There was always the potential for one of these two weary teams to disintegrate in the home stretch, and to no one's great surprise it turned out to be England. There was a certain amount of reaching for the handkerchief as Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting said goodbye to Test cricket, but most of yesterday's tears had less to do with emotion than hysterical laughter.
The mirth largely revolved around England's fielding, which yesterday produced two collector's items as they took their tally of dropped catches to 11, and England's Trinidad-like descent to 27 for 5 at the close also included one of the most ludicrous cases of a nightwatchman ever witnessed in Test cricket.
There was a time, in mid-morning, when England had bowled so well that there was an outside chance that they might even win the match. Australia were 123 for 5, only 230 runs ahead, but when they finally declared an hour from stumps with a lead of 452, England had been roasted in the field for so long that they finally burst like sausage skins on a spit.
We should have known it was going to be that kind of day from the moment Australia scored their first runs. Mark Taylor got a top edge hooking at Devon Malcolm, Angus Fraser got into a perfect position (knees flexed, hands outstretched) at fine leg, which made it all the more comical when the ball plopped to earth 20 yards to his right.
David Boon was then spilled at fourth slip by Gooch in Malcolm's next over, but the drop that finally unhinged even the placid Malcolm came shortly after lunch when Graham Thorpe put down Steve Waugh at first slip. Thorpe, calling upon all the talents that earned him an England schoolboy football cap, booted the ball straight through extra cover, the batsmen ran two, and Malcolm went into a series of such manic gyrations it looked as though he was auditioning for the Barmy Army.
It can be a cruel old game. Malcolm bowled his boots off in this match, had six catches dropped (although one of them was by himself) but did not take a wicket until his 262nd delivery, and finished with match figures of 2 for 198. Even then, he only picked up his second because Taylor's opinion of how many runs Australia needed to be safe was about 100 more than most estimates on the ground yesterday.
Eventually, with 14 overs of the day's play remaining, out came Gooch for his final Test innings - to a pat on the back from Atherton and a standing ovation all round the ground - and even though it lasted all of 10 minutes and 12 deliveries, the old boyhas seldom provided more (albeit unwitting) entertainment.
Still on nought, he played a horrible hoik at Craig McDermott's sixth delivery, and as the ball ballooned gently to mid-on, Jo Angel produced a piece of fielding that even outdid England in the vaudeville department. As Angel took a couple of steps back to get underneath the ball, his legs suddenly began behaving like someone who has just been duped into back-pedalling towards a swimming pool, and with arms flapping wildly in a lost cause, he finally keeled over in a backwards somersault.
Gooch then survived a sharp chance to Boon at short leg to McDermott's seventh delivery, before driving McDermott's 10th straight back at the bowler. Even then, MeDermott failed to lay a hand on it, but as the ball thudded into his right shoulder, he clutched the rebound just before falling over.
Taylor gave Gooch a farewell pat on the bottom as he turned to go, and as one old warrior left, another one arrived. Gatting, in fact, had no business coming in at No 3 as he had been off the field with a bruised shoulder for Australia's entire second innings, and under the regulations should have been relegated to No 7. However, Australia offered no objection, presumably on the grounds that Gatting coming it at No 3 made it more or less certain that they would soon be bowling at England's No 4.
So indeed it proved, as Gatting was yorked off his pads in McDermott's fourth over, and departed (to the distress of Test match caterers all over the world) for the last time. The spread betting firm, Sporting Index, were running a book around Gooch and Gatting scoring above or below their combined ages of 78 in the first innings of this game, but in the event, they only cobbled together 52 in four innings.
When Gatting did indeed make way with indecent haste for England's No 4, no one could have been more surprised than the Australians (with more than seven overs remaining) to see Fraser striding out. Fraser was immediately dropped on nought, then fell lbwto Glenn McGrath, and Graham Thorpe followed his first-innings century with a first-ball duck, caught low down at first slip.
John Crawley then played a horribly limp shot at McDermott to be taken at second slip, and Atherton's bemusement as he walked off at the end (having now seen 21 partners come and go in this series) was such that it was a remarkably chivalrous gesture forhim to suddenly turn around and shake hands with Greg Blewett.
Blewett had earlier become only the fifth batsman in Test cricket (after Ponsford, Walters, Kallicharran and Azharuddin) to score centuries in his first two Tests, and he also made one against England playing for Australia's A team in the World Series. He put on 203 with Steve Waugh for the sixth wicket, and it was no small irony that he was eventually picked for this series because of Waugh's injured bowling shoulder.
Blewett, as it turns out, can't bowl a hoop downhill at this level, but he has now leapfrogged ahead of the likes of Damien Martyn and Ricky Ponting as the next young batsman off Australia's production line. Sad though it was to see the end of Gooch and Gatting, Atherton's handshake with Blewett doubtless came with the thought that England too will now be looking more towards the pushchair than the bathchair.Reuse content