his next ball before the crowd had stopped applauding. His innings had been a revelation, probably even to himself.
Both men were using bats sporting pink grips, signifying a sponsor's promise to donate funds for breast cancer research; together, they raised $A4,400 as their stand grew to 279, effectively winning it for Australia, after the 15 preceding wickets in this match had totalled only 243. Hayden fell just before stumps, tired but exultant, seven hours of hawkish vigilance at last taking their toll. The evening was taken up by a farcically grave English investigation into how their bowling plans had found their way into the media, intimating that MCG security had not been all it should. Hoggard kept a sense of proportion, and humour, which was a good move because outsiders wondered whether England had any plans at all.
Australia were out summarily next morning for 419, with six catches for the impressive Read, though not before Warne had seized on some misguided short bowling from Mahmood to slather his way to 40 not out. As it transpired, only one Englishman beat that cameo - Strauss, in the first innings.
Mentally crushed, England collapsed so rapidly that for a moment it seemed Warne would not get a spell on his day of valediction. Once Pietersen, promoted to No. 4, had been removed by a surgically precise off-cutter from Clark, only formalities remained. Lee, engaging in byplay with the Barmy Army about his action, sustained his improvement in this series by bowling Australia to victory, leaving Warne two tailenders as a bonus, including Mahmood from a rare flipper.
Warne had most enjoyed his cricket when Australia were in crisis and it was all up to him: in this match, England gave him no such challenge. At nine down, police and security again encircled the arena. The end came in an almost indecent rush. The last wicket fell (to Lee) at 5.44 p.m., and the news was scheduled for six o'clock. Warne waved, bowed deeply and rode from the ground on the unsteady shoulders of Hayden and Symonds, returned to receive a rather dubious match award, then was gone. The occasion called at least for a lap of honour, and the crowd had expected one. But television schedules wait for no man.
Australia did not apologise for winning the match so quickly, nor at such an awkward time of day. Their idea of giving Warne and McGrath a decent send-off was not to have gestures and ceremonies, but simply to win the series 5-0. But it did make Warne's exit from his Melbourne stage a flatter moment than had been envisaged. To Warne, the consummate cricketer, this was unimportant. But as a way for the instinctive showman to go, it was incongruous: a fading into the night.
Man of the Match: S. K. Warne. Attendance: 244,351.
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