A moment to savour in the sublime drama of Ashes epic

Chelsea's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, bragged that the coming Premiership race would involve just a "bunch of one". But then in this historic Ashes battle, too, we were supposed to pick just one winning team, a gang of Aussie cricketers who had assembled the greatest body of work in the annals of their sport.

Instead, we have a bunch of two, as we did when Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden, when Tom Watson duelled with Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry, and when Pele and Bobby Moore played themselves to a final warriors' embrace in Guadalajara. Put another way, we have the essence of sport, its glory and its justification when it is set on the biggest of stages and with the highest of expectations.

Already we have had the warriors' embrace, that of Andrew Flintoff and Lee at the end of the battle of Edgbaston, and the flood of mutual respect that engulfed the winners and the losers last Sunday can only have been augmented by the desperate efforts of Lee and McGrath to defy the odds against their playing today.

They are attempting, almost from a crawling start, an astonishing arrival in a Test that no one with any feeling for the finest edge of competitive sport would willingly miss. What the teams of Michael Vaughan and Ricky Ponting have done in a few weeks is astonishing in so many ways. Apart from redrawing the classic lines of Test cricket - and re-establishing it as the supremely unchallengeable form of the game - they have also driven forward quite brilliantly a spring and summer of sport already laden with superb achievement.

It has been the time of Liverpool's staggering, humbling triumph in the Champions' League, the re-emergence of Tiger Woods, the breathtaking renaissance of southern hemisphere rugby, the mighty, if complicated triumph of cycling's Lance Armstrong, the beauty of Roger Federer's tennis - and now, set as hard and dazzlingly as a diamond in the crown of summer sport, we have this astonishing Ashes series.

Most riveting, we have the self-discovery of Flintoff and the enduring, creative genius of Shane Warne. At some point the wounded McGrath may re-state the magnificence of his performance at Lord's - the single most compelling passage of technical mastery in a series which has stretched expectation, and boldness, to its limits - but until he does it is impossible to look beyond Warne as the greatest threat to the English dream of ending 18 years of subjection.

This summer Warne has done, in various ways, exactly what he did when his first Ashes delivery invaded both the wicket and the mind of Mike Gatting. He has said that when he has the ball in his hand anything is possible. No current of advantage, however unlikely, is ignored. At times it seems that the pitch is made not of grass but of canvas and that instead of his cricket whites Warne should be wearing his artist's smock. A generously fitted one perhaps, but then in the flight of his deliveries you see that he never fed upon the pies more relentlessly than he has the possibilities of his own talent.

Most of all this summer, Warne, with that astonishing early contribution from McGrath, has dictated the nature of the contest. There was a possibility, a long one admittedly, that the domination of the Australians might slip away like sand through ageing fingers.

England brought two years of rising form to the contest, they were able to unleash the fierce ability and conviction of Kevin Pietersen, and in Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Andrew Strauss they had a wave of new talent which might indeed move strongly to upset the balance of power. That theory was advanced dramatically on the first day of the first Test at Lord's. The Australians were ambushed, and in the wreckage of their first innings there were some questions to be asked. Had the Aussies been to the well of their ambition too many times? You see it in the boxing ring so often. You see great fighters growing old before your eyes. You see the battle for a transfer of power become a formality dictated not so much by one night's action but the accumulation of the years.

Warne and McGrath, both 35, laughed at the idea. They were masters, not captives of time - at least for the length of one last English summer.

But are they? Today, whatever the composition of the Australian team, it is the exquisite question. As the Aussie crisis built around the problems of McGrath and Lee these past few days, as the seeds of doubt inevitably planted by the extraordinarily narrow English victory were attacked by the captain, Ponting, and the coach, John Buchanan, there was a growing sense that Warne had maybe identified his ultimate challenge in cricket. Maybe he could draw together all the strands of his ability, all his instinct for a winning move, and at least hold up the English.

Maybe, though, he can do a little more. Perhaps he can once again suspend the drift of time and circumstance; maybe he can, as he did with his delivery to Strauss at Edgbaston, carry us once again to another level of astounding competition.

Whatever he does, however, there is one certainty. Already this Ashes series is enshrined in somewhere more vital than the record books. It is in the hearts of all those who have felt its force, seen its withering action. Today Old Trafford offers more than the prospect of intriguing sport. It is nothing less than a re-invigoration of the spirit - and that's not bad work for a bunch of two.

Old Trafford condition check

The Pitch:

The Old Trafford pitch is normally an ugly thing, and the surface being used in the third Test is no different. Peter Marron, the head groundsman, is not concerned with its appearance, only how it plays, and generally it plays pretty well. This pitch is hard, dry and flat. Armed with a hard, shiny new ball Stephen Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and Brett Lee, if fit, should be a handful. The abrasive nature of the surface will scuff the ball and this will allow England's Simon Jones to reverse-swing the old ball. But once the hardness goes it should be a good pitch for batting. But will it help Shane Warne? Old Trafford has a history of helping spinners and will turn more as the game progresses.

The Weather:

The forecast for the next five days suggests that there will be a fair amount of cloud, and this will help England. A lack of sun will stop the pitch breaking up, thus reducing Warne's impact. But Warne can turn a ball on glass and England will not want to bat last. Michael Vaughan needs to win the toss and bat - and bat for at least 150 overs.

England's record

Against Australia at Old Trafford

Played: 27

Eng 7; Aus 7; Drawn, 13.

At Old Trafford

Played: 68

Won 21; Lost 14; Drawn 33.

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