Cricket's big ticket: Fans clamour to witness Ashes finale

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The clamour for a ticket to watch arguably the biggest sports event in four decades intensified yesterday as England prepared to face Australia in the final match of the thrilling Ashes series.

With the Oval cricket ground in south London a sell-out since last winter, cricket fans have been paying 10 times the cover price for any remaining tickets at the 23,000-capacity venue.

Touts acted in defiance of the threat of being blacklisted by cricket authorities by selling with online auctioneers such as eBay. Three seats in a row for today's play had attracted offers of £1,200 while two VIP seats for Friday are being offered at £2,000.

There were even reports of gazumping, with one ticket agency returning a customer's payment only to be found re-selling the seats for a vastly inflated sum.

After 18 years of Australian domination of the contest, the final Test in an Ashes series that England lead 2-1 has been billed as the biggest sporting event in the UK since 1966, when England's footballers won the football World Cup at Wembley Stadium.

Employers were yesterday urged by union and business leaders to allow staff to follow the match - a considerable concession since it coincides with most working hours - but they stopped short of calling for time off work.

Brendan Barber of the TUC said there was "huge interest" in the match, which has put firms' IT departments on alert as millions of workers follow the game on their office computers. A spokesman for the Confederation of British Industry said: "On an occasion as exiting and as big as this week's Ashes, many employers are likely to be flexible in allowing staff to keep tabs on the score from the office."

Tony Blair has offered his support in a letter to the England captain, Michael Vaughan. " I just wanted you to know that, along with the rest of the country, I will be following the team's progress in the final Test with great interest and wish you the best of luck in your battle to regain the Ashes" he wrote. "Please pass on my best wishes and good luck to all the team and everyone involved at The Oval in what will hopefully be another victory for the England team."

England only need a draw to regain the Ashes for the first time in 20 years. If they pull it off, Michael Vaughan and the talismanic all-rounder Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff can expect to join the pantheon of English cricket legends. Bookmakers have made them 1/2 favourites to win the series and William Hill have reported a record £50m of bets riding on the series.

Weather is expected to play a part. The forecast for today and Sunday is for sunny weather but rain is predicted for Friday and Saturday, increasing the chances of a draw. An England win will result in a victory parade in central London for Vaughan's team. Like the world cup-winning England rugby team they are expected to travel through the city on an open-top bus before arriving in Trafalgar Square for a party.