A match without equal

TED CORBETT

EVEN for those of us in the ringside seats, who watch cricket for a living, who have seen it all down many years, the second Ashes Test of 2005 was so, so special. Right from the start when England launched the biggest attack ever recorded in an England-Australia match to that final, heart-stopping moment when Michael Kasprowicz gloved — with his hand off the bat handle as television pictures showed minutes later or with his hand still attached to the bat as umpire Brent Bowden thought as he raised his finger — I found it impossible to tear my eyes from the action.

Remember that I have seen so much in 261 Tests in every cricket country in the world. Viv Richards hitting a century in 56 balls. Both Brian Lara's Test records. The bowling of Holding, the controversy called Murali, the glory that was Mohammad Azharuddin as it turned to dust, Allan Border's mountain of runs, Courtney Walsh's wickets and noughts, Curtly Ambrose's precision, Shane Warne's ball of the century, Roger Harper and Jonty Rhodes fielding. Umpiring errors, dropped catches, matches lost that should have been won, desperate moments, glorious hours; everything that makes this game, especially when it is played at Test level, memorable. But nothing like this. Never so much excitement, drama, theatre, on the field or in the practice field.

The greatest Test of them all? I think so. Nearly 90 minutes before it began, setting the tone for the match, a cricket ball carelessly left in the middle of the Aussie practice zone, caused Glenn McGrath, Australia's leading fast bowler with 500 victims behind him, to tear ankle ligaments badly. Some forecast the end of a great career, some said he might only miss the rest of this series; we knew that his absence would be crucial when play began as he went to hospital for his X-ray.

In the 45 minutes between captain Ricky Ponting and John Buchanan, the coach, discovering that McGrath would spend at least a week on crutches, they decided to stick to their original plan. Put the Poms in to bat, see if there was life in this pitch which had been almost drowned by a typhoon only a week earlier and hope that they would have to bat just the once.

They believed, rightly as it turned out, that the ball would turn, for Warne at any rate, by the middle of the third day and that they would set up victory at that point.

They reckoned without Andrew `Freddie' Flintoff, 6ft 4in from the top of the golden head he shows the crowd every time he walks out to bat to the tips of his size 12 boots. If they thought about him at all the Aussie thinkers probably only remembered his failures at Lord's, the impression that he had been disturbed by the arrival of Kevin Pietersen, the new star on the England skyline and that, in his first Ashes Test series, he was finding the going tough.

Six cricketing hours later that brains trust must have wondered what had hit them, why their bowlers without the lynchpin that is McGrath had bowled quite so badly, how England had contrived to bat at five an over all day, hitting ten sixes and 54 fours as if a new typhoon had struck

Birmingham.

The Australian attack managed one feat that has rarely been seen since Marcus Trescothick was analysed, dissected and curbed almost as soon as his career began. He does not, you may have seen me write before, move his feet very much. Yet Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Kasprowicz and Warne repeatedly bowled the ball just where he likes to lunge and strike it through the offside.

Thirty-five overs later Trescothick was back in the pavilion, second man out for 90 and England had sailed to 164 for two. He and Andrew Strauss had put on 112, England were 132 for one at lunch but when Pietersen and Flintoff came together Ian Bell and Michael Vaughan had also gone and 187 for four was a signpost to disaster unless the pair batted properly.

How properly could they bat? They filled the air with the thwack of willow on leather, Flintoff hit five sixes and six fours and danced to 68 off 62 balls; Pietersen a six and ten fours as they put on 120 in 23 overs.

"Great striking" was the way one Aussie voice described the Flintoff innings and at that point we did not know there was more to come. Pietersen was not out until he was caught on the boundary at 348 for eight; the tail wagged in the way a cartoon dog's tail wags and in the 80th over of the day England were all out 407 while Lee had gone for 111 in 17 overs.

Warne had hinted at his match figures but we will mostly remember his bowling for the Barmy Army's cheer when 100 went up in lights against his name and four for 116 seemed like an afterthought to a day dominated by the bat. How wrong we were.

