Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Old Trafford Ashes Test match

As published in "The Emirates Evening Post"

Old Trafford Ashes Test
Paddy Briggs

Day One

After the frantic pace of the First Test at Lord’s, and the unequalled excitement of the Second Test at Edgbaston, we were back to something like normal Test cricket at Old Trafford yesterday. Modern Test cricket, that is – not the sort of grinding stuff that we used to see. There was an Ashes Test on the same ground 41 years ago when Australia scored 253-2 on the first day, and that was pretty swift for those times. Today’s Test cricket is played at a far faster pace and although England’s 341 off 89 overs at 3.83 an over was slower than we have been accustomed to in this series, it was still entertaining stuff.

The Old Trafford wicket looked firm and true, with a bit of bounce, and it was a good toss for Michael Vaughan to win. That Glenn McGrath was fit to play was a surprise, and it seemed to be a justified risk for Australia to play him as he was soon in the groove. Indeed he was extremely unlucky to finish the day wicketless with Trescothick being dropped by Gilchrist and later beating and clean bowling Vaughan, but off a no ball. Brett Lee, who spent two nights in hospital with his knee infection, was also declared fit and with 3-58 was the pick of the Aussie attack. Gillespie had another woeful day and conceded 89 runs in his 15 overs, and Shane Warne (for once) toiled a little on a pitch which offered him little assistance. Warne’s delight when he became the first bowler to take 600 Test wickets when he got Trescothick caught behind was justified and it was also good to see the knowledgeable and generous Old Trafford crowd give him a standing ovation.

If England could have selected two prizes to take from the day at the start it would have been the return to form of Vaughan and the coming of age of Bell. Both happened and, most importantly, Vaughan played as well as he did when he scored 633 runs at an average of 63.3 during the 2002-03 Ashes series. Vaughan’s overall record against the Australians is rather weird. He has been dismissed eleven times for 160 runs (average 14.5 top score 41), but in his other four innings he has scored 177; 145; 183 and now 166. He certainly looked back to his best yesterday and he will be disappointed to have mishooked a full toss from the part time bowler Katich down Glenn McGrath’s throat - a tame dismissal. Kevin Pietersen also mishooked and was caught in the same way near the close of play and he may need to limit his shot making a bit in such circumstances in future. Bell, on the other hand, was circumspect through most of the day, although a couple of lusty boundaries off Warne showed his attacking ability. He played the sort of innings that England have missed since Thorpe left the side - 59 runs off 146 balls – and he, unlike Pietersen, he will start again tomorrow.

If England can add another hundred or so tomorrow and reach a total of 450 plus then they can put Australia under pressure. But with the weather (as always at Manchester) a little uncertain, and the pitch still playing well, the outcome of this Test match might just be that rare thing a draw – but there is a long way to go.

Day Two

The true test of greatness of any player or team is not seen when they keep on winning and carry all before them on a roll, when they are in adversity. We saw how the Australians did this at Edgbaston and so nearly pulled off a sensational victory, so anyone who is ruling them out of the Old Trafford Test would be well advised to keep quiet for a day or two! But the looks on the faces of the Aussie team (shown towards the end of the day’s play on the big screen at the ground) showed how unfamiliar the “backs to the wall” situation that they now find themselves in is to most of them. At 210-7 Australia are 234 runs behind England and 35 runs short of avoiding the possibility of a follow-on.

In the run up to this Test we had the saga of Lee’s knee infection and McGrath’s recovery from his ankle problem and whilst both bowled heroically they could have done with support from Jason Gillespie in England’s innings, support which was sadly absent. A three pronged pace attack comprising two recently injured players and one dolefully out of form was hit for 300 of England’s 444. Contrast this with the performance of England’s four pronged attack all of whom were fit and raring to go. Surely the form of at least two of the four would be good and so it proved with Flintoff (as ever) - and Simon Jones sharing four of the seven Aussie wickets that fell. Significantly it was Ashley Giles who took the other three and it looks as if the pitch suits him nicely! He has 3-66 in 21 overs so far and, for once in his life, his performance can be spoken of in the same breath as that of Shane Warne (4-99 in 33.2 overs). Giles’s ball which bowled Damien Martyn was one that even the great man would have been proud of.

