In circumstances which for an hour or two were excruciatingly tense, but which in the end bordered on farce, England today regained the Ashes, by not losing the final test at the Oval to Australia. Champion Aussie bowlers Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne gave England a fright by having them five down by lunch, and it looked as if Australia could soon be in and knocking off the runs. But a first test match century by Kevin Pietersen – what a day to pick! – soothed England nerves. Once it became impossible for either side to win, everyone wanted to end it – England and their fans to celebrate, the Aussies to say their goodbyes and get out of there. But the idiot laws of cricket, or lack of the right law of cricket to cover the situation, caused an absurdly anti-climactic period during which the umpires first said that the light had got too bad, and then faffed about while everyone else just stood about, before they eventually declared the game over.
Channel Four had no intention of just switching off their television coverage, but after all the foolishness, things got back on track, with the celebrations duly being drowned with red, white and blue confetti, jetting out of confetti machines.
It had looked, after more seriously farcical proceedings yesterday when not very bad light had stopped play for the second half of the day, as if the final day might, as a result, not be very tense, but McGrath and Warne soon saw off that idea.
Warne also got two more wickets at the end when it no longer mattered, bringing his tally in the match to twelve, and his tally for the series to forty, if my calculations do not deceive me. Despite ending up on the losing side, Warne has been the Man of the Series for me. Without him, England would have been out of sight in this game by the end of the first day. But Warne beat England back from 82-0 to 131-4, and it was game on from then on.
The turning point of the series, it is pretty generally agreed, was when Glenn McGrath, who dominated in the first test at Lords, trod on a ball and hurt himself just before the start of the second game. He missed that game, and was never the same deadly accurate bowler again, despite manful efforts. In that one moment, the series went from being Australia’s for sure to anybody’s, and it stayed anybody’s until late this afternoon, when England finally got their noses properly in front.
Duncan Fletcher, the Zimbabwean who has been coaching England for the last few years, had to be told to smile at the end, and he fleetingly obliged. He must have been doing a lot right. He is good at avoiding the limelight.
But most of all, I think the difference was sheer luck. England played very well indeed, but they also had just that tiny bit more luck of the good sort, and just a tiny bit less luck of the bad sort. The commentators talk about how England “dominated more”. But England damn near lost that second game, and coming back from 2-0 down would surely have been beyond them. England won four tosses out of five, which made a big difference. And just to take today, Pietersen was nearly run out, and was also dropped three times before he got seriously going – although you could say that this is only fair considering that Pietersen dropped every catching chance that came anywhere near him all summer.
I want to believe that Shane Warne is one of the very greatest players there has ever been, what with England having finally got him to be in a losing Aussie team. But Flintoff got the “Man of the Series” award. But I suppose they have to pick someone from among the winners. (Maybe Warne lost it by fluffing the easiest chance Australia had today to get Pietersen out, and with it, as it turned out, Australia’s best chance of winning the match and keeping the Ashes.)
Finally, a word of praise for all the people associated with Surrey Cricket Club who were responsible for the vast, flat arch of a new stand that now graces the Oval. It has turned a great ground into a ground that is less great in size, but even greater as a place to go and to see.