A nation in celebration

TED CORBETT SUCH a simple act, so full of significance.

The autumn darkness was already setting in, the players were in their dressing rooms and there was clearly no chance of any further play. So at 6.15 Billy Bowden and Rudi Koertzen, the umpires, marched to the middle, removed the bails and pulled up the stumps. The fifth Test was drawn, the series had been won 2-1 by England, the Ashes had returned. The greatest Test series had come to an end and those spectators left in the ground cheered and cheered and cheered.

If the final moments were mundane, what followed was close to madness but who would not want to let his hair down after waiting 16 years for a trophy to be won again. Some wanted to run on to the pitch, to be as near to their heroes as they could get, to be part of the ceremony. I don't care what the ICC demands, nor what the consequences of a pitch might be to the insurance company, nor how used the public address announcer might be to telling people to stay off the pitch. Once in a lifetime the spectators should have been encouraged — it is the end of the summer, remember — to walk on to the middle and join in the celebrations.

In a foolish, over-zealous attempt to keep out one spectator, a security man was knocked out and lay on the field twitching before help arrived. I am happy to say he was taken off on a stretcher, sitting up and no worse for his accident. But was it worth this overweight, elderly man's life to stop an invasion of the pitch?

No doubt those were his instructions. Foolish orders on this very special occasion.

Outside on the blocked off streets, the police were smiling, tolerant, simply doing their best to keep the greatest excesses under control. Pedestrians danced, sang, chanted; car horns sounded; cyclists and pedestrians slapped hands; strangers embraced; little children in prams smiled to know their parents were so pleased with life. It was a pleasure to walk the two miles back to our hotel, carrying all that computer equipment, unable to find a taxi; watching the stream of spectators crossing Vauxhall Bridge, looking in vain for buses, and perhaps not caring.

"Darling," I heard one man, with an accent that spoke of a steak-fed good life say into his mobile, "there is some champagne in the hallway. I wonder, darling, if you would be good enough to put it in the fridge. I've met a couple of chaps at the match and I'm bringing them home for a spot of supper and I'm sure they'll want to celebrate. We`ve won the Ashes!"

I'll never know what "darling" said in reply although I can guess she might not be too pleased at the prospect of a handful of men she had never met dropping in for supper.

Outside the pub on the northern bank of the Thames, the less wealthy stood with their pints of beer, the restaurant on the corner was already crowded, a man in a bowler hat, was still wearing the badge that gave him admission to a lunch hours earlier inside the Oval as he swayed in the breeze.

The Ashes had come home, London was en fete and the next morning the rest of the nation joined the cricket festival. Of course, the open-top bus ride by the players was organised in a hurry and it did not go entirely to plan. One or two of the stars seemed to have trouble arranging their words into a logical sequence and Andrew Flintoff confessed he had "not been to bed yet."

But the 25,000 gathered under Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square — almost exactly 200 years after that great victory and that hero's death — did not care for the niceties, or for the repetition of such words as "fantastic victory", or "our lads showed huge character" or being told again and again that this England side "will win even more in the future."

It was a day for Michael Vaughan, the England captain, to wear dark glasses to show he had celebrated long and hard, for the famous television commentators like David Gower and Mark Nicholas to tease the coach Duncan Fletcher into smiling and for Kevin Pietersen to make a long — and coherent — reply to every question and to show off his extravagant hair-do.

The wicket-keeper Geraint Jones, not everyone's choice, could make jokes about the catches he dropped and no-one jeered, Ashley Giles could remind the crowd that after the defeat at Lord's he had been abused and ask them "just look at me now".

The England girls who also won their own Ashes for the first time in 40 years could show off just as proudly as the men.

So, as the bus went back to taking tourists past Buckingham Palace every day, as Fletcher prepared to become a British citizen — it has taken a while and had to be rushed through but, South African accent and all, he is one of us now — and the Prime Minister, a Chelsea fan, and the Queen, a horse racing enthusiast, wondered what awards such sporting feats ought to bring, what does it all mean.

That England are still second to Australia in the world rankings. That they will have to work just as hard to win Tests in Pakistan and India this winter. That at the age of 30 Vaughan can break every captaincy record in the next five years. That, as they are a young team, they will improve under Fletcher who has said he will continue at least until the end of the World Cup.

There are more good players in the wings — Ed Joyce of Middlesex, Rob Key of Kent, both batsmen; the fast bowler Chris Tremlett of Hampshire, the forgotten wicket-keeper Chris Read of Nottinghamshire — who might fit into this side without causing a ripple.

Care must be taken all the same. The ageing England Rugby Union side who won the World Cup two and a half years ago and were also given the open top bus treatment fell to pieces after retirements, the defection of the coach Sir Clive Woodward to football at Southampton and the injuries to Johnny Wilkinson, their equivalent of Flintoff.

As for Australia, who sneaked to Heathrow while the bus tour was leaving Lord's, you had to wonder how many of them we might see again. Slowly, over the next couple of years, the selectors have to find replacements for Adam Gilchrist, Damien Martyn, Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie. They must also decide whether Ricky Ponting is the right captain and John Buchanan has been coach for too long.

