MORALE-BOOSTING victories come in many shapes and sizes, but few as slender as England's over Queensland. In a match that was nip and tuck from the moment the first shooter claimed a victim, England prevailed against the odds by one wicket, the last pair of Alan Mullally and Robert Croft scoring 36 runs to record the tourists' first four-day win.
Needing 68 runs for victory at the start of the last day and with five wickets remaining, England slumped to 106 for 9, before the hour and the men cometh. Fittingly it was Croft who scored the winning run, for he had been so instrumental in helping England save the Old Trafford Test against South Africa in the summer, a draw that proved to be the turning point of the series.
Victory, especially one against the odds, can alter the mood of a team in an instant and England now travel to Brisbane with something other than speculation over Michael Atherton's dicky back and Mark Butcher's lamentable form.
If the success was unexpected, as it was for much of the second innings, Alec Stewart had every right to be pleased with the nature of it. Once again, as they had done earlier in the tour in the drawn matches against the Western Warriors and South Australia, England revealed a spirited streak, and similar intransigence will be vital in the Tests if Australia are to be troubled.
Yet, according to Croft, no one is getting carried away with the triumph. "Sure it's a boost to team spirit," he said afterwards, "but unless we perform well in the Ashes, this performance won't mean much."
Not swayed by the theorists who claimed that the front foot had to thrust as far down the pitch as possible in order to negate the shooter, Croft stuck rigidly to the back and across technique he has been working on with Graham Gooch. Like many, he has recently had trouble against the short ball and merely sought Gooch's help.
But if Croft was steadfast, Mullally was a revelation. Like all fast bowlers Mullally fancies himself with the bat. Until Monday morning there had been little evidence that he even knew what a bat was let alone familiar with shots like the hook and the sweep, both of which he played with great verve in his unbeaten 23. Dean Headley, another of the bowling fraternity, also weighed in with a useful 20, which included two of the nine fours struck in England's second innings.
"I'm determined to have a good tour and do well," said Mullally, once of Western Australia but now of Leicestershire. "If me and the rest of the tail-enders can make 20 or 30 runs each with the bat, it will help us enormously."
As pure cricket goes, this match has been generally dull and attritional, though the drama as the last pair inched their way towards the 142 required was undeniable.
In some ways, the unpredictable nature of the pitch, a mosaic of deep cracks, made batting more like Russian roulette, except it was toes rather than brains that were most in danger of ending up traumatised. One moment the ball was bouncing normally, then suddenly stumps would fly and another hapless victim would stare at the pitch before trudging off to the pavilion.
All but Croft and Mullally that is, who together survived 133 balls as Queensland pressed for a victory that had seemed theirs from the moment they had dismissed Dominic Cork the previous evening.
At that point England were 74 for 5, with only Atherton, still nursing a bad back, the last of the recognised batsman to come. The former England captain did not have to wait long and in the seventh over of the day, Mark Ramprakash mis-hooked Mike Kasprowicz to backward square leg. Kasprowicz, who finished with 6 for 30, is in the Australian squad for the first Test. Unsurprisingly Shane Warne's name was not among the XII, which contained few surprises when it was announced before lunch.
Atherton did not fare well and after getting off the mark, he was promptly stumped by Ian Healy off the left-arm spin of Paul Jackson. When you have a bad back - Atherton's problem is a degenerative disease known as spondolytis - the last thing you want to be doing is lunging on to the front foot, which is why he tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to use his feet to get to the pitch of the ball.
It is a difficult move to perform when compromised by pain and Atherton will be seeing a specialist in Brisbane, probably in order to have a cortisone injection to reduce the inflammation around his spine.
As he has already had two of these in Adelaide, a third would seem a fairly risky undertaking, one at odds with his confidence in being fit to open the innings in the first Test. England badly need him, but not at the cost to his long-term health.
Final day of four; England won toss
QUEENSLAND - First Innings 209 (G I Foley 71, I A Healy 57).
ENGLAND - First innings 192 (A J Stewart 52; A C Dale 7-33).
QUEENSLAND - Second Innings 124 (J P Maher 56).
ENGLAND - Second Innings
(Overnight 74 for 5)
M R Ramprakash c Bichel b Kasprowicz 8
D W Headley b Kasprowicz 20
M A Atherton st Healy b Jackson 1
R D B Croft not out 15
D Gough b Kasprowicz 0
A D Mullally not out 23
Extras (b1 lb10) 11
Total (for 9, 61.2 overs) 142
Fall (cont): 6-89 7-100 8-104 9-106.
Bowling: Bichel 9-1-32-1; Dale 12-5-23-1; Kasprowicz 18.2-5-31-6; Jackson 21-7-40-1; Symonds 1-0-5-0.
England won by one wicket.
Umpires: A J McQuillan and S J Tausel.