For Michael Vaughan the fact that he has four quality pace bowlers in his side will be a crucial factor if he does have the opportunity to force the follow on. Certainly his attack will be fresh in the morning and with the weather still a bit iffy he may ask Australia to bat again if he gets the chance. If this happens it will be Australia’s first follow-on for an amazing 17 years! If not, I don’t think that Vaughan will be too unhappy because a lead of around 200 should be sufficient to provide England with a platform from which to set Australia a very tough total to get in the fourth innings on a crumbling pitch and with Giles bowling well.

But cricket’s history is illuminated by improbable recoveries from dire circumstances (Headingley 1981 and Calcutta 2001 for example). So I’m making no predictions!

Day Three

Only 14 overs were possible at a very damp Old Trafford, but they could prove to be the most important overs of this match. Australia added fifty runs without losing a wicket, and they saved the follow on. A missed stumping and a dropped catch by Geraint Jones (both from Warne) have cost England dearly. With the confident Warne still at the crease, and in sight of his first Test century, the Aussies could significantly close the gap with England’s first innings on Sunday morning. If they can narrow the gap to what it was at Edgbaston (99 runs), which would mean a total of 345, there would be some real nerves when England come out to bat again. Can Warne and the numbers 9, 10 and 11 again add another 80 runs or so? Don’t bet against it.

Those who know Shane Warne well always attest to the brilliance of his cricketing brain. That he would be on the team sheet of the “All-time-great XI” for his unique bowling talent goes without saying. But his batting and his all round feel for the game, combined with his ebullient self-confidence, make him a more than valuable team member in other respects as well. Had his private life been a little more conventional he would probably have been Australia’s captain after Steve Waugh, but then a “conventional Warne” is not really very likely. Few would begrudge him a hundred tomorrow, providing, that is, that England can still get a lead of at least 150!

If we have two full days (the weather forecast suggests that we might) there is still time for a result in this match. England will be desperate to avoid the nail biter of Edgbaston so will be looking to set Australia at least 350 in their second innings and also leave themselves enough time to bowl them out a second time. Early wickets tomorrow, a lead of 150 and then two good session scoring around 200 runs could set England up to make inroads before the close. But Australia will be unlikely to accommodate them in this ambition and we can expect a further sting from the tail with Warne relishing the possibility of being the fourth cricketer in history to score a hundred and take ten wickets in a match (the others were Alan Davidson; Ian Botham and Imran Khan).

Day Four

One of the reasons that Test matches presents the ultimate cricket challenge is the need for Captains constantly to be reassessing their options throughout the match, especially in the field. In a one day match you pretty much know who you will bowl and when and what your field placings will be. There is some room for innovation and for conjuring up the odd surprise, but not much. In Test cricket there are few restrictions on the Captain and within the Laws of the game he can pretty much bowl who he like and when he like and place his fielders where he likes. This adds greatly to the interest that the game creates and, in modern times certainly, creates an absorbing spectacle when the two sies are evenly matched.

In the Old Trafford Ashes Test, which enters its final day tomorrow, I would award most of the captaincy prizes to Michael Vaughan who has not only led from the front with his wonderful batting in the England first innings but also showed an originality both in his filed placings and in his handling of his bowling attack that has set him ahead of Australia’s Ricky Ponting. There is also the small matter of leadership and here Vaughan also has the edge. Obviously it does help if you are playing well, as England have throughout this match, but when the heads fall it is up to the captain to try and get them up again, and Ponting is struggling to do this. When Steve Waugh led Australia there was not the slightest doubt who was in charge on and off the field. Ponting is a little less authoritative and not quite as driven as Waugh (who is?) and this has perhaps frustrated some of the old pros in the Australian team. And, Clarke and Katich apart, they are all old pros in the Australian team! So although the tabloid stories of a rift between Ponting and Shane Warne are probably greatly exaggerated there is a sense that all is not quite what it might be in the Australian camp. This shows itself on the field with sloppy fielding and at times wayward bowling, and it has shown up as well in the Aussie batting where the main contribution in recent innings has come from Warne and the tail rather than from the front line batsmen.