But surely we will see Shane Warne again. If the selectors have the nerve they will give him the captaincy, tell him to pass on his knowledge, his perception and his understanding to a young side. I don't care who he sends text messages to so long as he delivers the right message to the next generation of youngsters. His 40 wickets in this series were the result of some of the most astonishing leg break bowling seen anywhere and he is still — admittedly a little overweight, less agile — capable of playing Test cricket. Maybe here in three years. I hope so.

If their selectors are clever they will make their changes soon. Look how West Indies suffered because they waited for their stars to retire. Look how that good England side of 1986-7 was allowed to disintegrate; within two years they had all been dropped.

The contract system, a more thoughtful coach able to keep his head in a crisis, a better backroom staff mean that is unlikely to happen. Players are allowed to make mistakes, matches can be lost without wholesale changes being made, consistent selection is the first and foremost consideration.

We saw all that at the Oval and the value of a spot of good fortune. Simon Jones, one of the unexpected stars of the series with his high pace and late reverse swing, had to drop out two days before the match.

Paul Collingwood, a trier whether he is batting dourly, bowling steadily or fielding brilliantly, took his place and when Vaughan won the toss we knew everything ought to work out.

Andrew Strauss made his second hundred of the series and put on 143 with Flintoff but 373 was far from enough and after a hard work 138 from Hayden, 105 from Langer and 185 from the opening stand Australia were just six short.

At 329 for five Gilchrist went to the wicket, a crucial moment as the fall of the Australian fifth wicket has been throughout the series.

Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach, emailed me before the Tests began: "England will not win unless they can control Gilchrist at No.7."

His top score in the five matches was 49; that is where the Ashes were won.

So the last day was a battle, made glorious after lunch on day five by the fireworks from Pietersen, although Vaughan batted so beautifully for an hour before lunch that I kept wishing he could go back to open the innings with Marcus Trescothick.

I have a friend, wise in the ways of the game, with 50 years cricket on his shoulders as player and administrator who insists Vaughan should bat in the Clive Lloyd, Steve Waugh position of No.6 or even No.7.

No. Of all the strokes I saw in this series, the Vaughan cover drive on that final morning, with feet perfectly placed, balance exactly right, no follow through, was one I shall remember in a series full of lovely cricket moments.

As the tee-shirt says: "The Ashes are back — now I can die happy."

But not for a while yet. The scores

Fifth Test, The Brit Oval, London, September 8 to 12. Match Drawn; England wins the series 2-1.

England — 1st innings: M. E. Trescothick c Hayden b Warne 43; A. J. Strauss c Katich b Warne 129; M. P. Vaughan c Clarke b Warne 11; I. R. Bell lbw Warne 0; K. P. Pietersen b Warne 14; A. Flintoff c Warne b McGrath 72; P. D. Collingwood lbw Tait 7; G. O. Jones b Lee 25; A. F. Giles lbw Warne 32; M. J. Hoggard c Martyn b McGrath 2; S. J. Harmison (not out) 20; Extras (b-4, lb-6, w-1, nb-7) 18; Total 373.

Fall of wickets: 1-82, 2-102, 3-104, 4-131, 5-274, 6-289, 7-297, 8-325, 9-345.

Australia bowling: McGrath 27-5-72-2; Lee 23-3-94-1; Tait 15-1-61-1; Warne 37.3-5-122-6; Katich 3-0-14-0.

Australia — 1st innings: J. L. Langer b Harmison 105; M. L. Hayden lbw Flintoff 138; R. T. Ponting c Strauss b Flintoff 35; D. R. Martyn c Collingwood b Flintoff 10; M. J. Clarke lbw Hoggard 25; S. M. Katich lbw Flintoff 1; A. C. Gilchrist lbw Hoggard 23; S. K. Warne c Vaughan b Flintoff 0; B. Lee c Giles b Hoggard 6; G. D. McGrath c Strauss b Hoggard 0; S. W. Tait (not out) 1; Extras (b-4, lb-8, w-2, nb-9) 23; Total 367.

Fall of wickets: 1-185; 2-264; 3-281; 4-323; 5-329; 6-356; 7-359; 8-363; 9-363.

England bowling: Harmison 22-2-87-1; Hoggard 24.1-2-97-4; Flintoff 34-10-78-5; Giles 23-1-76-0; Collingwood 4-0-17-0.

England — 2nd innings: M. E. Trescothick lbw Warne 33; A. J. Strauss c Katich b Warne 1; M. P. Vaughan c Gilchrist b McGrath 45; I. R. Bell c Warne b McGrath 0; K. P. Pietersen b McGrath 158; A. Flintoff c & b Warne 8; P. D. Collingwood c Ponting b Warne 10; G. O. Jones b Tait 1; A. F. Giles b Warne 59; M. J. Hoggard (not out) 4; S. J. Harmison c Hayden b Warne 0; Extras (b-4, w-7, nb-5) 16; Total 335.

Fall of wickets: 1-2; 2-67; 3-67; 4-109; 5-126; 6-186; 7-199; 8-308; 9-335.

Australia bowling: McGrath 26-3-85-3; Lee 20-4-88-0; Warne 38.3-3-124-6; Clarke 2-0-6-0; Tait 5-0-28-1.

Australia — 2nd innings: J. L. Langer (not out) 0; M. L. Hayden (not out) 0; Extras (lb-4) 4; Total (for no wicket) 4.

England bowling: Harmison 0.4-0-0-0.