England reclaim the Ashes

Five Tests. Twenty-one days. 5,467 runs. 173 wickets. Yet even on the final morning, the destination of the legendary urn remained uncertain. England, leading the series 2-1 following victories at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge needed only a draw to regain the Ashes for the first time since the tourists of December 1986 – whilst the tourists had to win to maintain their stranglehold on their oldest rivals. What followed was every bit as tense as the rest of the series had promised.

Following the damage to the playing time inflicted by the weekend’s rain and bad light, England resumed on 38-1 to take a lead of 44 into the final 98 overs of the match. Two balls into the morning, the lead became 48 as England captain Michael Vaughan eased a Shane Warne full toss – the spinner completing his interrupted over from the previous evening – through mid-on to the straight boundary before slashing Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath through third man in successive overs.

With little sign of movement through the air, both English batsmen looked as comfortable as it was reasonably possible for them to be given the opposition and the situation – Vaughan taking England’s lead past 60, caressing a gloriously timed cover drive to the ropes as the Oval filled to capacity. Brett Lee’s opening burst lasted merely two overs as Ricky Ponting returned to the talismanic Warne for the seventh over of the morning, who was instantly rewarded with extravagant turn from the footmarks outside Marcus Trescothick’s off stump.

The first sign of fifth-day nerves came from rookie seamer Shaun Tait, who first fumbled a Trescothick pull shot on the midwicket boundary before flinging his return well over the bowler’s head to gift England an extra run. An extra run that brought Michael Vaughan on strike to Glenn McGrath, and altered the complexion of the morning for the first time. A little away movement enticed an outside edge from the England skipper, and with Shane Warne standing wide at first slip, Adam Gilchrist was forced into a full-length one-handed dive to his right in order to grasp the chance.

Galvanised, two swiftly became three as Ian Bell’s first ball provided a near-action replay of Vaughan’s last, a tentative outside edge flying straight into Warne’s hands at slip – instantly magnifying the pressure on England, stunning the packed crowd into near-silence and placing the Warwickshire batsman’s place on the winter tours in great doubt. McGrath was inches away from a hat-trick the very next ball as his short ball thudded into Kevin Pietersen’s right shoulder on its way to Ricky Ponting at second slip, Billy Bowden correctly turning down the vociferous Australian appeal.

Pietersen escaped in the next over, Warne finding his outside edge only for Gilchrist to parry it into the shins of Hayden at slip, who failed to hold the rebound. The leg-spinner then came close to trapping Trescothick leg-before – finding extravagant turn from the rough but hitting him fractionally outside the line. Pietersen brought the first hour to a close and the drinks onto the field as he comprehensively hooked McGrath to the backward square leg fence – yet still no one was any the wiser as to the destination of that urn.

11.33am England 79-3 (Trescothick 26*, Pietersen 7*) – Lead by 85

Every run brought applause as England eked out the smallest extensions to their lead under the breaking cloud cover and emergent sunshine. A green light from the third umpire as Pietersen scampered a brisk single to Michael Clarke’s left hand at mid on, making his way home by no more than half a metre, before Trescothick thumped the ball into Simon Katich’s knee cap and then guided a wider delivery off the face to the third man boundary.

The re-introduction of Lee was greeted with a searing straight drive from Pietersen, but three balls later the Hampshire batsman was late driving a half-volley – not for the first time this series – and the ball flew head-height to Warne at first slip only for the ball to crash into the turf to the disbelief of both fielder and bowler. Insult was then added to injury as Pietersen clubbed Warne for a huge six twenty rows back over midwicket – but an attempted repeat performance later in the over brought only a play and miss. Forward defensives from the next two deliveries brought equally loud cheers from the galleries, when another, equally firmly struck, maximum rounded off the over.

Just as it seemed the initiative was tilting towards England, Warne produced yet another delivery from the highest class. Bowling around the wicket and finding the customary huge spin, the ball ripped back and pinned the left-hander in front, Rudi Koertzen’s decision under the greatest pressure proving correct. It was Warne’s 168th Test wicket against England, surpassing Dennis Lillee’s record as the familiar feelings of fear crossed with indigestion crossed with compulsion were resurfacing; and it wasn’t yet lunch. Pietersen was fortunate again as he missed another slog-sweep, escaping dismissal thanks to the size of his stride and the doubt implanted in his mind.

Brett Lee momentarily relieved the overbearing pressure on the English middle order as he scudded a wide down the leg side – and as the ball skidded through the same footmarks that had benefited Warne minutes before, the bounce became far too unwieldy for Gilchrist to have a realistic chance of intercepting it – five invaluable runs to the cause. Warne uncharacteristically dropped short and was powerfully cut through extra cover by Flintoff, but the very next ball the all-rounder’s drive went no further than the bowler’s hands – safe once again with five minutes until lunch. Paul Collingwood faced the biggest test of his life as England’s second-innings frailties seemed set to haunt them once more.