If Australia is to force a draw( or an improbable win) at Old Trafford tomorrow then it must come from the top line batsmen who have in the main underperformed in the Ashes series to date. It is worth reminding ourselves that five of Australia’s top six in the order in the first innings of this match (Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Martyn and Gilchrist) are in the top 17 in the ICC world Test rankings – but these players scored only 122 runs between them. It was only Shane Warne’s marvellous 90 and the back up he received from Gillespie that gave Australia a half respectable total of 301.England built on the lead of 142 with some skilful batting in their second innings - to score 280 runs at 4.5 an over was an excellent effort, with Andrew Strauss scoring a century and showing, for the first time in this series, the form that has given him such a great start in Test cricket.

Some in the Australian camp will feel that if they could be (say) 130-1 at lunch and then (say) 260-2 at tea then they could push on to a world record setting victory in what will be a long final session tomorrow. On the other hand there will be those who will think that a more realistic ambition is to bat through the day and go to Trent Bridge all square. The England camp will all believe that if they continue to play with the intensity and confidence that they have shown throughout this match then England can certainly force a win. The improbable headline in one of the Saturday papers here in Manchester was “Giles leaves Australia in tatters” (following his first innings haul of the wickets of Langer, Hayden and Martyn). Such a headline would have seemed inconceivable a few weeks ago but if it was repeated in a day’s time it would not really be a surprise - the Old Trafford pitch may give him help and he is (crucially) full of confidence.

Day Five

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American and therefore unlikely to be a cricket enthusiast, who said “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” And that was, really, the story of the final day’s play in the epic Old Trafford Ashes Test match. The hero was the Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, who played one of the very greatest rearguard innings in Test history to hold England at bay and to create the possibility of a draw with honour. It was not that Ponting survived; but that he did it with style and that he endured until almost the end of the Final Act of the drama. The statistics of the innings, whilst impressive, are almost trivial because this was an innings not measured by the cold banality of the scorer’s pen, but in the character of the man who achieved so much. The figure tell of an innings which lasted 275 balls, which was 42% of all the balls that England bowled; they tell of an innings of 156 runs, which was 42% of the runs that Australia scored and they tell of an innings that lasted over seven hours on a day of nearly eight hours of extraordinary tension. But the character, for this observer at least, came not just from the fact that Ponting’s effort was ultimately successful but from events an hour or so before the close.

Ponting and Warne had put on about 65 runs and at 325-7 around about the 90th over they were beginning to run urgently between the wickets. A quick calculation showed that with 108 overs to be bowled in the day, and with 423 runs needed to win, a scoring rate of a little over 5 an over could bring them victory. Suddenly the commentators who had written off Australia’s chances throughout the day were beginning to muse that perhaps Ponting and Warne thought that a win was possible. The England fielders picked up the vibes as well and what had seemed destined to be a match with only two possible results turned into one where the chasing of a record target became a real possibility. That Warne’s dismissal when the score had reached 340 put a stop to that adventure was, for the neutrals at least, a shame - but there was no doubt that for a few sparkling moments the impossible seemed possible.

When Ponting himself was finally dismissed with five overs to go it seemed that England would force a win. But Lee played skillfully and England was allowed to direct only nine of the remaining thirty balls at McGrath. He survived them, and with his survival Australia held on to a remarkable draw.

Many years ago I took an American friend to Lord’s and tried to explain to him the intricacies of the noble game. Some of it he picked up quite quickly, but there was one statistic that he couldn’t cope with. “Let me get this right,” he said “You can play this game for five whole days and at the end it can be a tie?” Without illuminating him too pompously that “ties” in cricket were rare but that “draws” were common I said something like “Oh yes, cricket mirrors life – you might not always be able to win, but you fight like hell not to let the other chap win either.” Australia and England fought like hell for five days at Old Trafford, no quarter given or asked. As at Edgbaston the ultimate margin between the two sides was thinner than the varnish on a stump. It was a game which England could, and perhaps should have won. But when the handshakes took place between the two sides although England were deflated, as Australia had been only a week earlier, there was pride amongst all who had taken part that they had given the public another great sporting spectacle. And for “man of the match” Ponting, who handled with dignity last weeks loss and with pride this weeks fight back, there will be the satisfaction that the doubters must now salute him as an authentic Australian hero.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 9th August 2005

