After 83 minutes of the fourth morning of the fourth Test the Ashes were retained. Matt Prior moved sharply to his left to take an outside edge off Ben Hilfenhaus and England had beaten Australia by an innings and 157 runs. Euphoria was unbounded.
It was the largest margin of victory against the old enemy for 54 years, the first time that England had won the smallest but biggest trophy in cricket – and in some opinions in all sport – away from home for 24 years. Both had been unconscionably long periods but for moments like this it had been almost worth it.
Prior clutched the ball in his left mitt as if it was the most precious object on the planet and he refused to let it go. He would not have exchanged it for the Koh-i-Noor diamond itself. England recognised immediately that there was work still to do; the Ashes without a series victory to show for them would not be worth quite so much.
So before the elation had subsided they made the point that in Sydney next week when the fifth Test begins they will still be playing as though their lives depend on it. To go away from this place with a 3-1 victory: now that would be really something, whereas 2-2 would still make it seem as though Australia had been in the contest.
For long stretches of the series and for almost the entire duration of the fourth Test, Australia have been nowhere near the contest. From the first morning, Boxing Day, one of the most resonant occasions, they were outplayed. England won an important toss and took full advantage of it. Instead of resisting, as legend has it they are supposed to, Australia folded.
It was a pitch with demons but they were not demons that condemned a side to being 98 all out. England observed eternal bowling verities, stuck to their strategy and were repaid. By yesterday morning, the hard work had been done. Short of wrapping up a replica of the urn and sending it to the England dressing room before play, Australia could hardly have been more definite in conceding the Ashes.
As it happened, they made England fight, had some fun in the last hour or so, like the boys on the burning deck swapping jokes. England were kept waiting longer than they might have liked after nabbing Mitchell Johnson with the 11th ball of the day. Chris Tremlett bowled him off bat and pad, his only wicket of the innings, and it would have been touching on travesty had he gone wicketless after his telling spells of the first morning and third afternoon.
Both Tremlett, who was introduced in Perth to take over from the injured Stuart Broad, and Tim Bresnan, who replaced Steve Finn in Melbourne, have been revelations to many. Not, however, to those who have supported their cause – Tremlett as a bowler who could extract vital bounce on Australian pitches after being overlooked by England for three years, Bresnan as somebody grievously under-rated by those outside the dressing room.
The next wicket took its time in arriving. Brad Haddin scored his fourth half-century of the series, hitting the ball straight and as clean as a whistle, and accompanied by Peter Siddle, had a frisky hour in the Melbourne morning sun.
Between them they managed to take the gloss off Graeme Swann's figures. Having bowled 22 overs the previous day for 23 runs – and top-drawer containing bowling it was as well – Swann conceded 36 more runs off five overs. Haddin and Siddle had a high old time striking him over boundaries and both edging him through the slips.
It could not last and it did not. Swann had Siddle caught on the long-on boundary by Kevin Pietersen running to his left to take a steepler after they had put on 86 from 99 balls. It was left to Bresnan to apply the coup de grâce, his movement and bounce being altogether too much for Ben Hilfenhaus. England needed only nine wickets because Ryan Harris was unfit to bat – presumably they would have sent him out in a wheelchair had there been 20 minutes left instead of 547 or so – and that was that.
Who would have thought four years ago, when he was being put to the sword by Sri Lanka in a one-day series, or four months ago when he seemed just short of Test class, or four weeks ago when England seemed to have a settled attack, that Bresnan would take the wicket to clinch the Ashes? But he did, and he took five others in the match too. He personified the collective nature of it all. But Prior was still clutching the ball that did it for dear life.
Fourth Ashes Test, the MCG, fourth day of five: England beat Australia by an innings and 157 runs; England won toss
Australia: First Innings 98 (Tremlett 4-26, Anderson 4-44)
England: First Innings 513 (Trott 168no, Prior 85, Cook 82, Strauss 69, Pietersen 51, Siddle 6-75)
Australia: Second Innings Overnight 169-6 (Watson 54)
†B J Haddin not out 55, 93 balls 4 fours 1 six
M G Johnson b Tremlett 6, 22 balls
P M Siddle c Pietersen b Swann 40, 50 balls 5 fours 1 six
B W Hilfenhaus c Prior b Bresnan 0, 4 balls
Extras (b1 lb6 w2) 9
Total (85.4 overs) 258
Fall 1-53, 2-99, 3-102, 4-104, 5-134, 6-158, 7-172, 8-258, 9-258.
Did not bat R J Harris.
Bowling J M Anderson 20-1-71-1 (1w) (5-0-27-0, 5-1-13-0, 6-0-22-1, 4-0-9-0), C T Tremlett 17-3-71-1 (4-1-21-0, 4-1-19-0, 5-1-15-0, 4-0-16-1), G P Swann 27-11-59-2 (2-0-4-0, 20-11-19-1, 5-0-36-1), T T Bresnan 21.4-8-50-4 (1w) (7-4-5-0, 7-3-17-3, 6-1-25-0, 1.4-0-3-1).
Progress Fourth day: 200 in 73.2 overs, 250 in 82.4 overs. Haddin: 50 86 balls, 4 fours, 1 six.
Umpires Aleem Dar (Pak) and A L Hill (NZ).
TV umpire M Erasmus (SA)
Match referee R S Madugalle (Sri Lanka).
Man of the match I J L Trott.
England lead five-match series 2-1 and retain the Ashes.