Fifth Test, Sydney

Australia v England 2006-07

Matthew Engel

At Sydney, January 2, 3, 4, 5, 2007. Australia won by ten wickets. Toss: England.

Retiring heroes: Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne leave the field for the last time together after Australia completed their Ashes whitewash at Sydney © Getty Images

After all the presentations were finally over, the Australian players were led by their three retiring heroes - Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer - in an approximation of the traditional lap of honour. However, the exercise bore little relation to the theatrical farewell Steve Waugh had organised on this very ground precisely three years earlier.

It was more of an amble of honour. The players promenaded around the boundary, several of them clutching a child with one hand and waving vaguely with the other. A stroll in the park, like the series itself.

The final Test fitted into the broad pattern of the entire 2006-07 Ashes. In a match curiously short of compelling individual achievements - no century, no four-fors, even - England were notionally competitive until just after lunch on the third day. Australia were then 325 for eight, only 34 ahead of England's first-innings 291.

But yet again Australia's tail-end batting had infinitely more conviction than England's bowling. And when the innings finally ended at 393, and the tailenders returned to the day job (for the last time in the case of Warne and McGrath), there was no contest, and no expectation of one. The whitewash was completed before lunch on the fourth day. England, lost in weary self-disgust, hardly distracted the Aussies from all their hugging.

Flintoff won the toss, which was one bit of luck. Against that, he was without his most reliable enforcer: Hoggard's side strain ended his sequence of 40 consecutive Tests, which meant an unexpected recall for Anderson rather than, as speculation suggested, the introduction of Jamie Dalrymple to stiffen the batting and offer a bit of off-spin.

Batting first was not the overwhelmingly obvious decision, since there were showers around, which only cleared away for good on day three. The toss probably made little difference: the pitch was firm and fair throughout, offering a little encouragement to everyone without giving batsmen the suggestion of permanence.

In any case, England came through the opening day in reasonable condition at 234 for four. Bell played one of his most mature innings yet to score 71, before being bowled by a classic McGrath nip-backer. He might have lasted longer had not McGrath just been gifted a retirement present from Pietersen, whose century stand with Bell ended with an impulsive down-the-pitch top-edged hook.

There was still Flintoff, who played his best innings of the series by far: there were glimpses of his old panache, and consistently good judgment. But his task was made impossible by the uselessness of England's late order: Nos 7-11 made four runs between them, and the last six wickets fell for 46 on the second morning. They could not even take advantage of three dropped catches by Langer.

"Thx Shane" and "Thx Glenn" had been painted, in text-message format, into the mobile-phone sponsor's logo on the outfield. With Langer making his announcement only on the eve of the match, "Thx Justin" had to be added hastily. And Langer, a man who uses the word "emotion" as often as Flintoff uses "fantastic", seemed to have a tear in his eye far more real than the mythical one credited with causing Don Bradman's final-innings duck. He was clearly more distracted than either Warne or McGrath. Could England exploit this? Could they heck! The three misses cost just ten runs.

Langer was able to bat competently enough. But England's weakened attack stuck to their task, with Harmison showing signs of potency on this bouncy wicket. They were helped by indifferent light, and a well-timed rain-break on the second evening.

None of Australia's top six reached 50, not even Ponting, who had one of his run-out mishaps on 45 when Anderson scored a direct hit from mid-on.

If England reached 190 for five in this series, it was time for the groundstaff to start the roller. For Australia, it was just the beginning. Symonds rollicked along for a while, and Gilchrist and Warne were in blazing form: their fifty stand came up in 36 balls. It ended just after Anderson took the new ball, though the more relevant factor was umpire Bowden, who gave a caught-behind decision against Gilchrist bizarre enough for the crowd to boo the lone replay they were allowed.

Warne found another companion in Clark, and they put on a further 68 for the ninth wicket. The Warne magic is so pervasive that many spectators convinced themselves he would, at the very last attempt, reach the Test century that had so cruelly eluded him. It was a slash-and-burn innings that had pretty much everything, including some characteristically lippy exchanges with Collingwood. But there was no century: after Clark went, Warne had insufficient trust in McGrath, and was stumped on 71, made in 65 balls.

England, 102 behind, found trouble right away. Cook went quickly and, two balls later, Lee felled Strauss with a 93mph bouncer that hit him on the base of the helmet. He resumed groggily, but not for long enough. England were soon 98 for four. They inched into the lead shortly before the third-day close. Then, to a thunderous cheer, Warne returned to the attack.

He had bowled an over before tea, possibly the worst of his life, including three full tosses which Bell smacked through the on side for four. The first over of his second spell was notably stiff. In the next, Flintoff reached right forward to stun a leg-break. He missed, wearily failed to get his back foot behind the line, and thus became Warne's 708th and last Test victim.

Next morning, the ground was still 80% full. But the insanely confusing practice of varying the starting time to make up for interruptions meant that most of the crowd missed the one moment that might have mattered: Pietersen was caught behind off the third ball of the day.

Thirteen minutes before lunch, the cricket was over, Hayden declining to mess about and give Langer the honour of hitting the winning run. There were still two hours of presentations, celebrations, perambulations and congratulations before the crowd dispersed to let the Australians perform their private rituals in the dressing-room. There they were joined by their former colleague Damien Martyn, who had exiled himself so completely after Adelaide that no one was sure where he was.

There were two significant moments in the field: Warne was first to come back to shake hands with his vanquished opponents; and Flintoff went over to the Barmy Army and salaamed them. In contrast to 2005, few will have felt moved to salaam him back.

Man of the Match: S. R. Clark. Attendance: 170,168. Compton-Miller Medal: R. T. Ponting.

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack