James Lawton: A summer we will never forget

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England won the Ashes, but long after this is a detail of cricket history assigned amid a thousand others, this day, this summer, will surely live at least as long as all who saw it and felt it and were carried, for a small but totally absorbing fraction of their lives, into a world where men, however young and green, however steeped in gritty experience, kept digging down and finding new dimensions to both their will and their talent.

This was the story of this fifth Test, as it was of the first at Lord's, the second at Edgbaston, the third at Old Trafford and the fourth at Trent Bridge.

In the end this wasn't so much a series for the mythic trophy of the Ashes, it was an exploration of pure commitment and spirit. Astoundingly, at none of these bastions of the ancient game that some claimed was the foundation of the old British empire, did the momentum, the dream of sporting perfection, ever flag. It was as though it was infused by some outside force, some element beyond the normal calculations of mere sports technique.

The momentum of the play has created more than amazing feats and emerging personality. It has created a wave of joy, one that will now be celebrated in Trafalgar Square today but this is of not so much importance. There will be a certain sadness buried in the pomp and the triumphalism.

It is is that the real action has stopped because this has been a series of cricket matches that had become a heady state of mind, a sustained exultation about what sport can be when it is played in the very best spirit and at the highest level of pereformance.

Yesterday the stage was seized at the most crucial hour by Kevin Pietersen, a young, brash mercenary cricketer from South Africa in whom many see some of the worst aspects of the modern sports culture...burgeoning ego, a love of celebrity, a taste for "bling", £50,000 of it taken on to the field in one of those massive self-advertisments beloved of the red-top tabloids. But when it mattered most all those doubts about his place in the Ashes summer - or at least his philosophical understanding of what was happenening around him - dissolved in a blaze of competitive character and virtuosity.

Pietersen scored a century that propelled him instantly alongside the hero of '81, Ian Botham, who has been his greatest defender in some controversial days. In the long break from Ashes success, 16 years of it, some said no Englishman would ever win the acclaim of "Beefy" when he smashed his way to a century that redeemed himself, and his team, and the Ashes trophy. But this summer the high ground of Botham has not been occupied but invaded.

First it was Freddie Flintoff, a man of superb spirit and force but essentially gentle nature. Now it was the adopted Englishman, Pietersen. His power, after withstanding a brutal 93mph-plus assault from Australian Brett Lee, carried the long battle on to still another dimension. His response to a ball that threatened to decapitate him, was a flurry of mighty sixes. This was cricket of the most vengeful gods.

But then it was only what had come to be expected in a contest which the grand, elegant old man of cricket Richie Benaud, a superbly acute captain of Australian in his youth before he became the voice and the wisdom of the game, has declared the greatest Ashes cricket he has ever seen.

Even for those who do not the nuances of cricket, its mysterious ebb and flow, the pattern of the summer has been easy enough to see and to value.

It is been about arguably the greatest team of cricketers ever assembled in the history of the game fighting off the challenge of a rising English team, one hardened by the rejection of long years of defeat and disgrace. Just five years ago the predecessors of this England team were booed by the crowd when they appeared on the balcony of the the pavilion here after a disastrous series against New Zealand. Cricket was not a glory of the land, then. It was a sad remnant of the old days of Compton and May, Hobbs and Hutton, and, the more recent heroes Botham and Bob Willis, Mike Gatting and David Gower.

Now there is a stunning renaissance. As the hour of Pietersen came, the Oval crowd was filled with something more than stale chauvinism. It was a pride which brought wit and laughter built on the fact that was not some sudden eruption of skill and by proficiency by their team. It was the pinnacle of a long, hard drive to, as far as this game goes, supreme achievement.

The summer has been punctuated by superb performances from men like Flintoff, Pietersen, Andrew Strauss and Ashley Giles, the spinner in the shadow of the great Australian Shane Warne who again yesterday represented the great threat to England's ride home to glory. Giles had stirred controversy with his complaints about fierce criticism after first Test defeat by Lord's. He didn't see then that Australia's brilliantly commanding performance, led by another legend Glenn McGrath, only seemed to have confirmed the English sense that the men from Down Under were visiting us from another planet.

Giles was advised to, as they say in the tougher sporting circles, put up or shut up. Giles put up to brilliant effect. The bowler who was dismissed as a passenger by one critic of Test experience held the line with the bat when England won the last Test at Trent Bridge to give them the 2-1 lead they carried here. And it was Giles, after the devastatingly cheap dismissal of Flintoff, who occupied the batting crease for the tense overs which ensured that the Ashes would again become English property.

You can go through the English team and find so many stories of such resilience, and nowhere more remarkably than at the top. Michael Vaughan, the captain, has suffered a problem which often comes with the cares of leadership. His own batting, which at its best is of the classic variety, has not been inflicted, but he did produce a brilliant century at Old Trafford and yesterday he execute a drive through extra cover which simply had everything, poise and breathtaking facility.

That was the promising prelude of huge promise to the devastating, ultimately decisive onslaught of the latest hero Pietersen.

The Australians fought long into the last day. Warne bowled at times superbly but in the declining hope that at 35 and probably playing his last Test on English soil he would finally emerge as the man of the greatest summer cricket has ever known.

He didn't manage it in the end but he could say that at least he was a huge part of it. Whichever way you looked at that, it was impossible to see it as defeat. England won the Ashes and that was supposed to mean everything. In a way it did, but only in a way. There was something more and it was a wonder and last night, whoever you were, you left this place with the knowledge that you might never again feel about sport to quite the same degree.