Nick Townsend: Oval wash-out would not cheapen England's victory

The rains fell once more and England's expectations rose. It had been England's downpour, maybe Australia's downfall

What should be the attitude? Luxuriate in the short-term pleasures of witnessing Freddie & Co attempt to dislodge the tourists or opt for the probable long-term benefits of enduring Sodden Saturday under leaden skies watching Australia's Ashes being washed away? A curious dilemma. For some there could be no doubt. On the reverse of the cards bearing the inscription "4" and "6" they had scribbed a new legend: "Bad Light?"

A spirit of adventure, the bedrock of England's approach over what has been a mere seven weeks but which feels like at least double that, was a necessary first casualty of war. When the hosts have ascended from the basement of despair, when Nasser Hussain was booed after a series defeat by New Zealand six years ago here, to the penthouse of pre-eminence, with Michael Vaughan's men poised for immortality, this was no time to yearn for the niceties of an outright Test victory.

That Aussie defiance, already costly for England, required little encouragement. During the three enforced intervals yesterday, one pondered how the old ground looked 65 years ago, when, furnished with barbed-wire and an anti-aircraft gun, it had been turned into a makeshift World War II POW camp. No prisoners ever arrived then. Ponting's men were determined that England would not be their captors now.

In this series, when everyone - like children in the school play - has had their opportunity to dance in the spotlight, Justin Langer has been a somewhat reluctant performer and Hayden decidedly coy. There had even been suggestions that the latter's Test days might have been numbered at precisely two, the remaining ones here. But when Australia needed a couple of centurions, they stood up, spears at ready. Langer's feat was rewarded with a bear-hug from Hayden, his fellow opener. He responded with a kiss blown to Aussie supporters, whose vocal cords were at last being oiled. Then the rains fell once more. And again. And England expectations rose. It had been England's downpour, maybe Australia's downfall. It may be not a wholly satisfactory way to secure a series, but England's previous three performances had already yielded moral justification if that proves to be tomorrow's denoument.

That will certainly be sufficient finally to place a flame to the gaseous outpouring from the visitors earlier in the summer. Such claims as Glenn McGrath's estimation of a 5-0 wipe-out now appear as empty as the contents of those famous old gasometers. Domestically, it will be a satisfactory response to the hysteria which has been fuelled by newspapers, radio and TV, who have all offered their various attempts to demystify the game.

BBC's Radio 5 Live have obligingly offered a kind of Cricket for Dummies. And sometimes with amusing consequences. Within a broadcasting box replete with former England and Aussie players, the station's Jane Garvey had decided to inquire whether Shane Warne suffered as much physically as the pacemen during a game. "So, does Shane..." she began, before realising that she could be unwittingly wading into ambiguous waters... "Erm, does Shane, well, need a physiotherapy afterwards?" Mike Gatting interrupted, to unabashed merriment all round: "I think what you're trying to say, Jane, is 'Does Shane get stiff after a match?' "

Speaking of Warne, it requires two to tangle on that greensward and the series has been enriched by the nature, quality and sheer guts of the opposition. Warne has been a delight, clutching ball, bat, or holding his questioners in thrall during any interview. "I'll try to knock 'em out as quickly as possible... and then put my feet up for a couple of hours," he ventured impishly on Friday morning before the start of play. Even the great optimist could not have foreseen how conservative that prediction would prove.

Sadly, it will be another four years, when Australia return, before a similar summer of love for the game grips the nation. Cricket may have come home, but how can it be persuaded to remain there when there are potent rivals? The skies crackling with indignation on Friday afternoon sounded awfully like the disapproval of the great god football which, notwithstanding Sven Goran Eriksson's efforts, will assail us through to Germany 2006.

It is familiarity with characters capable of invading the national psyche which iscrucial to cricket's enduring appeal in the meantime. Captain Vaughan and coach Duncan Fletcher may be the architects of a series which can be assessed a triumph come what may, but Andrew Flintoff is the product placement, cricket's Bob the Builder.

But what next in the immediate future? Possibly that Tuesday cavalcade around London, emulating Jonny and his pals? Flintoff named as BBC Sports Personality of the Year? New Year honours for all? There are also winter tours of Pakistan and India and the visit of Sri Lanka and Pakistan next summer, then Australia on their home territory, followed by the World Cup in the West Indies. Can the fascination here be sustained?

Test cricket has emerged like a butterfly on the wing. You just fear that its life as newly-nurtured national interest could prove frustratingly transitory.

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