A captivated nation tunes in - and can't quite believe its eyes

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The Independent Online

Even before the fourth and agonising day at Trent Bridge yesterday, the pundits were raising the spectre of Headingley, 1981. Then it was England's turn to follow on, setting the Australian tourists - thanks to Ian Botham's 149 not out - the modest total of 130 to win.

They didn't do it of course. So when the battling men from Down Under set England 129 to take the lead in this summer's increasingly gladitorial contest there were many with niggling doubts that a repeat of that day in Leeds was in the offing.

It looked as though they might be right. As the shadows began to creep across the pitch in Nottingham, the English wickets started to tumble. Those two Aussie bombshells, Shane Warne and Brett Lee, had already meted out punishment with the bat. When they took the ball they reduced the home team to the rubble of 116 for 7.

As the pressure mounted, a nation that has rekindled its love affair with the summer game assumed the edge of its collective seat. With smiles and whoops of delight, the Australian attack sought to convince England through the power of body language and the subtle art of intimidation that the dream of taking a 2-1 lead in the Ashes was up.

It almost seemed to work. But not quite.

The task of saving England had fallen to an unlikely duo, the bowlers Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard. Their lionhearted 20-minute partnership, in which they faced 24 balls to accumulate the 13 runs needed to hit the magic figure of 129, sets the scene for a showdown at the Oval.

The Australians, who have held the Ashes since 1989, must win at Surrey if they are to retain the urn. England, which has endured decades of despair against the old foe, need only draw.

It was the third time in the series that a Test has ended in thrilling circumstances. The Australian revival at Edgbaston must surely have been in the back of English minds. The failure to win at Old Trafford as the Antipodean tail-end resiliently held out had already raised questions over England's ability to finish a job they always seemed to start so well.

Andrew Flintoff, voted man of the match after his first-innings century, described the mounting tension in the England dressing room yesterday afternoon. "I wasn't doing very well. After I got out I sat next to Andrew Strauss and I was gripping him, hitting him, doing all sorts.

"It was a great Test match, Australia came at us again but Hoggard has been my hero today. He led the attack from the front, as did Ashley Giles. I'm very proud of those two for knocking the last runs off."

All 116,500 tickets for the fifth and final match are already sold out, although on the evidence of the first four matches it looks unlikely to go the distance.

With viewers tuning on in their millions, many critics are debating the wisdom of the England and Wales Cricket Board's decision to sell the rights for the next series to Sky. But Channel 4 bosses and terrestrial viewing public can look forward to one more thrilling match that, whatever the outcome, looks likely to mark a turning point in England's cricket fortunes.

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