After all his trials, it was the least that the hard-pressed England captain, Mike Atherton, deserved. On the day set aside for his resignation, his captaincy showed a calmness and maturity worthy of Mike Brearley at his shrewdest. His field setting was imaginative, his thinking positive and his side responded with a display of controlled aggression which was no less impressive for being so long delayed. "I will let you know in a few days," was Atherton's terse answer to questions about his future, but the temptation to take the team to the West Indies must be much stronger now that the winning feeling has returned in such unlikely circumstances. The more worrying factor in the equation is his own loss of form. Either way, Atherton will make up his own mind and in his own time. The heirs apparent might have to wait for another winter.
In the cold light of morning, history will treat England's victory as a mere appendix to the series. The West Indies and South Africa have both suffered unlikely defeats at The Oval, Australia too in Atherton's second Test as captain four years ago. Nor are Australia the best in dead matches, as their captain Mark Taylor pointed out. But no one in the capacity crowd cared a jot for history as the old foe at last revealed a blessedly familiar failing. By Christmas, only Edgbaston and The Oval, the brave deeds of Nasser Hussain and Tufnell, will be remembered in the dying embers of the fire. The rest will be conveniently, if unwisely, consigned to the dusty pages of history which will show that Australia retained the Ashes.
Set 124 to win after Mike Kasprowicz had become the third bowler in the match to take seven wickets, Australia lost Matthew Elliott to the fourth ball of the innings and by tea had been reduced to 50 for 4 with only Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting left of the recognised batsmen. When Caddick, in fine imitation of Bob Willis, found an extra yard of pace and forced Waugh to prod a rising ball into Graham Thorpe's hands at first slip, the crowd sensed Australian blood. Every ball was bayed, every edge roared. Surrey may rue the dusty wicket which forced a result in three days and the lost revenue of the fourth, but the entertainment was irresistible.
Ian Healy survived a raucous shout for leg before, but not Ponting - 88 for 6, 36 needed to win. Healy attacked once more, Caddick juggled the return catch and held on - 92 for 7. Warne emerged with a runner and to an unnecessary chorus of boos. All or nothing surely. Warne took the bait and skied a horrible swirling catch to Peter Martin running back at mid-on. Martin's blond head was buried in a phalanx of team-mates - 95 for 8. Atherton juggled his field with gentle assurance. Kasprowicz prodded nervously straight to Adam Hollioake at short cover - 99 for 9. Tufnell and Atherton consult. McGrath miscues to a diving Thorpe at mid- off, Atherton is mobbed, Tufnell grabs a stump and England have won by 19 runs.
The celebrations were as joyous as if the Ashes had come home for good. Atherton was cheered to the skies and Tufnell, who finished the match with 11 for 91, was named man of the match. Caddick, taking five wickets in an unbroken two-hour spell from the Vauxhall End, was not far behind. It made all the indifferent cricket of the four previous Tests even more perplexing.
Little earlier in the day had prompted such heady prospects of victory. Australia were credited two extra runs when a four struck by Greg Blewett in the first innings was shown by television to have been six and Hussain, suffering as Bill Shankly once said of a tortured full-back from "twisted blood", miscued a cut to backward cover off the fourth ball of the day. Warne, nursing an injured groin, knew he had struck lucky with a rank bad ball.
Mark Ramprakash and Thorpe, though, put together the highest partnership of the match, the former casting off his shackles to drive Warne handsomely through the covers, the latter punctuating inelegant thrusts of the pad with short- arm jabs through the covers or midwicket. Just as a last-innings target of 200 or more became a possibility, Kasprowicz began a seemingly decisive spell, removing Thorpe and Hollioake in quick succession. At 145 for six at lunch, with a lead of 105, England still seemed certain to pay for their first-day carelessness on a pitch misread by all bar a series of bewildered batsmen.
After Ramprakash had advanced on Warne once too often, with a precious fifty in his sights, the rest of the England innings followed a familiar pattern. Only the executioner was different, Kasprowicz removing the last four batsmen for three runs in 11 balls. Another Australian victory seemed a formality until Devon Malcolm struck with his fourth ball and The Oval stirred. "A nice way to end the series," Atherton said with a Mona Lisa smile. It would be a stylish way to go.
