As the shadows lengthened over The Oval on Sunday night, England sealed their triumph in the latest re-enactment of the never-ending joust for sport’s most myth-encrusted trophy.
Australia’s batting hero Mike Hussey, finally and wearily, surrendered his wicket, and England won the Ashes.
They won the final Test by 197 runs and took the series 2-1. A packed house roared its delight; the players embraced, as they always do; strangers embraced in the stands, as they usually don’t, and they would have thrown their panama hats in the air if they weren’t so damned expensive.
England captain Andrew Strauss was handed a replica of the urn (the original being considered too fragile even to touch) and paraded his team round the ground. There was, however, little of the “relief of Mafeking” hysteria that greeted the win in 2005, which was swiftly followed by a humiliating defeat in Australia the following year. This time there seemed a determination that the victory might be more permanent.
Strauss said celebrations would be “muted”, and even Andrew Flintoff, who has now played his last Test, promised there would be no public binge to match the last one.
Famously drunk four years ago, he faces a knee operation later this week. “I’m nil by mouth by midnight Tuesday,” he said ruefully. His team mates who remain on the unstoppable carousel of modern cricket now face the anti-climax of a one-day game against Ireland on Thursday.
Flintoff was responsible for one of the day’s turning points, brilliantly running out Australian captain Ricky Ponting for 66. But Australia refused to lie down. Theoretically, they had no chance – they needed 546 to win, way above anything achieved in any of the thousands of first-class matches in history, never mind an Ashes Test. Especially not one where the pitch had been damned as a disgrace all over Australia.
But still England were nervous. “Records don’t stand for ever, you know,” said a man in a panama on the 36 bus heading to the ground. Similar remarks were heard all day, especially as Australia progressed in stately fashion to 327 for five, with the wicket far calmer and the bounce more predictable.
They had lost their opening batsmen quickly, and Hussey could have gone several times in the opening overs. He had been in terrible form and there was widespread speculation that his Test career was over. But he won his personal battle through sheer determination.
He could not save his team, though. An hour after tea the ridiculous was beginning to seem just about credible. England had put down two vital chances and the new ball was failing to remove Hussey and wicket-keeper Brad Haddin. Then Haddin, perhaps starting to believe in his own invulnerability, had a rush of blood and was caught on the boundary by Strauss himself.
The last five wickets fell for just 21: Steve Harmison – heading towards the sunset like Flintoff – almost got a hat-trick; the plucky off-spinner Graeme Swann finished the job.
But this above all has been Strauss’s triumph. Leaving Durham University a decade ago, he was uncertain whether to head for cricket or the City. Last night he joined the short list of Ashes-winning captains and was named man of the series as well; he has done it all with grace, humour and ever-increasing tactical savvy.