Ponting leads Aus to safety

England 444
Vaughan 166, Trescothick 63, Bell 59, Warne 4 for 99, Lee 4 for 100

Australia 302
Warne 90, Jones 6 for 53

England 280 for 6 declared
Strauss 106, Bell 65, McGrath 5 for 115

Australia 371 for 9
Ponting 156, Flintoff 4 for 71

Match drawn

How much more of this can we take? For the second time in eight days, a quite magnificent test match has finished amid almost unbearable tension. This time, a brilliant innings of 156 from Ricky Ponting took his side to the verge of safety, and in a nail-biting finish, Brett Lee and Glen McGrath repelled everything that Andrew Flintoff and Stephen Harmison could throw at them to secure the draw. Set a record 423 to win, Australia lost wickets too frequently to stay in that particular hunt, but showed enough of their qualities to deserve parity. In particular, Ponting played one of the all-time great captain’s innings, and, for him, defeat would have been cruel indeed. For England, Flintoff bowled quite magnificently and did not deserve to be disappointed today but he did not receive enough support. Simon Jones could not repeat his heroics of the first innings, although he was probably under-bowled until after tea, Ashley Giles matched Shane Warne in failing to take a single second-innings wicket, and Harmison, for all his efforts, again did not put enough deliveries in the right areas to consistently trouble the batmen.

Mathew Hoggard had given England the ideal start, removing Justin Langer before he had added to his overnight score of 14. The Yorkshireman has had an indifferent series, but he produced a beauty that moved just enough to take the edge and give Geraint Jones an easy catch. With Langer gone, and his opening partner not in the best of form, England would have fancied their chances of making a further breakthrough before long. Indeed, Hayden looked anything but secure, especially when Flintoff came into the attack. Twice he edged the all rounder through the slips at catchable height, and on numerous occasions he played and missed. He fought his way to 36, and may have thought he had weathered the storm, but Flintoff produced a superb over to nail his man. Having switched to bowling over the wicket, he twice passed the outside edge before cleverly swinging the ball behind the batsman’s pads to bowl him.

At the other end, Ricky Ponting, after an early leg before scare against Hoggard, was batting with huge assurance. Previously in this series, he has often fallen cheaply to one of England’s quicks. Today, however, he was much more secure and, although mainly concerned with staying at the crease, he was able to move smoothly to 41 by lunch. Damien Martyn was also still there, albeit slightly fortunately. Ian Bell, brilliantly fielding at short leg and shying at the stumps with the batsman nowhere, had almost run him out. Then, he played and apparently missed at an out-swinger from Simon Jones. No one appealed, but Channel 4’s “snickometer” suggested that the edge had been taken. However, soon after lunch Martyn’s luck ran out when, on 19, he was given out leg before after edging a good length ball from Harmison into his pads. And things continued to go England’s way in the middle of the afternoon session. Simon Katich made only 12 before flashing at a wide one from Flintoff, which only found its way to Giles in the gully. Then Gilchrist did much the same and gave Bell a simple catch with only four to his name. Australia had subsided to 182 for 5, and, with 50 overs left, looked in trouble.

At this point, Michael Clarke joined his captain. Surprisingly greeted by Michael Vaughan’s occasional off-spin, he was quickly into his stride, and looked completely unhindered by his back injury. As always, he used his feet well against the spinners and, by tea, he and Ponting had taken the total to 216 for 5. And for 45 minutes after the break, they continued to prosper. Ricky Ponting reached a most deserved hundred, exquisitely driving Harmison through the covers. Meanwhile, Clarke moved swiftly to 39 and, with neither batsman looking in any trouble, some commentators were even wondering whether the tourists might just be able to have a dart at chasing down the 423 needed for victory. Just as the game looked to be slipping away from England, things began to swing their way. Or, to be more specific, they reverse swung towards the home side. Those of us were wondering why Simon Jones had not been brought into the attack had their way. In his first over, he induced an edge from Clarke that flew through the vacant second slip region. In his second over, he struck, as the youngster left a ball that swung into his stumps from way outside off. In the very next over, Hoggard nipped an off-cutter into the pads of Jason Gillespie, who was sent on his way without troubling the scorers. To the naked eye it looked pretty plumb, but “Hawkeye” suggested that it might have been too high. Either way, England now needed only three wickets to take a lead in the series.

Cometh the crisis, cometh Shane Warne. Quite how he survived at first is anybody’s guess. Hoggard and Jones repeatedly swung the old ball tantalisingly past the edge of his bat, and it seemed that another wicket must fall before long. However, surprisingly, Vaughan took the new ball. Jones, previously looking lethal, struggled to control it, and England turned to Harmison and Flintoff to see them home. But it didn’t happen. For years, generations of Englishmen haven’t known how to bat against Warne. Now, for the third time in a week, they don’t seem to know how to bowl at him. For an hour and a half, he and Ponting repelled everything that England could throw at them, adding 76 runs and once again raising thoughts of a final dash for victory. Instead, having reached 34, Warne again fell to Flintoff, this time chasing and edging a wide one that flew straight to Strauss at second slip. That should have been it. Instead, Strauss spilled the catch but the ball rebounded across to Jones who took a quite magnificent diving catch behind first slip.

Now, the tension was becoming unbearable, but as long as Ponting remained, Australia looked safe. Even now, he occasionally played and missed, especially against Flintoff, but you would have put your house on him staying there until the end, even though Jones was now getting the ball to swing again. But nothing in this extraordinary series is straightforward. About to start an over, the Welshman pulled up with cramp, and, despite running repairs, had to leave the field. He was replaced in the attack by Harmison who, with four overs to go, dug one in at Ponting. By now, victory was out of the question for the Australians, so their captain’s decision to hook a ball that he could have left was a strange one. Having guided his side to close to safety, he was mortified to glove the ball through to Geraint Jones, and England needed only to remove Lee or McGrath to seal the win. But they stood firm. Despite the deliveries from Flintoff that flew past the edge of Lee’s bat. Despite the howls for leg before that were, quite rightly, turn down. In the end, it came down to one over from Harmison. Eight days ago, he had pulled a game out of the fire for his side by the margin of two runs. Today, possibly racked by nerves, his radar let him down and, apart from one delivery that flew past McGrath’s edge, the batsmen weren’t troubled.

Understandably, the Australians celebrated as if they had won the match. Despite being outplayed for three of the four full days’ play, they had managed to avoid defeat. They will believe that they cannot play as poorly again at Trent Bridge and, having escaped today, must feel that the series is turning their way. England, for the second time in just over a week, struggled to finish a game that was there for the taking. Having got away with it at Edgbaston, they will be devastated to have fallen short today. It’s tempting to say that the psychological advantage is now with the Australians, but it is probably wise not to make too many forecasts in what is turning out to be the most compelling Ashes series for almost 25 years.

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