England escaped from Wales with a draw last night. It was heart- stopping, heroic, at times quite beyond belief and will go down as one of the greatest of all rearguard actions in the Ashes or any other sporting contest.
To achieve the most improbable of results the last-wicket pair of Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, to whom bats may as well be pieces of cheese, had to negotiate 69 balls as Australia homed remorselessly in on victory. But their last-ditch resistance would have been hopeless without a quite stunning piece of defensive batting by Paul Collingwood, who lasted for almost six hours and repelled all that Australia could throw at him, which was a considerable amount.
At most points throughout the last day – as at most on the four days before it – Australia seemed certain to take a 1-0 lead in their quest to retain the Ashes. England had begun the day at 20 for 2 and by lunch were 102 for 5. If Australia bowled well and straight for the most part, their opponents were undone by a lack of application and poor judgement.
But somehow Anderson and Panesar stood their ground. Inspired by Collingwood they played in a measured fashion against the second new ball and when the spinners came on they were steadier still against the turning ball. Men crowded round the bat but the pair seemed utterly nerveless. Perhaps the Australia captain, Ricky Ponting, might have retained faith with his pacemen with the ball still new and hard, but he was also fully aware that the minutes were ticking by and that the last-wicket so-called rabbits might be vulnerable against a turning ball. He was wrong.
Towards the end, with the clock refusing to tick round fast enough and Australia desperately trying to cram in more overs, England sent out emissaries to offer advice, or water, or treatment. It was actually no more than a time-wasting measure and Anderson, not wishing for his concentration to be disturbed, sent them away.
If this looked inappropriate, in the England dressing room they presumably took the view that they did not wish to have come so far only to be denied. That they did get so far was almost solely because of Collingwood's sterling qualities.
It needed someone with his attributes to provide the belief that England could somehow salvage something. The idea of going behind in the series and having to pitch up in three days' time at Lord's, where Australia have not lost since 1934, was enough to fill all their followers with despair.
Collingwood had spoken the previous night of the need for heroes and he lived up to every single part of his rallying cry. It was a position custom-built for his brand of doggedness and toughness. He played straight and cautiously, never once taking unnecessary risks. It took him 32 balls after lunch to score a run and he knew that if he did not survive all was up for England.
Would that his colleagues had shown such stoicism under fire. Almost all England's batsmen, if not architects of their own downfall, had a helping hand in the design.
When straight bats were needed, they displayed crooked ones; when calm heads were required, they demonstrated muddled thinking. It was merely an extension of the cricket that had been played throughout five days. Australia knew what an Ashes series required and England did not.
Two wickets down overnight, it took only until the fourth over for England to lose their third on the fifth morning after heavy overnight rain cleared an hour before the start. It was their best batsman, Kevin Pietersen, and at that moment Australia must have let the thought seep into their consciousness that they would win the game.
Pietersen had played a risky drive wide of short extra cover to the third ball of Ben Hilfenhaus's and then to the next fatally decided late to withdraw his bat and shoulder arms. His off stump went tumbling and so, from England's point of view, did much else beside.
Shortly after, it grew worse when England's captain, Andrew Strauss, having cut Nathan Hauritz for one four, essayed the shot again to the next ball, saw it bounce a little more and edged behind. Papers were being prepared for the inquest on English cricket. Perhaps the least adequate stroke was played by Matt Prior, cutting against Hauritz's spin and caught at slip. The coroner was put on stand-by. Collingwood was not about to panic. He is not a student of cricket history but others who remember were already invoking Trevor Bailey at Lord's against Australia in 1953.
For 90 minutes, Andrew Flintoff checked his natural instincts and kept Collingwood company. He played fearsomely straight and desperation began to give way to the faint stirrings of hope. But suddenly Flintoff jabbed at Mitchell Johnson with the ball angled across him, confirmed with Ponting that his second slip catch was clean and walked off.
Crucial stands followed between Collingwood and Stuart Broad and Collingwood and Graeme Swann. Always Collingwood. Broad kept out 46 balls before he too played from his crease across the line and was leg before. Swann provided a different kind of resistance. He was palpably afraid of the short ball and three times in an over from Peter Siddle he was hit on the body. It seemed only a matter of time and when the new ball was taken it was possible to fear for Swann's welfare so easily was he ducking into the ball.
But he survived for 67 balls and 81 minutes before he attempted a pull against the persevering Hilfenhaus, Australia's best bowler. He was leg before. The opening statements about England's demise were being written.
But Johnson was wasting the new ball and Australia were showing signs of fatigue. With 12 overs left, the worst thing possible happened to England. Collingwood, brave, hard Collingwood, pushed at a short, wide one from the returning Siddle. From the 245 balls he faced it was one of maybe half a dozen when he played a shot of which he was not fully in control. It flew off a thick outside edge to Mike Hussey at gully and at the second attempt he held it. Collingwood sank to his knees.
He recognised what everybody on the ground also knew. England were about to go behind in the Ashes. But along came Anderson and Panesar, Jimmy and Monty as they will always be known on our dreams, and showed the stuff that was needed. The right stuff.
Sophia Gardens: Scoreboard
England won the toss
England Second Innings
*A J Strauss c Haddin b Hauritz......... 17
77 mins, 54 balls, 1 four
A N Cook lbw b Johnson......... 6
19 mins, 12 balls, 1 four
R S Bopara lbw b Hilfenhaus......... 1
5 mins, 3 balls
K P Pietersen b Hilfenhaus......... 8
23 mins, 24 balls
P D Collingwood c Hussey b Siddle......... 74
343 mins, 245 balls, 6 fours
+M J Prior c Clarke b Hauritz......... 14
40 mins, 32 balls, 1 four
A Flintoff c Ponting b Johnson......... 26
90 mins, 71 balls, 3 fours
S C J Broad lbw b Hauritz......... 14
68 mins, 47 balls, 1 four
G P Swann lbw b Hilfenhaus......... 31
83 mins, 63 balls, 4 fours
J M Anderson not out......... 21
71 mins, 53 balls, 3 fours
M S Panesar not out......... 7
40 mins, 35 balls, 1 four
Extras (b 9, lb 9, w 4, nb 11)......... 33
Total (9 wkts, 434 min, 105 overs)......... 252
Fall: 1-13 (Cook), 2-17 (Bopara), 3-31 (Pietersen), 4-46 (Strauss), 5-70 (Prior), 6-127 (Flintoff), 7-159 (Broad), 8-221 (Swann), 9-233 (Collingwood).
Bowling: Johnson 22-4-44-2 (nb1,w4) (4-0-11-1, 4-1 5-0, 8-3-11-1, 6-0-17-0), Hilfenhaus 15-3-47-3 (nb5) (3-0-9-1, 3-0-13-1, 5-2-14-0, 4-1-11-1), Siddle 18-2-51-1 (nb2) (1-0-4-0, 6-1-17-0, 7-0-18-0, 4-1-12-1), Hauritz 37-12-63-3 (nb3) (12-3-26-2, 16-4-31-1, 9-5-6-0), Clarke 3-0-8-0 (one spell), North 7-4-14-0 (1-0-4-0, 4-3-5-0 2-1-5-0), Katich 3-0-7-0 (one spell).
Progress: Fourth day: Close 20-2. Lunch: 102-5. Tea: 169-7 (Collingwood 55, Swann 4) 71 overs. 200 in 334 mins, 80 overs. New ball taken after 80.4 overs at 200-7. 250 in 422 mins, 101.2 overs. Innings closed 6.42pm.
Collingwood 50: 232 mins, 167 balls.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and B R Doctrove (WI).
Man of the match: R T Ponting.