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At Manchester, August 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. Drawn. Toss: England.
Cricket had hardly caught its breath after Edgbaston; the superlatives had not even settled. But now 2005 had something else to give. A draw, of all things: the first in 17 Ashes Tests. Yes, five days passed and nobody won. But an estimated 10,000 had to be turned away from Old Trafford on the final morning, and thousands more were turned back before they could get close. Roads were clogged for miles around.
This reflected the mounting enthusiasm for the series, but also the decision to offer last-day tickets for only £10 to adults and £5 for juniors; the black market put their value at around £80. Those who failed to join the 22,000 in the ground had to join the estimated 7.7 million who watched the conclusion on TV.
This involved Australia's last pair, Lee and McGrath, keeping out the last 24 balls to save the game, something this Australian team has hardly ever had to contemplate. Two nations held their collective breath yet again. The end was only made possible by an inspirational innings from Ponting - the man who got the blame for Edgbaston this time deserving the credit. He batted nearly seven hours for 156 after England had kindly set Australia 423 to win. It was the loneliest of hands on a wearing pitch: no one else even got close to 50; no one else could ease his misery if, as now seemed possible, he lost the Ashes.
When he was ninth out, with four overs still left, he thought he had blown it. Ponting left the field, not with the satisfaction of having played a great innings, but in a fury.He went into the dressing-room and threw a private tantrum... while his tailenders in the middle kept their cool.
The prologue had been tense too. Hours before the toss, the Australian camp was still unsure who would be taking the new ball. Lee had begun the week wired up to a drip in a Birmingham hospital due to an infected knee, while McGrath was grumpily waiting for bar staff at the team hotel to bring a bucket of ice in which to sink his swollen ankle. McGrath's name was not on the scorecards. But he ignored all predictions made after his injury at Edgbaston and both men played. Some said the gamble was a sign of Australian insecurities: they had no trust in their back-up bowling. And though the two wounded warriors eventually saved the game, the suspicion remained that McGrath, in particular, was nowhere near fit enough to lead the attack in such a vital match.
It was a Test in which human failings emerged on both sides. The simplest catches were dropped, the most straightforward stumpings missed. The very public decline of a once formidable fast bowler, in Gillespie, contrasted with the emergence of Simon Jones, whose reverse swing was quietly turning into a weapon Australia could neither counter nor equal. But it was also a captains' match: Ponting's 156 was preceded by 166 from Vaughan, which set the tone and made this, from the first day, the one contest of the series Australia never really contemplated winning.
Vaughan was under a different sort of pressure from Ponting: bowled three times in the first two Tests, he had found a way of making straight balls look unplayable. He was lucky this time, too: on 41, he was missed by Gilchrist, and it went for four; next ball he was bowled by a McGrath no-ball on 45; and he was dropped again on 141. But he benefited from Gillespie's awful form, and attacked wayward length mercilessly with exquisite strokes off the back foot through cover point. During a particularly desperate over for Gillespie, Vaughan reached 150 with two successive fours, then rocked into a powerful pull to make it three in a row.
Vaughan shared the first-day headlines with Shane Warne, who became the first bowler to take 600 Test wickets when Trescothick tried to sweep him and was caught by Gilchrist. Warne kissed a white wristband given to him by his daughter Brooke, who had urged him to "be strong", and continued to bowl tirelessly. McGrath, labouring on his dodgy ankle by the first evening, was luckless and wicketless in the first innings, but Lee bowled with enough fire to finish with four wickets, including Pietersen, who played a foolish shot within sight of the close. But Flintoff and Geraint Jones batted gamely next day, and England ended on 444.
There was no adequate response. Even Australia's brightest young hope was in trouble: Clarke's chronic back pain was triggered in the second over of the match. He spent two days in bed, tottered to the crease like an old man and batted like one. Perhaps only Katich would have felt worse: he failed to pick the direction of Flintoff 's frighteningly fast reverse swing, and watched in horror as a delivery he was leaving alone bent in and took off stump. This dismissal haunted him in the second innings, when he reached outside off and edged to the slips.
Katich looked confused, and was not alone. Whether or not, as former captain Ian Chappell suggested, the Australian batsmen had allowed their egos to obscure the need to play more defensively against a talented, relentless attack, the highest scorer in the first innings was the incomparable Warne. He blunted the reverse swing where his more highly regarded colleagues could not, saved the follow-on during the 14 overs that survived the rain on Saturday, and came within ten of a much-coveted maiden Test century. He finally succumbed to Jones, who snuffed out the innings on the fourth morning with a Test-best six for 53.
England were 142 ahead. Their second innings belonged to Strauss, who was struck by a bouncer from Lee in the second over, and scored his first Ashes century with an undignified piece of white plaster stuck to his ear. The plaster did nothing for his street cred, but a fine 106 did everything for the reputation of a man who had made five hundreds in his first 11 Tests but until now struggled against this attack. Strauss and Bell helped build a lead of 422 before the declaration. Langer and Hayden saw out ten overs before bad light ended play.
Ponting looked a worried man. At one stage, during the 127-run stand between Strauss and Bell, he stood near the pitch with his head bowed and Warne's arm slung around his shoulders. "I must admit at different times in the last two Tests I've been scratching my head. Where are we going to go? What are we going to do here? That sort of thing," he said later.
But Ponting reaffirmed his leadership in the way he knew best. He came to the crease in the second over of the final day, after Langer had edged to the keeper, and he saw Hayden worked over magnificently by Flintoff before being bowled behind his legs. Martyn got a dubious lbw decision from umpire Bucknor. The lucky ones who had got through the queues were going crazy, but Ponting kept calm, adapted his game and played positively throughout. As his innings grew, and steady partnerships with Clarke and Warne flourished, the tension mounted yet again.
Pietersen dropped a simple catch, his fifth of the series, to give Warne a life, and for a time it seemed he had presented Australia with the ultimate get-out clause. Then wicketkeeper Geraint Jones (who had been savaged by the Sunday papers for two errors when the rain meant there was little else to say) pulled off a ripper of a catch to dismiss Warne after the ball bounced off Strauss's thigh in the slips. Lee joined Ponting at the crease, with only McGrath - the consummate No. 11 - to come. But Vaughan, too, lost an option when Simon Jones pulled up with cramp and limped off with seven overs to go.
A few balls later, Jones's substitute, Stephen Peters, nearly ran out Lee as Ponting took a quick single to keep the strike. And then Ponting thought all was lost. He tickled a catch down the leg side to Geraint Jones, hung his head and trudged off. "I had all sorts of different emotions and feelings going through me. I thought the game had slipped away from us," he admitted. "It was difficult enough for me batting out there against Flintoff and Harmison at the end, and having Glenn and Brett subjected to it for four overs - I didn't have a lot of faith in them."
Both Lee and McGrath, though, held up their ends. Harmison's last over lacked the lethal mixture of pace and bounce required, and when Lee fended his final full toss through the on side for four the players on the Australian balcony went into raptures.
The relief was written deep on their faces, for they knew what Vaughan said afterwards was true. "Three weeks ago we were written off, 5-0 I kept hearing. Now we're 1-1 with two to play and we're playing good cricket."
Man of the Match: R. T. Ponting.