Australia regain Ashes

With the visitors resuming on 265 for 5 in pursuit of an unlikely 557 to win, captain Andrew Flintoff and to a lesser extent Kevin Pietersen launched an astonishing assault on the early bowling, with Flintoff in particular punishing Brett Lee and Stuart Clark with coruscating drives and pull shots to the boundary. He dominated a 75 run partnership which brought back memories of the heroics of 2005, and for a moment England fans dared to dream of the impossible.

Such was the ferocity of Flintoff’s attack that Ricky Ponting was forced to summon Shane Warne earlier than would otherwise be the case. Despite bowling a marathon spell in yesterday’s heat, Warne soon dropped the ball onto his usual immaculate length, tempering the scoring before inducing Flintoff to play over a full ball and york himself for a blistering 51 from 67 deliveries.

Geraint Jones joined Pietersen, and what followed was pure farce. Attempting to sweep Warne, Jones was struck on the pad. While Adam Gilchrist and Warne appealed vociferously, Ponting at silly point had the presence of mind to underarm at the stumps while Jones’ back foot was on the crease rather than behind it. After several replays the third umpire delivered the verdict – run out. Jones’ dismissal was bizarre, a product of Ponting’s quick-wittedness and the batsman displaying all the peripheral vision of a blinkered race horse trying to cross a six-lane highway. The completion of a pair in such circumstances was surely a low point in the career of the England ‘keeper.

Sajid Mahmood came and went, lbw to Stuart Clark’s inswinging yorker. It was a fine reward for Clark, who has been Australia’s most consistent fast bowler in the series so far. Steve Harmison soon followed – unable to recapture his good form from the first innings, adjudged lbw first ball to Warne. It appeared that the ball would have missed his stumps.

Through the late flood of wickets, Pietersen stood tall. Throughout this series he has, characteristically, looked to dominate the bowling whenever possible. Today he was more circumspect, but to his great credit, Australia rarely looked like getting him out.

Pietersen and Monty Panesar saw England through to lunch, but it was apparent to all and sundry that the condemned visitors were feasting on their last meal. Straight after lunch, Pietersen took a single from Warne’s first ball before Panesar was bowled by the second, attempting a slog-sweep.

At this point, pandemonium broke lose. The Australians celebrated together in the middle of the WACA, joyously embracing each other at the thought that 15 months of introspection and hurt had been erased inside three Tests at home. Since England arrived, their hosts have been most inhospitable, demonstrating a ruthlessness and intensity which has caught the visitors by surprise and found them unable to cope. In post-match interviews, captain Ponting indicated that he had never seen a team with which he has been involved so focused or prepare so well as his charges have this series. They have had 15 long months to think about revenge, and have proved that it is indeed a dish best served cold.

Warne, so long the fifth day specialist for Australia finished with four for 115 and was in his 40th over when the end came. He now sits on 699 Test wickets, with his next ball to be bowled at his home ground in front of a capacity crowd. Who writes his scripts?

McGrath and Clark each picked up two wickets and Lee one. Pietersen again remained unbowed – his defiant 60 a further reminder of his class. He had written in his English newspaper column that although England were trying hard, their best was not good enough against these opponents. His plainly is.

For England, the introduction of Panesar and the emergence of Cook have proved great positives out of this match, likewise the return to form of Harmison. Matthew Hayden’s return to form, Gilchrist’s amazing hundred and the efforts of Hussey and both Clark(e)s were highlights for the home team.

But always there is McGrath. Always there is Warne. When Australia wins, they are inevitably at the centre of it all – taking important wickets like that of Cook at the most opportune time; drying up runs when their team needs it, as when Flintoff was on the rampage today. They are irreplaceable, yet the time is rapidly approaching when they must go. What Australia will do then does not bare thought.

This was a gripping match, far more so than the ultimate margin would suggest. The bowlers had their chances on days one and two before the wicket flattened out then eventually turned late on day four and again on day five. The pitch, which had been the subject of much pre-game conjecture contributed wonderfully to a great game of cricket.

And so to Melbourne and Boxing Day. Australia has demonstrated in past series a measure of fallibility in dead-rubbers. Their attitude and desire indicate that England may not be so lucky this time around.

Australia 244
Mike Hussey 74*
Monty Panesar 5-92, Steve Harmison 4-48

England 215
Kevin Pietersen 70, Andrew Strauss 42
Stuart Clark 3-49, Andrew Symonds 2-8

Australia 527-5 dec
Michael Clarke 135*, Michael Hussey 102, Adam Gilchrist 102*
Monty Panesar 3-145

England 350
Alistair Cook 116, Ian Bell 87
Shane Warne 4-115, Stuart Clark 2-56

Australia won by 206 runs and regain the Ashes 3-0 with two Tests to play.

Man of the Match – M Hussey.

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