John Benaud, Page 14
Sixth Test scoreboard
England won toss
England - First innings 180 (McGrath 7-76)
Australia - First innings 218 (Tufnell 7-64)
England - Second innings (Overnight 52-3)
N Hussain c Elliott b Warne 2
(62 mins, 50 balls; flashed loosely to point)
G P Thorpe c Taylor b Kasprowicz 62
(130 mins, 115 balls, 9 fours; pushed away from body at rising ball)
M R Ramprakash st Healy b Warne 48
(150 mins, 110 balls, 6 fours; beaten charging down pitch)
A J Hollioake lbw b Kasprowicz 4
(13 mins, 10 balls, 1 four; squared up by seaming ball)
A R Caddick not out 0
(51 mins, 37 balls)
P J Martin c and b Kasprowicz 3
(4 mins, 4 balls; miscued drive)
P C R Tufnell c Healy b Kasprowicz 0
(2 mins, 2 balls; brilliantly caught flashing outside off stump)
D E Malcolm b Kasprowicz 0
(2 mins, 2 balls; failed to keep out yorker)
Extras (b6, lb10, nb4) 20
Total (266 mins, 66.5 overs) 163
Fall: 1-20 (Atherton), 2-24 (Stewart), 3-26 (Butcher), 4-52 (Hussain), 5-131 (Thorpe), 6-138 (Hollioake), 7-160 (Ramprakash), 8-163 (Martin), 9-163 (Tufnell), 10-163 (Malcolm).
Bowling: McGrath 17-5-33-0 (7-2-15-0 6-3-10-0 4-0-8-0), Kasprowicz 15.5- 5-36-7 (nb3) (6-3-8-2 8-2-27-2 1.5-0-1-3), Warne 26-9-57-2 (nb2) (18-6- 47-1 8-3-10-1), M Waugh 7-3-16-1, Young 1-0-5-0 (one spell each).
Progress: Second day: 50 in 101 mins, 26.3 overs. Bad light stopped play at 6.25pm-close at 52-3 (Hussain 2, Thorpe 22) 27 overs. Third day: 100 in 163 mins, 42.4 overs. Lunch 145-6 (Ramprakash 37, Caddick 0) 56 overs. 150 in 232 mins, 58.4 overs. Inning s closed 2.22pm.
Thorpe 50: 108 mins, 94 balls, 7 fours.
Australia - Second innings
*M A Taylor lbw b Caddick 18
(47 mins, 34 balls, 2 fours; beaten for pace half forward)
M T G Elliott lbw b Malcolm 4
(3 mins, 3 balls, 1 four; offered no shot to fast straight ball)
G S Blewett c Stewart b Caddick 19
(57 mins, 36 balls, 3 fours; caught off inside edge)
M E Waugh c Hussain b Tufnell 1
(7 mins, 7 balls; edged perfect leg-break to slip)
S R Waugh c Thorpe b Caddick 6
(21 mins, 19 balls; drove to slip)
R T Ponting lbw b Tufnell 20
(46 mins, 35 balls, 3 fours; caught in crease by faster ball)
I A Healy c and b Caddick 14
(36 mins, 17 balls, 2 fours; juggling return off straight drive)
S Young not out 4
(43 mins, 24 balls, 1 four)
S K Warne c Martin b Tufnell 3
(8 mins, 5 balls; steepling catch at deep mid-on)
M S Kasprowicz c A Hollioake b Caddick 4
(22 mins, 13 balls; pushed drive to short mid-off)
G D McGrath c Thorpe b Tufnell 1
(5 mins, 2 balls; miscued drive to mid-off)
Extras (b3, lb4, w1, nb2) 10
Total (152 mins, 32.1 overs) 104
Fall: 1-5 (Elliott), 2-36 (Taylor), 3-42 (M Waugh), 4-49 (Blewett), 5- 54 (S Waugh), 6-88 (Ponting), 7-92 (Healy), 8-95 (Warne), 9-99 (Kasprowicz), 10-104 (McGrath).
Bowling: Malcolm 3-0-15-1, Martin 4-0-13-0 (w1), Tufnell 13.1-6-27-4 (nb2), Caddick 12-2-42-5 (one spell each).
Progress: Third day: 50 in 66 mins, 14.4 overs. Tea 50-4 (S Waugh 3, Ponting 0) 15 overs. 100 in 148 mins, 31.3 overs. Innings closed 5.24pm.
Umpires: L H Barker and P Willey TV Replay Umpire: K E Palmer
Match Referee: C W Smith. Man of the match: P C R Tufnell. England won by 19 runsReuse content