From: "The Emirates Evening Post"

There is an old joke, dating from the 1980s when a stock market and property boom in Japan created hundreds of new multi-millionaires. One of these wanted to buy his son a present for his coming-of-age and asked his son what he would like. His son said that he would like a really good set of golf clubs - so the millionaire bought him Wentworth, Sunningdale and Turnberry! For the Mega rich to become involved in sport is, of course, not a joke these days but a reality. It has always been the case that wealthy Americans have indulged their sports passions by buying Football, Hockey or Baseball teams. These were rarely, if ever, hard nosed business decisions but nearly always indulgences that were driven not by economics but by emotion. Whilst there is plenty of money in these sports most of it goes to players and their agents rather than to the entrepreneurs who hold the team's stocks. But in recent times there has been, in some cases, a more commercial driver behind some businessmen's involvement in sport - and this is certainly the case with the Glazer family's take-over of Manchester United.

The creation of the "Premier league" in English football just over a decade ago meant that all of the top clubs had to be more commercial and far better funded than before. Some of this funding came from TV rights revenues and from hugely increased sponsorship and sports goods marketing. But if a club was to succeed it had also to seek more conventional sources of a funds - usually from a stock market flotation. Manchester United were the classic model; their flotation as a limited liability company allied with the powerful exploitation of their brand, allowed them to mine a rich vein of revenues. This money in turn gave United the edge in the transfer market and they were able to make many star signings and this was one of the main contributing factors in their success. However the very fact that they were no longer a private club, but now a stock exchange traded business, left them vulnerable to take-over. The American Malcolm Glazer, although initially rebuffed by the United board, persevered and eventually took full control of the club this year.

Whilst the Glazer approach would appear to be mainly commercially driven (certainly the Glazers don't seem to know much about "soccer") the story of Chelsea and Roman Ambramovitch is rather different. Where Glazer, although a rich man, has not put much of his own money into Manchester United (he has borrowed heavily to fund the deal) Ambramovitch's purchase of Chelsea is a purely personal one. This man, who is rich almost beyond comprehension from his Russian oil industry fortune, has bought Chelsea as a plaything. He shows few signs of wanting his investment to produce a return and is equally happy to put more money up for even more new star players if his manager tells him it is necessary. This gave Chelsea the 2004/2005 Premiership title.

The Glazer take-over of Manchester United has been roundly criticised by many of the club's fans who see the fine traditions of the club being put at risk by this American carpetbagger. At Chelsea, however, the reverse is the case and most fans are quite happy that their club is now Russian owned and relish in its new nickname "Chelski"! I have a funny feeling, however, that in the end it may be the fans of Manchester United rather than those of Chelsea who are ultimately the happier. For Ambramovitch Chelsea is a plaything - an amusing diversion from his mainstream imperative of staying rich and becoming richer. For the Glazers, however, Manchester United is a business and they will expect it to perfom. In the short term this will be uncomfortable for some of the fans as ticket prices and other costs of being a supporter are bound to increase. But to establish a sound cash-generating business at Old Trafford should ensure that the team continues to compete at the very top in Europe for the long term. Chelsea's over reliance on Ambramovitz may, on the contrary, end in tears. He may bore of his toy or, more likely, start to expect it to give the same level of return that he gets from his other businesses. At the moment, as a fan, I think I'd be happier red than blue!

Monday, August 08, 2005

Edgbaston Ashes Test Match

As published in "The Emirates Evening Post"
The second Ashes Test match - Edgbaston 4th - 7th August 2005


The last time that England played Australia in a Test match at Edgbaston in 2001 England made a decent start on the first morning of the match (despite having been put in) and were 106-1 just before lunch. Steve Waugh threw the ball to Shane Warne who, with his second ball, had Mark Butcher caught by a diving Ricky Ponting. England's innings then fell apart. Roll forward four years to Lord's 2005 when England again made a solid start in their second innings (80-0) before Warne came into the attack and immediately got rid of Trescothick - the rest of the innings then fell away to Warne, McGrath and Lee.

