First Cornhill Test


John Etheridge

Toss: Australia. Test debut: M. A. Butcher.

The ripples of patriotic optimism which followed England's 3-0 victory in the one-day internationals had become a tidal wave of emotion and euphoria by the end of this extraordinary match. There were reasons to think England might perform well - their growing confidence in New Zealand, the whitewash in the one-day internationals, Taylor's personal purgatory, Australia's injuries and general lack of form - but nothing had prepared a disbelieving public for what actually happened.

The game had everything as far as England were concerned: Australia's collapse to 54 for eight on the opening morning, magnificent innings by Hussain and Thorpe, a heroic century by Taylor and a suitably dramatic finale. England won at 6.52 p.m. on Sunday evening, when Stewart cracked Warne to the extra cover boundary. They passed their target of 118 in just 21.3 overs and the crowd, close to a fourth successive full house, engulfed the field. "They're coming home, they're coming home, Ashes coming home," they sang, to the tune made famous in the Euro 96 soccer championships. Not even the most hard-bitten realists dared argue: the electric, jingoistic atmosphere was a feature of the grand occasion.

England fielded eight of the team which had gained back-to-back Test victories in Wellington and Christchurch in February. Cork was injured, Tufnell left out of the final eleven and Knight dropped. Malcolm was recalled for the first time since his falling out with Ray Illingworth in South Africa, Ealham also returned and Surrey's Mark Butcher made his debut. In a ceremony unashamedly pinched from the Australians to emphasise the team's sense of patriotism, he was ceremoniously presented with his cap on the outfield by Atherton. Adam Hollioake, like Tufnell, was omitted from the original 13; Alex Tudor, the 19-year-old Surrey quick bowler, also joined in practice on Tuesday for experience. Australia departed from the strategy of two front-line seamers and seven batsmen used against West Indies and stuck to in South Africa, reverting to a more normal three plus six.

Taylor chose to bat and, by 12.36 on the first day, Australia were 54 for eight from 20 overs. The sheer drama of it all scrambled the senses. Gough's first ball fizzed past Taylor's outside edge - by contrast, the opening delivery of the previous Ashes series, at Brisbane in November 1994, was a long hop from Phil DeFreitas which Michael Slater square cut for four. Gough, bowling with pace, rhythm and confidence, made the initial thrusts, removing three of the top four, while Malcolm persuaded Taylor to chase a wide one and disturbed Bevan with lift. Caddick then swept through the middle and lower order. Only a flurry from Warne took Australia beyond three figures.

Edgbaston's future as a Test venue was already threatened, because the matches of 1995 and 1996 finished well inside three and four days respectively. Ten wickets in two and a half hours scarcely calmed the demeanour of Dennis Amiss, Warwickshire's chief executive, or Steve Rouse, the groundsman. But Australia's collapse had little to do with demons in the pitch. There was some uneven bounce and lateral movement, certainly, but it was swing and self-destructive shots which undermined their batsmen.

Mutterings about the pitch continued as England's top three succumbed in an hour. But they were silenced when Hussain and Thorpe put on 288, which surpassed 222, by Wally Hammond and Eddie Paynter, at Lord's in 1938, as England's highest fourth-wicket partnership against Australia. Here were two friends, once part of the so-called Bat Pack of aggressive young England players, demoralising the ultimate foe and the best side in the world. Hussain was touched by genius during a truly great innings. When Warne dropped short, he cut with power and precision. When the quick bowlers over-pitched, he drove with skill and certainty. In all, he batted for 440 minutes and 337 balls; 38 fours peppered his maiden double-hundred in any cricket, and England's first against Australia since David Gower scored 215 on the same ground in 1985. Left-hander Thorpe was Hussain's equal; indeed, he probably displayed superior range and execution of shot on the first day, when they added 150 in 169 minutes. It was Thorpe's third century in four Tests, and his cutting and sweeping of Warne were crucial in seizing the initiative.

Warne was ineffective, partly because his sore shoulder reduced the rip he could impart and partly because Hussain and Thorpe never allowed him to settle. McGrath bowled where he would do in Australia, rather than the fuller length required in England, and Gillespie retired with a hamstring strain. Kasprowicz, who had failed to take a wicket in his previous two Tests, sustained his hostility and was easily their best bowler. Healy took six catches, equalling the Australian Test record.

Facing a first-innings deficit of 360, Taylor knew failure could mean the end of his international career. He had not reached fifty in this previous 21 Test innings and he was being castigated, it seemed, by every old Test player with a platform. His batting was a monument to courage and determination - if not technique, because he was still susceptible around off stump. He reached his first century since November 1995 on Saturday evening, sharing stands of 133 with Elliott and 194 with Blewett. Blewett's cover driving on the up was dazzling: he became the first man to score centuries in his first three Ashes Tests. Shortly before lunch on the fourth day, Australia were 327 for one - just 33 adrift. But once Croft had winkled out the top three, Gough, in another inspired burst, removed the heart of their innings in seven overs. Ealham finished them off with three for nought in ten balls.

Suddenly, England knew they could win with a day to spare. They required 118 and had a possible 32 overs (24 plus eight in the extra half-hour). They did it in style. Butcher set the tempo, striking 14 in ten balls, and then Atherton and Stewart blazed away. "The adrenalin was flowing so much," said Atherton, "that I couldn't stop myself playing attacking shots." He scored 57 in 65 balls, passing 5,000 Test runs on the way. Victory brought an outpouring of elation, in front of the pavilion and across the country; people suddenly felt the little urn could, indeed, be recaptured.

Man of the Match: N. Hussain. Attendance: 72,693; receipts £1,588,593.

Close of play: First day, England 200-3 (N. Hussain 80*, G. P. Thorpe 83*); Second day, England 449-6 (M. A. Ealham 32*, R. D. B. Croft 18*); Third day, Australia 256-1 (M. A. Taylor 108*, G. S. Blewett 61*).

© John Wisden & Co