Cricket: England's victory rekindles the spirit of '81

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The Independent Online

reports from The Oval

England 180 and 163 Australia 220 and 104 England win by 19 runs

"It was," the England captain said with the aid of 24 hours' hindsight, "just like Headingley in 1981." But if it is difficult to comprehend anything being quite as gravity-defying as that remarkable encounter, then the word of Michael Atherton, England's captain-in-limbo, should suffice. After all, the Test in which Botham and Willis performed in excelsis was Atherton's first as a spectator and teenage memories, as we know, are not easy to blight.

Like Headingley 16 years ago, the sixth Cornhill Test which ended here on Saturday was a contest that no one felt safe calling until the No 11 was at the crease, and even then you would not have put your house on it. It was also a match in which the eventual losers began their last innings as overwhelming favourites. In the end though, as both sides courted victory and defeat, it was the team whose nerve held longest which prevailed. For once it was England, as Australia's twitchiness got the better of them.

If there was a shadow cast over England's storming victory, then it was that the dry friable pitch had been prepared, or rather underprepared, to order. In truth, although it produced scores more akin to those found before Test pitches were covered, it was never dangerous.

In a statement issued by Surrey's chief executive, Paul Sheldon, who was no doubt fuming at having to refund almost half a million pounds in advance ticket sales for yesterday, the club voiced its disapproval at what it sees as unwelcome outside interference from the England and Wales Cricket Board.

"This is not the sort of pitch we would have liked to produce at The Oval," Sheldon said yesterday. "But it's a case of having to adhere to the the will of the ECB."

In fact there had already been murmurings that the groundsman, Paul Brind, had been unhappy with his father and predecessor at The Oval, Harry. Indeed Brind Snr, who is now pitches consultant with the ECB, had allegedly been the one applying the pressure to produce a turning pitch.

As ironies go however, that can be capped by the news that the ECB may take action against Surrey. If they do, it will not be done using the criterion used in county cricket, where 15 wickets have to fall on the first day before a pitch gets reported. Indeed, only 12 fell at The Oval on Thursday, though the ball did spin sharply for both wrist and finger spinner.

As so often happens, extreme conditions produce riveting contests and England's win was no less than England's put-upon skipper deserved, after watching another Ashes contest slip away.

Like Atherton and his players, few present are unlikely to have their emotions see-saw quite so alarmingly again. Even the early anger, stoked by the pathetic collapse of England's tail, and the token cheers as both Aussie openers were seen off, did little to prepare people for the surging adrenalin as victory, dangling like a carrot in a strong breeze, alternated between possible and probable.

As for England's bowling and fielding on the final afternoon, it was little short of a revelation. Perhaps the huge gasometer had leaked an intoxicant, for England performed like dervishes driven to finding some higher truth, rather than sportsmen seeking to put one over an old enemy.

True, the rubber may have been dead, and some of the Australians subconsciously detuned, but no side, least of all Australia, throw away such an attainable victory, unless persuaded to by a superior force. Ashes or not, England's win should still take its place in the pantheon of remarkable victories.

In fact on the eve of this Test both Ian Healy and Steve Waugh had spoken out in their pre-Test team meeting about how desperately keen they were to win this match.

If their dismissals were uncharacteristic - Waugh slashed Andy Caddick to slip and Healy was caught and bowled by the same bowler - it is because the best are not immune to pressure. In tense situations their strength is that they hide it better.

To beat Australia by 19 runs when just 124 were needed for victory requires more than a miracle, it needs human intervention too. Which is where the remarkable bowling performances of Phil Tufnell and Caddick came in after those with the bat by Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash, whose contrasting innings of 62 and 48 respectively had given England the most slender of outside chances.

In their different ways, Tufnell and Caddick are both mavericks, naturally gifted performers ill at ease with themselves as much as anyone else. Together on a dry dusting pitch, they were the perfect combination, and for once Australia had no answer to a heady mix of wily artful spin and hostile accurate seam.

More importantly, and probably for the first time in their careers, they bowled as if they belonged, Tufnell's performance in particular receiving praise from both captains. "It's the best I've seen him bowl," Mark Taylor said. "He only bowled one bad ball in two innings," Atherton recalled after the left-arm spinner had been made man of the match.

