Cricket: Brilliant catch becomes catalyst

TEST MATCHES don't come much better than this. From the very first ball on Sunday this elongated three-day match was a thriller. In the last act, England left Australia a target of 175 which did not, at the time, seem enough, and they appeared to be cruising to victory having passed a hundred for the loss of only two wickets when suddenly Mark Ramprakash produced a catch which cannot often have been equalled in the history of the game.

It broke the back of the Australians and showed that even this side of Mark Taylor's has its mortal condition. The other side of the same coin was that it unleashed a flood of self-confidence within the England side which in turn led to self-belief and a mental hardness one had given up all hope of ever seeing from this lot.

Confidence is a strange will-o'-the-wisp. Here one moment, gone the next, often for no obvious or apparent reason, but Ramprakash's catch was inspirational. Alan Mullally bowled a short one to Justin Langer, who swivelled and hooked out of the middle of the bat with murderous power but without quite rolling his wrists at the moment of impact. At square leg by the umpire, Ramprakash's first move was to the left and then, when his radar had picked up the signal that it was going the other way, he jack-knifed with incredible speed and somehow launched himself to his right. With his body almost off the ground, his right arm outstretched seeking the guided missile, Ramprakash reached into thin air. The ball struck at the base of his fingers and instinctively those fingers closed and he held on.

He jumped up as bewildered as anyone and then, with a look which was somewhere on the borderline between hate and ecstacy, he threw the ball aloft and was submerged by his team-mates. After looking at the replays several times and from all the angles, it became a catch to be tucked away in the "Freak of Nature" file.

Its immediate effect was to bring the side together as if some invisible puppet master had just picked up and tightened the strings of all 11 players.

Even though no wickets fell for a few minutes and all Australia will have been certain that, with the Waugh twins together a happy ending was assured, Alan Mullally bowled his best spell of the series and was desperately unlucky as batsmen played and missed while Dean Headley, who has not achieved much in Australia, found a rhythm and a control which is too often missing.

Even the Waughs could only nudge and push and run quick singles although they are mighty good at all these things, and the flow of fours and threes, which were frequent on this outfield, dried up. Earlier, and most significantly it had seemed at the time, Graeme Hick had missed an awkward catch low to his right at third slip off Mullally when Langer had made a single. Now, Mark Waugh played back to Headley and Hick went far and low to his left at second slip and came up with a beauty.

From the moment the ball left the bat, Hick moved with the confidence and the certainty he had lacked when Langer snicked, and Hick has never caught that well on his left. He had found some confidence, and later when Ian Healy edged Headley he made the awkward catch to his right look simple. Warren Hegg never put a foot wrong behind the stumps and held everything that came his way, and the fielding generally was often brilliant.

As far as one could see, it all came together at the same time for everyone, for the first time in the series. Of course, it was a wonderful afternoon and evening for England's cricket, but it makes one wonder why we have had to wait this long. The Australians were far from overconfident and in the slightly weird and strange way that these things sometimes seem to happen, it really was that catch of Ramprakash's which made the difference.

This was roughly the same side which had dropped catches and bowled so badly at Brisbane, batted so poorly on that first day in Perth and which appeared to have given up the ghost in Adelaide. They will go to Sydney for Saturday's last Test in great spirits. It would be typical of this lot if they reverted at once to their Adelaide form and played as if Melbourne has never happened. But then they may not. We shall see.

CLOSE FINISHES IN ASHES TESTS

The Oval 1902: England beat Australia by one wicket.

Melbourne 1907-08: England beat Australia by one wicket.

The Oval 1890: England beat Australia by two wickets.

Sydney 1907-08: Australia beat England by two wickets.

Old Trafford 1902: Australia beat England by three runs.

Melbourne 1982-83: England beat Australia by three runs.

Sydney 1884-85: Australia beat England by six runs.

The Oval 1882: Australia beat England by seven runs.

Sydney 1884-85: England beat Australia by 10 runs.

Melbourne 1998-99: England beat Australia by 12 runs.

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