In looking at the prospects for the second Test which begins tomorrow it is clear that once again the key to the outcome will be how the England top and middle order copes with McGrath, Warne and Lee. Having said that, even if the England batsmen do find a way of dealing with these three fine bowlers, it would be no surprise if it were Gillespie (or Kasprowicz) who came to the aid of the Australians' party. It is in the nature of the Aussies to work as a team and very often the less heralded players are the ones who chip in if one or more of the stars has an off day. It was, for example, Clarke and Katich who set up the Australians' win at Lord's with their 155 partnership in the second innings which came at a time when England threatened to get back in the match.

England's move up to second place in the world Test rankings has also been based on teamwork and leadership. In the West Indies eighteen months ago the key to success (apart from Steve Harmison) was the solid middle order of Butcher, Hussain and Thorpe. If one of the openers was out early, and if further wickets fell, one or more of these experienced batsmen would help rebuild the innings. With all three now gone England really struggle to recover from early setbacks. At Lord's three of the middle order (Vaughan, Bell and Flintoff) scored a total of 24 runs between them in the two innings. It is this frailty which has led the selectors to call up Paul Collingwood for the Edgbaston Test, and it is likely that he will play ahead of Ashley Giles. Collingwood is a talented and gutsy cricketer, but it is asking a lot of him to perform a rescue act if once again England get into trouble.

The Australians are not unbeatable and England, with the inspirational Pietersen in the side, have the ability to put them under pressure and force a win. But for this to happen England need to play at 110% and luck needs to run their way. For the good of the remainder of the Ashes series let's hope this happens!

Day One

Psychologists tell us that there are two conventional human responses to threat or fear - the first is to flee (to hide until the threat has gone away) the second is to fight. At Edgbaston yesterday the testosterone count in the England dressing room must have broken all records as the England team responded to the disappointment of Lord's by fighting like caged animals suddenly set free. It was an exhilarating and quite extraordinary day's cricket which saw 407 runs scored in 79.2 overs - a scoring rate of more than 5 per over. To put the score in perspective if it had been a One Day match England, at this rate, would have scored 257 runs - a potentially match winning total. That England were all out in the same 79.2 overs might beg the question as to whether a slightly more measured approach could have given England a more impregnable position - but what the heck, to have the famed Aussie attack on the back foot most of the day, having lost the toss and been asked to bat, is something that most of us at Edgbaston would have settled for at the beginning of play!

The day started with the news that Glenn McGrath, the star of the Australian attack from Lord's (where he took nine wickets for 82 runs) would take no part in the match following a freak warm up injury. This seemed more to concern Australia than it boosted England who knew that Gillespie, Lee, Warne and Kasprowicz would present enough of a challenge. But the Aussie body language showed that the loss of the totemic McGrath so unexpectedly had got to them. Lee and Gillespie opened the bowling and looked almost innocuous as Trescothick and Strauss took charge. Inevitably it was to be Warne who broke this assured opening partnership at 112 just before lunch with a fizzing leg break that deceived Strauss and seared into his stumps. After lunch Vaughan looked in fine form with three elegant boundaries and he and Trescothick took the score comfortably to 164 before Trescothick edged one to Gilchrist for a brilliant 90 off only 102 balls. Immediately Bell (who continues to look out of his depth) fell to Kasprowicz and then Vaughan, letting his adrenaline levels boil over, played an appalling shot to Gillespie and Lee took a fine catch on the boundary. From 164 -1 England were 187-4 and there were some frowns on the England balcony.

When Kevin Pietersen forced his way into the England Test side to bat at 5 ahead of Flintoff at 6 many wondered what would happen if these two hit form together. Now we found out. In just over an hour at the crease they put on a hundred runs with Flintoff scoring 68 at more than a run a ball and hitting six fours and no less than 5 sixes. He fell immediately after the tea interval but Pietersen continued to play brutal but cultured cricket. Although Geraint Jones failed, Giles, Hoggard, Harmison and Simon Jones came to the party scoring 75 crucial runs between them bringing England above the psychological 400 runs total. In less then six hours of scintillating cricket England had put the ghosts of Lord's behind them.

