James Lawton: Graeme Swann's pure genius cracks stout Aussies
Spinner dismisses Smith and Hughes with two classy deliveries to swing momentum of this absorbing contest back towards England ahead of today's enthralling finale
When all the superlatives were spent, when it seemed quite impossible to imagine this chameleon of a Test producing still another vivid skin colour, the hardest men in sport and, often in life, came to an eloquent assessment of their own.
The odds-makers decided, after precisely three days and two sessions of extraordinary and at times scarcely believable action, that the no-hope Australians and their once dismissive English hosts could no longer be separated.
They were both listed at 10-11 or, as they would say in the betting halls of Las Vegas, they were involved in a "pick-um", one of those contests which have come to defy normal analysis.
This was the most extraordinary fact of all when you remembered how a near battalion of the greatest names in cricket had been so unstinting in their contempt for the resources of an Australian squad widely charged with being the weakest in the history of the Ashes. Former England captains Sir Ian Botham, David Gower and Andrew Flintoff all said that the Australians were facing not just defeat but devastation in this English summer and, then on home soil, perhaps by as much as 10-0.
So for the best part of four days such dire predictions had been speared by the most stunning deeds from the discounted men in the baggy green caps – and then, to rack up the drama still on another level on a day of sapping heat, the verdict of the betting men was only minutes old when England struck what might just have been the irretrievable, maybe killing blows.
Stuart Broad, who had brought such gut-deep tension on Friday evening when he refused to walk after being so plainly caught by Australia's captain Michael Clarke, ushered in what might have been the last crescendo when he jumped up into the air three times before launching another spell of most aggressive bowling.
The first delivery didn't go well. Steve Smith, a half-century maker in the first innings, promptly smashed him to the boundary. Australia, with just three wickets down and the heroic, teenage tail-ender Ashton Agar held in reserve, had edged past the halfway mark in their winning target of 311 runs and, if you were looking for still another pivotal moment, this might just have been the one.
The Australians, surely, had fought through to achieve another burst of momentum, but then Broad sent back Clarke, a player who may have been in crisis but IS still clearly a man of the highest class. This was, it was apparent quickly enough, just another staggering passage in a narrative which hour by hour, day by day, has carried the nation from the exhilaration of Andy Murray's Wimbledon triumph to the sense of intrigue which is unique to Test cricket, the game which here these last few days has been in a tumult of redefining itself.
Graeme Swann, the native son who had come into the series talking jovially of England's chances of winning fresh Ashes glory – and maybe even a knighthood or two – was having his own moment of desperate reappraisal. For a time he looked to have been made restive by the slow pitch which was responding too slowly to his wiles. He looked, frankly, like a man facing an excess of pressure and frustration – then he produced two deliveries touching pure genius. It was almost what we had come to expect in a first Test which has created a life and a drama all of its own but that put no limit on the celebrations when Swann ripped away the wickets of first Smith, the man who had looked most likely to push Australia briskly to their target, and then one of their first-innings heroes, Phil Hughes.
Surely, we had come to the point where the more normal conventions of the game took command, when the laws of averages and something we used to call probability assumed their old prominence.
It was a fair assumption as Clarke, Smith and Hughes made their way back to the pavilion, forlorn in the necessity to maybe face a certain reality. Yet why would we slip into those old presumptions about how even the most astonishing Test matches are supposed to close?
What was the incentive, you had to wonder, when who should be returning to the battleground, promoted three batting places in the order after his miraculous 98, was the extraordinary Agar.
He survived to the end with the dour, recalled veteran Brad Haddin, and this morning they will walk out in need of 137 runs for an astounding triumph, one to place at the heart of any summer, any epoch of the most amazing sport. We are told the ground will be jammed to the rafters, that there is a sell-out for cricket that could last not much longer than a few explosive minutes. On the other hand, it might just carry us down all our years.
This is a Test designed not so much to promote a game but make all who see it glad to be alive.
The umpire strikes back
This Test has been about reviews and umpiring controversies.
England made representations to the International Cricket Council after Jonathan Trott was given out lbw on review in England's first innings – third umpire Marais Erasmus contentiously overruling on-field umpire Aleem Dar's not out verdict despite missing a crucial Hot Spot replay. Then on day three, Dar somehow missed a clear edge from Stuart Broad that was caught at slip via a deflection off wicketkeeper Brad Haddin. Broad declined to walk and Australia were unable to refer it having used all their reviews.
But if either side were hoping to have seen the last of Erasmus and Dar they can think again.
Since the demotion of Asad Rauf and Billy Bowden from ICC's elite umpiring panel, eight of the 12 top-tier officials come from England and Australia and are ineligible to stand in the Ashes.
Remaining umpires for the series:
2nd Test at Lord's:
Umpires – Marais Erasmus (South Africa), Kumar Dharmasena (Sri Lanka). Third Umpire – Tony Hill (New Zealand).
3rd Test at Old Trafford: Umpires – Hill, Erasmus. Third Umpire – Dharmasena.
4th Test at Durham: Umpires - Aleem Dar (Pakistan), Hill. Third umpire - Erasmus.
5th Test at The Oval: Umpires – Dar, Dharmasena. Third Umpire – Hill.
Highest run chases in England
v West Indies 344 (1984, Lord's): West Indies won by 9 wickets
v Australia 315 (2001, Headingley): England won by 6 wickets
v Australia 311 (2013, Trent Bridge)
v New Zealand 294 (2008, Old Trafford): England won by 6 wickets
v New Zealand 284 (2004, Trent Bridge): England won by 4 wickets
v South Africa 283 (2008, Edgbaston): South Africa won by 5 wickets
v New Zealand 282 (2004, Lord's): England won by 7 wickets
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