At 6.15pm yesterday, a tired and emotional Ricky Ponting made his way from the Australian dressing-room and offered Michael Vaughan his hand on the players' balcony of the Alec Bedser Stand. Bad light had forced the players of England and Australia from the pitch, making it a rather soft and touching way for such an intense, hard-fought and brilliant series to end. Yet in that simple act the Australian captain was handing over ownership of cricket's oldest and most treasured prize - the Ashes.
It is more than 18 years since English cricket last celebrated this feat, when Gladstone Small caught Merv Hughes in the deep at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 28 December 1986, and yesterday a nation rose to its feet again to applaud a team that it has every right to be proud of.
Kevin Pietersen, whose quite brilliant 158 ensured that England drew the fifth Test and maintained their 2-1 lead in the series, will grab the headlines. And deservedly so. Without him the Ashes could have been making their way back to Sydney this lunchtime with Ponting and his Australian team-mates.
But every member of Vaughan's dedicated and vibrant young side should be looked on as a hero. Andrew Flintoff has been a colossus, inspiring Vaughan's charges on almost every occasion they were in trouble, yet at some stage in this astonishing series each of the 12 players used by England has contributed to the team's success. Even Paul Collingwood, playing in his only Test of the summer, batted for 71 minutes with Pietersen when England looked as though they may yet still blow it.
It will take some time for these players to realise just what they have achieved during the last two months, or come to terms with their new-found status. For some, their lives may never be the same again. But during the next few days each of them, along with Duncan Fletcher - the England coach - and his staff, can sit down and reflect on the part they have played in the best Test series this great sport has ever seen.
There may have been Test series of higher quality but never can there have been one that has engrossed and played with the emotions of a nation in such a manner. From the first ball at Lord's on 21 July the action has been compelling, and following the 239-run defeat in the first Test very few of us gave England any chance of regaining the "little urn".
Yet regain it they have, with a brand of attacking cricket that suggests they will soon overtake Australia and become the number one side in the world. Many may feel that the victory should have given them this status already, but Vaughan's side will need to win in Pakistan and India during the winter, and defend the Ashes in Australia 12 months later to claim that crown.
England started the final day of this epic encounter with a lead of 40 and nine wickets in hand. Their goal was simple - to bat out 98 overs, or score enough runs to make Australia's run chase futile.
The vast majority of the 23,000 lucky ticket holders would have been hoping for a quiet, uneventful day, but this has not been that type of series. An unexpected twist was expected and for 38 overs it appeared as though Australia would pull off another remarkable victory. The brilliance of Warne, and the perseverance of Glenn McGrath had reduced England to 126 for 5, and the nerves of the home fans were getting another shredding.
It was only when Pietersen reached his century, and England's lead had been extended to over 220, that members of Vaughan's side felt confident enough to venture out of their dressing-room and watch history being created.
Roared on by a raucous crowd, England batted positively before they were finally bowled out for 335. And it was fitting that the truly magnificent Shane Warne should take the final wicket in his last Test on English soil. The presence of the game's greatest-ever bowler has made this series unforgettable, and when he had Stephen Harmison caught at slip it took his tally in the series to 40.
Warne's industry, skill and bloody-mindedness allowed him take take 12 wickets in the match, and made him the highest wicket-taker in Ashes history with 172 scalps. Warne did not deserve to be on the losing side but the fact that he did end up finishing second was largely down to the batting of his close friend Pietersen.
The Hampshire batsman may not be everyone's cup of tea, but, boy, can he play, and the manner in which he handled the pressure here highlighted what a wonderful future he has in this England side. However, his cavalier approach in the early part of his innings did little to ease the stress levels of anyone with an English chromosome in their body.
England were in trouble after Andrew Flintoff had chipped a simple catch back to Warne, and Pietersen was living on the edge. He was dropped on nought, nearly run out on nine and grassed again on 15. But having survived a nervous start he went on to play an innings of character and class.
Whilst his team-mates anxiously prodded and poked at the ball, Pietersen played bold, powerful strokes. He missed the occasional uncontrolled hoick at Warne but his tactics were sound because the runs he was scoring were just as important as the overs he was wasting.
In the over after Warne had dropped him at first slip on 15, the belligerent 25-year-old hoisted the leg-spinner twice into the stands for six. And the six-hitting continued after lunch during a sensational pocket of Test cricket at its very best.
Pietersen had been hit painfully in the ribs by Lee before the interval and Ponting set the field for a barrage of bouncers. But rather than duck underneath the 95mph thunderbolts being sent down at him, Pietersen decided to hook, and Lee was twice deposited into the crowd over fine leg. There were also two thunderous straight drives for four before Lee, having conceded 37 runs in three overs, was removed from the attack.
The loss of Collingwood and Geraint Jones, who fell before England were anywhere near safe, quietened Pietersen down but in Ashley Giles he found a partner he could rely on. The pair put on 109 runs for the eighth wicket and during it Pietersen posted his maiden Test hundred when he drove Shaun Tait through extra cover for four.
It was at around this time that the Australians started to realise their hold on the Ashes was over. Warne was shattered after 31 consecutive overs from the Vauxhall End, and Pietersen and Giles were picking off a tired and dispirited attack.
Pietersen hacked Warne for a straight six and pulled Lee over the leg-side boundary for the third time, before his superb innings was ended by a magnificent leg-cutter from Glenn McGrath which trimmed his off stump.
Warne ran up to Pietersen as he made his way back to the players' pavilion and congratulated the batsman before, in a typically un-shy manner, he lapped up the applause of a euphoric crowd.
With the game safe and the Ashes won, Giles passed 50 for the fourth time in his Test career. The partisan crowd gave Australia a standing ovation as they left the arena, thanking them for the part they had played in an unforgettable series. And it was fitting that Warne and McGrath, two of the game's greats, led their team from the field.
The pair have been the main reason for Australia's success in the last decade and English crowds will never see the pair playing Test cricket in this country again.
But England fans now have plenty to look forward to. They have a team that has the potential to dominate world cricket for the foreseeable future.Reuse content