This match has started with a mighty bang and there is every likelihood that the excitement will continue tomorrow. Australia have the fire power fully to match England's score, or more - the Ashes has come alive!

Day Two

If the definition of genius is to have the ability to do something that nobody else could do then Shane Warne is touched with that art. It was, no doubt, in anticipation of Warne bowling an over before the close of play that all the spectators stayed glued to their seats towards the end of an absorbing day's cricket at Edgbaston. Andrew Strauss must have thought that he had already had the one unplayable delivery that Warne would bowl to him in the match when he was clean bowled in England's first innings. So when Warne's second ball fizzed and turned nearly ninety degrees and uprooted all of his stumps last night Strauss will now be convinced that that Warnie has a hex on him. Whether this spell can be turned on again sufficiently on Saturday is the key to this match. On a pitch that looks like it is taking spin Shane Warne can win the match for Australia even though, overnight, they have a deficit of 124 runs and England still have nine wickets in hand.

Australia are never beaten until they are beaten and this match still has a long way to go. Nevertheless for the second day running most of the momentum has been with England. In an innings of only 3.2 overs less than England's Australia scored 99 runs fewer. Their run-rate was still a hugely respectable 4 per over but England's onslaught of the first day has given the home side a slight advantage, not least because Australia will have to bat fourth on a deteriorating wicket. The contrast with the first Test match was huge. At Lord's England had fielded as sloppily as they batted and this never gave them a chance to get back into the match. On Friday at Edgbaston England caught their catches and even achieved a superb run out when Vaughan athletically threw down the stumps to dismiss Damien Martyn. Giles, so ineffectual at Lord's, bowled well and took two crucial wickets (Ponting and Clarke, both when they were well set). Giles also took the wicket of Warne who batted as if he had an urgent appointment in the back of the pavilion with somebody and didn't want to miss it by lingering at the crease.

Whilst the Australians were in most cases victims of their own downfall that takes nothing away from a mostly aggressive and disciplined performance by the England bowlers. That these bowlers work well as a team was shown by the fact that Harmison, who bowled capably on a wicket that didn't quite suit him, was only needed to bowl eleven overs in the day. Giles (3-78), Flintoff (3-52) and Jones (2-69) did the bulk of the work and were duly rewarded.

For Australia both Langer (82) and Gilchrist (49 not out) played well within themselves whilst Ponting (61) and Clarke (40) played their natural games. Had one of these players gone on to a really big score the overnight position would be very different; that they didn't is a tribute to England's perseverance.

The weather seems set fair for day three of this intriguing battle. England will have to bat well and set Australia around 350 to be in the pound seats at close of play tomorrow. This, of course, means finding an answer to the magical spells of Australia's sorcerer in chief!

Day Three

The breathtaking pace of this extraordinary Ashes Test series continued on the third day at Edgbaston when the advantage swung back and forth between the two sides throughout another pulsating day. At stumps that advantage was firmly with England with Australia at 175-8 in their second innings still requiring another 107 runs for victory. For the second time in the series 17 wickets fell on a day - but these bare statistics tell little of the drama and the tension that held the rapt attention of everyone lucky enough to be at the ground. This was cricket at its supreme best with multi-coloured skills on display for 88.5 spellbinding overs during which no quarter was given by either side. That England finished the day on top is almost entirely attributable to one man - the remarkable Andrew Flintoff who gave one of Test cricket's greatest ever all-round performances.

The morning belonged to Australia who by lunch had England in disarray at 95-6. This was an overall lead of only 194 and had England folded early in the second session Australia would have had a target that they would have believed to be easily gettable. Warne and Lee were in fine form; Lee fired up to put his indifferent first innings bowling behind him. The England top order folded first to Lee (who accounted for Trescothick, Vaughan and night watchman Hoggard) and then Warne who first won his personal battle with Pietersen and then easily outthought Bell.