The Aussie reply on day two was built round a dour 82 by the battered, brave Justin Langer who was sixth out for 82 at 262 and the dazzling 61 from Ponting who might have gone on to a star-studded century if he had not grown impatient after a brief run drought and tried to sweep Ashley Giles.

At five for 208 in 50 overs England had only one worry; that Adam Gilchrist might have a mad two hours and take away their lead. But by his standards 49 off 69 balls is painstakingly slow so that Flintoff, bowling so well that Geoff Boycott claimed he could not recall a bad spell by this quickening bowler, was able to blast out the tail. England led by 99 and when 25 came in six end-of-the-day overs we knew that they would drive forward to a big lead the next day and win in comfort. Warne bowled just the one over that night, produced a ball that, if you read all the papers, reproduced his wonder delivery to Mike Gatting all those years ago and left poor Strauss with his bat in the air and his off stump as crooked as an old mile post.

The next morning — yes, 21 wickets and 740 runs in the first two days — Warne bowled like an emperor even when Flintoff battered him in making 73 off 86 balls and hit four sixes and six fours. One six landed at the feet of Graham Gooch, the old England captain, on the roof of the pavilion where the TV and radio people work; another fell among the rain covers at the other end of the ground and had to be replaced as Flintoff carried the score from 72 for five to 182, setting Australia to make 282. The bookmakers were confident they would win; so were the punters particularly on the sub-continent where tales of mighty sums being poured into the bookies satchels kept seeping back to Edgbaston. There must have been many sad faces in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai on Sunday evening.

Warne had dominated the day, despite Flintoff and when he claimed him as his final victim — ten for 162 in the match — you knew that the pair would have a mighty tussle in the fourth innings and that either might win the man of the match award.

Langer and Matthew Hayden raced to 47 off 13 overs before Flintoff bowled Langer. When he had Ponting caught for nought in the same over we knew England would win; how foolish. We made the same confident prediction by the time Giles had Simon Katich and Gilchrist out in successive overs: 137 for seven, how can the tail score another 150? Giles making full use of his quicker ball, Flintoff looking like some ancient warrior hurling his spears? England were going to level the series. We just knew it. Instead Australia almost completed a miracle.

Warne has a sense of history and by the third evening he had made his intentions clear by hitting two sixes off Giles. On the fourth morning — the 100 trembling minutes that will never fade from the memory — he and a confident Lee strode towards the total as if nothing might stop them.

Flintoff found the ball to force Warne back on to his stumps and kick them down as if he might be a too clever Real Madrid midfielder; 220 for nine and Kasprowicz can't bat and would not to be in the match anyway but for the freak accident to McGrath.

"Kaspro is due a few," said Warne the night before and so he was with an average of ten and a top score of 25. But he stuck it out and when the difference dipped to single figures the Barmy Army went quiet. No time for patriotism nor ribald songs now but prayer, meditation and concentration and fingers crossed.

Vaughan called up his strong men Flintoff and Harmison and with three needed to win Harmison got Kasprowicz into the sort of tangle that No.11's find themselves, the ball lobbed down the legside and Geraint Jones, abused because he is far from a great wicket-keeper, dived and tumbled and rolled and came up with the ball in his glove. Was it out? Probably not. There were a number of umpiring mistakes in this game — neither Pietersen nor Bell touched the balls that gave Gilchrist catches, two Australian lbw decisions did not bear examination — and we should care about such issues. But in the context of the most magnificent game, set against the background of the Ashes, in a series level at 1-1, we have to accept the frailty of umpires, just as we accept that captains make mistakes, that fielders drop catches, that even in their memories veterans never bat nor bowl quite as well as they should have done.

Australia lost like world champions; England won as if they would be world champions some time soon. It was heroic, colossal, magnificent; a match without equal, a tantalisingly narrow win, the most exciting end to a match the history books will acknowledge as the greatest. No time for regrets.

Onward to Old Trafford, where it will spin for Warne to celebrate 600 wickets, to the plus-perfect pitch at Trent Bridge and the Oval where who knows what sort of a pitch will appear in mid-September.