The final over before lunch saw Lee examining Pietersen by short balls, gloving two into his ribcage before seeing the third steepling towards his helmet, his instinctive self-preservation sending the ball via glove over the slip cordon and allowing the hosts to breath again. England may have had one hand on the trophy, but Australian fingers were clasping firmly around the other handle.

12.35pm England 127-5 (Pietersen 35*, Collingwood 0*) – Lead by 133

England started the afternoon session knowing that they had to bat until tea – do that, and with the reduction of both overs and time given by the innings break, they would become cool favourites once again – but should they be skittled and set a chase of 180 at three runs per over… Was there another twist in the already contorted tale of this Ashes summer, or – more to the point – how many more twists would we have to endure or enjoy?

Lee’s chin music continued as another short ball was brutally hooked into the stands at long leg – Pietersen didn’t get the full face of the bat onto the ball, but enough to clear the ropes. He brought up his fourth half-century of the series as he flicked Warne into the leg-side for two, and another trio of short balls from Lee brought more boundaries. A top edge flew for his fourth maximum of the innings, before two more fours – one dropped one-handed by Shaun Tait as he flung himself full length to his right hand side, but the other risk-free as England extended their lead past 160.

Meanwhile, Collingwood was playing Warne with the deadest of dead bats, his forward pushes travelling no more than a couple of inches from the point of impact under the scrutiny of the bat-pad vultures, Ponting and Katich, before finally getting off the mark as Warne again dropped short. Lee began to extract reverse-swing as pushed the speed-gun past 96mph but his attempted Yorker only succeeded in becoming a low full-toss, which Pietersen thumped through mid on to bring up his highest Test score – following it up by flat-batting a length ball in the very same direction with the exact same result.

Collingwood also showed his ability to strike the ball cleanly in the next Warne over, only to send Warne’s leg stump long hop into Simon Katich’s ribcage at short leg. Warne, now around the wicket to Pietersen, beat the right-hander around his legs only to beat Gilchrist into the bargain and see the ball skidding to the third man ropes. The next ball brought another loud shout from the leg-spinner, Pietersen chopping a slog-sweep downwards and to Matt Hayden at slip, via a combination of his boot and the ground. After a lengthy consultation with his square leg partner Billy Bowden, umpire Koertzen again correctly ruled not out.

The next Warne over brought another excellent Koertzen LBW decision, Warne striking Pietersen flush on the toe – but fractionally outside the line of leg stump – and as Collingwood stood impregnable at the other end, the drinks break signalled that England had won their first mini-session of the day. Heart rates lessened and stomachs loosened – but the day wasn’t yet half over.

2.12pm England 182-5 (Pietersen 78*, Collingwood 6*) – Lead by 188

Collingwood greeted the resumption with another back-foot thump past Simon Katich’s ears at short leg to the boundary, but two balls later the smallest brush of the glove sent the ball to a sprawling Ricky Ponting at silly point. The break in tension had been nothing more than tantalising – once again heart rates had no option but to quicken and stomachs to tighten as Geraint Jones strode out.

McGrath found the edge of the wicketkeeper’s bat within three overs, but it was played well enough and calmly enough to bounce in front of Warne at slip as the two veteran bowlers exerted a stranglehold on the English run-rate, the last seven overs yielding just eight runs – but, critically, England were still only six down and the magnitude of the theoretical chase facing the Australians steepened.

His hand forced lack of incision throughout the afternoon’s play, Ricky Ponting turned to Shaun Tait for his first deliveries of the English innings. Both of them were wide, and both of them were flayed to cover boundary by Pietersen as he moved into the nineties before scooping a mistimed drive yards short of the static Katich at mid-off. The South Australian quickie then spectacularly repaid his captain’s gamble as his pace – and a lack of bounce – seared through Geraint Jones’ defences to send the off stump into a triple cartwheel. Seven men down, but England were past 200 – and everything was still possible.

Pietersen christened his third bat of the day by slapping Tait past Michael Clarke at midwicket, before Warne spun a rare wide into Gilchrist’s gloves and a cover drive to the man in the deep brought Pietersen to within one shot of a maiden Test century. That shot proved to be a sweetly-struck extra cover drive off Tait that brought the Oval – to a man – onto its feet. His tenth boundary added to four maximums in a 124-ball knock that pre-empted the tea interval.

The mini-session may have been shared, but the afternoon belonged to England and to Kevin Pietersen. An afternoon that contained only 24 overs, part of a day that – scheduled for 98 overs – had so far only seen 49. With the inevitable innings break reducing Australia’s remaining resources by two further overs, it wasn’t only their lack of wickets that loosened their grip on the Ashes – their lethargy in the field seemed set to be equally costly.