In the afternoon Flintoff, although unable initially to find an enduring partner, took the game into his own hands hitting 73 off 86 balls with ten boundaries, four of them sixes. The key to Flintoff being able to give England a tolerably respectable total of 182 was a last wicket partnership of 51 with Simon Jones who batted sensibly - as well as hitting a few good blows himself. The near doubling of England's score in the post lunch session was crucial to giving them a chance to put Australia under pressure in their second innings.

Twelve overs into their innings Australia looked to be under no pressure at all. At 47 without loss, with Langer carrying on from where he left off in the first innings and Hayden looking in some sort of form, it seemed that they were building a platform from which the Aussies could push on to victory. Michael Vaughan then brought on Flintoff who was on a hat trick having taken the last two Australian first innings wickets yesterday. The hat trick eluded Freddie, but his second ball clean bowled Langer and his sixth had Ponting caught behind for a duck. Flintoff had taken four wickets in eight balls, this success only being interrupted by his remarkable batting! As in the Aussie first innings England had then to fight hard for their wickets but all the bowlers chipped in as the Australians increasingly began to feel the pressure.

At the scheduled close of play Australia were 137-7 and then Michael Vaughan claimed an extra half hour to try and finish the job on the day. This looked to be a mistake as Shane Warne and the excellent Michael Clarke added 38 runs before Vaughan called up Steve Harmison to bowl the final over. Harmy has had an ordinary match and was well below his best pace earlier in the innings. But Vaughan must have set "Give it a real go Steve" and Harmison responded with four fast and well-directed balls the last of which destroyed Clarke's stumps.

If England, as they should, wrap up the match early tomorrow it will be their most important Test victory for years. And with only a few days to go before the Old Trafford Third test they will have the momentum. If England win it won't just be the admirable Barmy Army who will be dancing in the stands - the members might do a gentle foxtrot in the pavilion as well!

Day Four

If the cardiac unit at the Birmingham Royal Infirmary didn't have an unexpected upsurge in business around lunchtime yesterday I would be very much surprised. My cricket watching stretches back fifty years, and whilst there have been some nail-biters along the way, nothing can compare with the tension of the fourth day of the second Ashes Test at Edgbaston. There have been some tight ones - the MCG in 1982/83 (which England won by 3 runs) and again in 1998/99 spring to mind. The latter match was my first visit to the great Melbourne ground and England's win (by 12 runs) was comparatively comfortable compared with yesterday at Edgbaston - and Australia had already retained the Ashes anyway. The key point about Edgbaston 2005 was that it really mattered to both sides. If Australia had won the likelihood of England winning back The Ashes would have been small indeed. But England's win levels the series and all is to play for. This context, combined with the quality of the cricket, the fierceness of the competition, the closeness of the final result and the packed ground throughout makes this arguably the greatest, as well as the closest, Ashes Test match of all time.

For all the fierceness of the contest the game was played in a wonderful spirit. Simon Jones would be well advised to reflect on his inappropriate gesture when pointing Matt Hayden back to the pavilion, not least because it was a rare lapse of taste on either side. Perhaps Freddie Flintoff should have a quiet word with him. There was a moment just after Harmison had taken the final Australian wicket to give England the win that brought tears to my cynical old eyes. It wasn't the cavorting of the England team, but the sight of Freddie going up to Brett Lee, who was on his knees, and comforting him. Lee patted Flintoff on the back to show how much he appreciated the gesture. There is a lot of nonsense talked about "The Spirit of Cricket", much of it anachronistic hogwash. Cricket's spirit comes not from administrators and law makers but from players like Freddie and the two Captains each of whom spoke well at the end of the match, not just about the guts and talent of their own team, but also admiringly and genuinely about their opponents.

The eight days of this Ashes series so far has been cricket at its very best and there is every expectation that when the teams gather again at Old Trafford on Thursday this will continue. Australia's perfomance at Edgbaston (when they were, let's not forget, without Glenn McGrath) will not have dented their self-confidence much. But England will know that the last time they squared an Ashes series from one down (in 1981) the momentum carried them on to further improbable triumphs. History is bunk? We shall see!