No time either for conjecture. What if — McGrath had played, the umpires had been infallible — never solves anything.

If after three and a third days, 1176 runs off 272 overs, we get a win by two runs we should all be happier cricket people.

The scores

Second Test, Edgbaston, August 4 to 6, England won by 2 runs.

England — 1st innings: M.E. Trescothick c Gilchrist b Kasprowicz 90; A.J. Strauss b Warne 48; M.P. Vaughan c Lee b Gillespie 24; I.R. Bell c Gilchrist b Kasprowicz 6; K.P. Pietersen c Katich b Lee 71; A. Flintoff c Gilchrist b Gillespie 68; G.O. Jones c Gilchrist b Kasprowicz 1; A.F. Giles lbw b Warne 23; M.J. Hoggard lbw Warne 16; S.J. Harmison b Warne 17; S.P. Jones (not out) 19; Extras (lb 9, w 1, nb 14) 24; Total 407.

Fall of wickets: 1-112, 2-164, 3-170, 4-187, 5-290, 6-293, 7-342, 8-348, 9-375.

Australia bowling: Lee 17-1-111-1, Gillespie 22-3-91-2, Kasprowicz 15-3-80-3, Warne 25.2-4-116-4.

Australia — 1st innings: J.L. Langer lbw S.P. Jones 82; M.L. Hayden c Strauss b Hoggard 0; R.T. Ponting c Vaughan b Giles 61; D.R. Martyn (run out) 20; M.J. Clarke c G.O. Jones b Giles 40; S.M. Katich c G.O. Jones b Flintoff 4; A.C. Gilchrist (not out) 49; S.K. Warne b Giles 8; B. Lee c Flintoff b S.P. Jones 6; J.N. Gillespie lbw Flintoff 7; M.S. Kasprowicz lbw Flintoff 0; Extras (b 13, lb 7, w 1, nb 10) 31; Total 308.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-88, 3-118, 4-194, 5-208, 6-262, 7-273, 8-282, 9-308.

England bowling: Harmison 11-1-48-0, Hoggard 8-0-41-1, S.P. Jones 16-2-69-2, Flintoff 15-1-52-3, Giles 26-2-78-3.

England — 2nd innings: M.E. Trescothick c Gilchrist b Lee 21; A.J. Strauss b Warne 6; M.J. Hoggard c Hayden b Lee 1; M.P. Vaughan b Lee; I.R. Bell c Gilchrist b Warne 21; K.P. Pietersen c Gilchrist b Warne 20; A. Flintoff b Warne 73; G.O. Jones c Ponting b Lee 9; A.F. Giles c Hayden b Warne 8; S.J. Harmison c Ponting b Warne 0; S.P. Jones (not out) 12; Extras (lb 1, nb 9) 10; Total 182.

Fall of wickets: 1-25, 2-27, 3-29, 4-31, 5-72, 6-75, 7-101, 8-131, 9-131.

Australia bowling: Lee 18-1-82-4, Gillespie 8-0-24-0, Kasprowicz 3-0-29-0, Warne 23.1-7-46-6.

Australia — 2nd innings: J.L. Langer b Flintoff 28; M.L. Hayden c Trescothick b S.P. Jones 31; R.T. Ponting c G.O. Jones b Flintoff 0; D.R. Martyn c Bell b Hoggard 28; M.J. Clarke b Harmison 30; S.M. Katich c Trescothick b Giles 16; A.C. Gilchrist c Flintoff b Giles 1; J.N. Gillespie lbw Flintoff 0; S.K. Warne (hit wicket) b Flintoff 42; B. Lee (not out) 43; M.S. Kasprowicz c G.O. Jones b Harmison 20; Extras (b 13, lb 8, w 1, nb 18) 40; Total 279.

Fall of wickets: 1-47, 2-48, 3-82, 4-107, 5-134, 6-136, 7-137, 8-175, 9-220.

England bowling: Harmison 17.3-3-62-2; Hoggard 5-0-26-1; Giles 15-3-68-2; Flintoff 22-3-79-4; S.P. Jones 5-1-23-1.