As the shadows stretched out here last night so too did a fantasy. It was that England would emerge from this first Ashes Test unbeaten and then, when it happened against the most outrageous odds, we had some freshly fabled heroes in Paul Collingwood and the last men on guard, tail-enders James Anderson and Monty Panesar.
Yes, in its way it was as engrossing as most anything we have seen down all the years of the oldest rivalry in cricket but amid all the celebrations it was necessary to separate the heroics of Collingwood, Anderson and Panesar from a myth that needs to be killed at source if this series is not, sooner or later, to fall into the hands of the Aussies.
What has to be stressed is that nothing achieved on the last day of this Test match, largely by one front-line batsman, the official nightwatchman and a left-arm spin bowler who is supposed to provide only high comedy when he walks on to the field with a bat in his hand, could begin to draw a veil over a rather appalling fact.
It was that really if we are talking about a high degree of professionalism, an instinct to dominate a game because you are the stronger, more committed, side that you have a superior capacity to concentrate on the nitty gritty realities of the game at the highest level, there was only one team in it.
What England did on the last day – and no one should question the valour of the most striking contributions – was attempt to wipe away the uncomfortable fact that on the previous four days they had not only been out-thought and outplayed but also exposed as a team who just couldn't properly apply the talent they had been given. It is the worst charge in all of professional sport and that Collingwood, over nearly six hours of unbroken watchfulness at the batting crease, was able to take some of the sting out of it is worthy of absolute praise.
He scored 64 in the first innings with his usual tactic of extracting every morsel of his God-given talent. When compared to his team-mate Kevin Pietersen these are slender pickings indeed but yesterday he showed us again that with the right mentality, with an old pro's appetite for hand-to-hand fighting, you can make quite a little go an extremely long way. Yesterday Collingwood scored 74 and got such as Graeme Swann, another tail-ender whose batting had a confidence almost totally absent from his senior team-mates, Anderson and Panesar so close to the finishing line it was hard to believe that his effort belonged to an English side which from the afternoon of the first day had been so negligent with their opportunities.
Inevitably, Pietersen remains in the line of fire now because while Collingwood fought so hard, going when England's defiance had reached into a last hour, the man who was so recently entrusted with the captaincy had again walked away with the job not done.
Pietersen, whose idiotic shot in the first innings brought such a harsh spotlight on England's approach to the Ashes, was certainly less indictable yesterday, but it was also true that he was caught between playing and leaving a fine ball from Australian paceman Ben Hilfenhaus that sent his off stump spinning.
You could feel the air hissing out of the English effort. Matt Prior and Andrew Flintoff both showed flashes of resistance, but it was Collingwood who had to try to carry the effort.
He did with superb application – and a bloody-minded refusal to accept a rather cruel categorisation of him by the Aussies, one prosecuted with particular enthusiasm by the legendary Shane Warne. Warne sneered that Collingwood's MBE was an extravagant reward for a fleeting contribution to England's Ashes triumph of 2005. But since then the man from County Durham has shown that whatever he lacks in natural brilliance, he has certain heavyweight compensations. We saw the best of them yesterday, a determination to play from ball to ball, over to over England crept towards salvation.
In the end he fell to the often impressive seam bowling of Hilfenhaus and the immaculate wicketkeeping of Australian centurion Brad Haddin. But not before he had brought prolonged doubt to Aussie captain Ricky Ponting, who started a sun-splashed day convinced that the inadequacies of English batting would again be exploited.
To a degree they were, at least to the extent that Nathan Hauritz, the much scorned successor to Warne, finished the match with six wickets. Against a batting team more concerned with getting the job done, which is to say properly bringing their varied talents to bear, Hauritz wouldn't have been able to dream of such a spectacular haul in his first Ashes action.
There was no doubt about Ponting's chief concern here last night. His batsmen had brilliantly followed his example when they added three more centuries to his match-changing 150 but when all that effort required the cutting edge of a final thrust to victory it went missing.
This was no doubt partly due to the resistance of Collingwood – and the astonishing survival of Anderson and Panesar, which had a nobility of spirit that managed to survive some grisly attempts at gamesmanship at the end when England sent on their physiotherapist and 12th man to tend to the batsmen, or rather slow down the climactic phase of the game in England's favour.
Ponting's chief worry, though, was that his main strike bowler Mitchell Johnson, who made such a bracing impact in the first innings when his unplayable short ball dismissed England captain Andrew Strauss, was unable to fire the bullets at the end.
Johnson sprayed wildly the overs that might just have broken England. But he failed to apply enough pressure. The vast superiority Australia created over four days drained away. It meant England, suddenly, were a heroic cricket team. Well, that is how it may look some time in the future. For the moment, England will only celebrate at their own risk.Reuse content