3.11pm England 221-7 (Pietersen 105*, Giles 6*) – Lead by 227

Ponting surprised many observers immediately after tea by resuming with Brett Lee rather than Glenn McGrath as Shane Warne’s partner, opting for the quicker – but higher risk – option as the Australians strove for the three breakthroughs they required to initiate a run chase. Lee forced Giles to fend a short ball aerially onto the leg side, but Ponting himself at leg gully was stationed too deep to effect the dismissal – Giles soldiered onwards, and flicked another short ball to the fine leg boundary to finish the over.

The very next over saw Warne find the edge of Pietersen’s bat, but the shot was played softly and deftly enough to guide the ball both short of, and to the side of, Hayden at slip and add another three runs to the English tally. Giles’ vigil continued, becoming more and more confident as he faced up – and avoided – Lee’s short balls, moving through the mid-teens as Shaun Tait again misfielded in the covers.

The atmosphere inside the Oval became more celebratory by the over, as Pietersen clubbed two violent, bottom hand dominant sixes in the space of two deliveries. The first, off Brett Lee, soared over Justin Langer on the midwicket boundary and, following a single from Giles in the next over, Pietersen sent Shane Warne sailing back over his head and added another straight boundary, this time all along the ground later in the over.

Australia could no longer afford any slips to Pietersen, and their body language looked that of a beaten team. Hypothetical run-rates passed seven and Giles’ occupation of the crease passed the hour-mark. Cardboard cut-outs of the famous urn were waved amongst the increasingly ecstatic fans and Ricky Ponting, with 38 overs remaining in the day, turned to Glenn McGrath once again – a final throw of the dice as Australia sought a miracle. Yet as the drinks came onto the field for the penultimate time in the series and Warne continued to toil unrelieved, even a miracle seemed insufficient.

4.31pm England 277-7 (Pietersen 142*, Giles 25*) – Lead by 283

Giles lashed a square drive off McGrath to the cover point boundary as the eighth-wicket partnership comfortably became the largest of the innings, before Pietersen lofted his seventh maximum – this time off Warne and over long on – then brought up his 150 by cutting a long-hop powerfully through the covers. The new ball was taken just prior to the partnership passing 100 courtesy of a scrambled single from Giles and hypothetical run rates – now into double figures – were well and truly the preserve of fantasy.

The liaison ended at 109, and Pietersen’s innings at 158 – from 187 balls and including fifteen fours to go with the seven sixes – when McGrath found enough seam movement with the new ball to square up Pietersen and knock back his off stump, departing the middle as Richie Benaud left a British commentary box for the final time. It was left to Matthew Hoggard to accompany Ashley Giles towards his fourth Test half-century, brought up with two confident boundaries off McGrath.

A back-foot punch through extra cover followed by a Pietersenesque flat-bat through mid on the next ball, but while Lee continued his short-pitched assault on the English tail, Giles continued to move through the gears. The spinner brought up his highest Test score as he hooked McGrath for his sixth boundary.

5.31pm England 330-8 (Giles 55*, Hoggard 4*) – Lead by 336

Giles moved further on as he crashed another back-foot shot through the covers, but was unable to see the day to its end as Warne took his 39th and 40th wickets in the series when he bowled his fellow slow bowler around his legs – then removed Steve Harmison second ball courtesy of a smart, diving catch from Hayden at slip. Australia needed 342 to retain their hold on the urn… in eighteen overs.

5.46pm England 335 (Hoggard 4*) – Lead by 341

Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden were consigned to facing a final over of English fast bowling, whilst for the hosts and victors the final mini-session was a chance to soak up the glorious adulation from the 24,000 men, women and children packed into the Oval. Harmison subjected Justin Langer to four balls of a short-pitched onslaught as the light faded, confusion reigning as the Australian batsmen, English fielders and umpires discussed the conditions, bad light closing play with the only runs coming as a short ball flew off Langer’s shoulder to the third man ropes.

A day belonging to Kevin Pietersen will be remembered for his coruscating sixes and belligerent fours, Ashley Giles and Paul Collingwood’s grim and determined resistance and another chapter in Shane Warne’s summer spinning masterclass – not to mention his dropped catch with Pietersen on 15. The delays in the confirming the final climax of the innings, waiting for the umpires to confer and lift the bails for the final time, provided a brief chance for the spectators – both in the ground and around the country – to reflect on a series that has galvanised cricket in England at every level.

The Ashes are coming home.

England 373
Andrew Strauss 129, Andrew Flintoff 72
Shane Warne 6-122, Glenn McGrath 2-72

Australia 367
Matthew Hayden 138, Justin Langer 105
Andrew Flintoff 5-78, Matthew Hoggard 4-97

England 335
Kevin Pietersen 158, Ashley Giles 59
Shane Warne 6-124, Glenn McGrath 3-85

Australia 4-0

Match Drawn

England win the Series 2-1

CricketWeb Player of the Match
Kevin Pietersen (England) – 14 and 158

CricketWeb Players of the Series
Andrew Flintoff (England) – 402 runs and 24 wickets
Shane Warne (Australia) – 249 runs and 40 wickets

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