Yet if Tufnell's performance of 11 for 93 in the match was the more eye- catching, Caddick's eight wickets, particularly his 5 for 42 in the second innings, was the better performance on a surface that, while helping bowlers of all creeds, none the less favoured spin the most.

True to their exasperating nature, however, England concentrated all the virtues they consistently lack, like aggression and focus, into one frenzied, topsy-turvy day.

When a biopsy of their summer is performed, it will show a rotten core, bookended by two extraordinary victories. Enough healthy tissue, in other words, to make the next few days tortuous ones for their captain as he ponders his future.

First, though, the hangover from a team night of celebration at the Cafe de Paris must clear.

But while few things have been known to sway Atherton's mind once it has been made up, the feelgood factor that washed over The Oval is sure to niggle away for a while yet; an undotted i, in an otherwise finalised decision.

Mind you, if he is rational about it, he will need a few days just to get over the excitement of his win double - that of both Test and toss.

The Oval scoreboard

England won toss

ENGLAND - First innings 180 (G D McGrath 7-76).

AUSTRALIA - First innings 220 (P C R Tufnell 7-66).

ENGLAND - Second innings

(Friday: 52 for 3)

N Hussain c Elliott b Warne 2

(62 min, 50 balls)

G P Thorpe c Taylor b Kasprowicz 62

(130 min, 115 balls, 9 fours)

M R Ramprakash st Healy b Warne 48

(150 min, 110 balls, 6 fours)

A J Hollioake lbw b Kasprowicz 4

(13 min, 10 balls, 1 four)

A R Caddick not out 0

(51 min, 37 balls)

P J Martin c and b Kasprowicz 3

(4 min, 4 balls)

P C R Tufnell c Healy b Kasprowicz 0

(2 min, 2 balls)

D E Malcolm b Kasprowicz 0

(2 min, 2 balls)

Extras (b6, lb10, nb4) 20

Total (266 min, 66.5 overs) 163

Fall (cont): 4-52 (Hussain), 5-131 (Thorpe), 6-138 (Hollioake), 7-160 (Ramprakash), 8-163 (Martin), 9-163 (Tufnell).

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 E Waugh 7-3-16-1; Young 1-0-5-0 (one spell each).

Progress: 100: 163 min, 42.4 overs. Lunch: 145 for 6 (Ramprakash 37, Caddick 0) 56 overs. 150: 232 min, 58.4 overs. Innings closed: 2.22pm.

Thorpe 50: 108 min, 94 balls, 7 fours.

AUSTRALIA - Second innings

*M A Taylor lbw b Caddick 18

(47 min, 34 balls, 2 fours)

M T G Elliott lbw b Malcolm 4

(3 min, 3 balls, 1 four)

G S Blewett c Stewart b Caddick 19

(57 min, 36 balls, 3 fours)

M E Waugh c Hussain b Tufnell 1

(7 min, 7 balls)

S R Waugh c Thorpe b Caddick 6

(21 min, 19 balls)

R T Ponting lbw b Tufnell 20

(46 min, 35 balls, 3 fours)

I A Healy c and b Caddick 14

(36 min, 17 balls, 2 fours)

S Young not out 4

(43 min, 24 balls, 1 four)

S K Warne c Martin b Tufnell 3

(8 min, 5 balls)

M S Kasprowicz c A J Hollioake b Caddick 4

(22 min, 13 balls)

G D McGrath c Thorpe b Tufnell 1

(5 min, 2 balls)

Extras (b3, lb4, w1, nb2) 10

Total (152 min, 32.1 overs) 104

Fall: 1-5 (Elliott), 2-36 (Taylor), 3-42 (M E Waugh), 4-49 (Blewett), 5-54 (S R Waugh), 6-88 (Ponting), 7-92 (Healy), 8-95 (Warne), 9-99 (Kasprowicz).

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: 50: 66 min, 14.4 overs. Tea: 50 for 4 (S R Waugh 3, Ponting 0) 15 overs. 100: 148 min, 31.3 overs. Innings closed: 5.24pm.

Umpires: L H Barker and P Willey.

Third Umpire: K E Palmer.

Man of the match: P C R Tufnell.