Peter Roebuck: Bravado defeats bravery at the last

What a match! What a last hour! The dictionary scarcely contains words sufficient to capture the drama of the occasion. Seldom even in the annals of Ashes cricket has any match been as tense, as utterly compelling from the first ball to the very last as this epic in white clothes. It was hard to believe it was happening, yet there it was before our very eyes.

The cricket was spellbinding as Australian tail-enders tried to bring off one of the game's great escapes in the face of fierce bowling. A wicket was lost and still the visitors refused to lie down. Australia's fast bowlers chiselled away at the target till it came agonisingly close. Then came that last desperate moment as a low catch was held, whereupon the ground erupted.

Infinitely to their relief, England could finally start to celebrate a wonderful victory secured by a vivid performance. Supporters had craved the old bulldog spirit and their team did them proud. Michael Vaughan's men played some of the most exhilarating cricket seen in years from any Test side. Veterans found fault with their batting, but the dismissals were merely the reverse of the aggression that turned their fortunes around. Players cannot both be congratulated for daring to attack and chided for chancing their arms. This was a magnificent contest and the rest is for the tiddlers.

Summoning every ounce of nerve at their disposal, the hosts attacked. By doing so, they caught their opponents off guard. Vaughan's men had the upper hand from the opening delivery. At Lord's, Australia managed to recover. This time England did not give them as much leeway, or not until the nerve-racking denouement.

Not that the locals were convinced their side were ahead till the deed was done. Throughout the fourth morning supporters were on tenterhooks and their worst fears were confirmed as the Australians crept ever closer to an improbable target. Spectators burdened with bitter memories kept believing that Australia must rise from the ashes, and they nearly did.

England owed much to a gigantic contribution from Andrew Flintoff. The Lancastrian set about the Australians with pace, power and bravado. He took the contest by the scruff of the neck and won it from the front by imposing himself upon it.

Stirred into action by Kevin Pietersen on the opening day, the all-rounder bowled with sustained fury and unexpected skill, and hit the ball with such force that the stadium did not seem big enough to contain him.

Flintoff grew in stature with every meaty blow, every searing delivery. Hereafter he will be hard to subdue because his game is built on solid foundations. His battle has always been with himself. His challenge has been to deal with the responsibility created by his gift. Here he became the first English cricketer in 20 years to join the ranks of the great.

Australia's performance was not without merit. That they had a chance in the fourth innings was due to superb stints from Brett Lee and the tireless and artful Shane Warne. Immensely to their credit, too, the Australians fought to the very last. But no one played a substantial innings on a good pitch and too much was given away on the formative first day.

Ponting and his players will realise that they made a hundred mistakes and still only lost by two runs. They will be back. Australia will play a harder, meaner game at Old Trafford and will take an awful lot of beating. A fascinating few weeks lie ahead.

Down to the wire: The tightest finishes in Test match history

* AUSTRALIA v WEST INDIES

First Test, Brisbane, 9-14 December, 1960; tied.

First tied Test. Dismissal of West Indies for 284 on the final morning left hosts needing 232 to win. On the last eight-ball over, the hosts needed six to win, with two wickets left, but with scores level and three balls to go, Wally Grout and Ian Meckiff were run out.

* INDIA v AUSTRALIA First Test, Madras, 18-22 September, 1986; tied. The second tied Test. After a declaration by Allan Border, India needed 348 to win. India reached 204 for 2 but a collapse brought the game to its last over with four needed. Ravi Shastri levelled the scores but Maninder Singh was leg before to Greg Matthews' penultimate ball.

* AUSTRALIA v WEST INDIES

Fourth Test, Adelaide, 23-26 January, 1993; West Indies won by one run.

The smallest winning margin in Test history. After bowling out West Indies for 146, the hosts needed 186 to win but fell to 102 for 8. After getting back into the match, Craig McDermott was caught behind off his helmet, two runs short.

* WEST INDIES v AUSTRALIA

Third Test, Bridgetown, 26-30 March, 1999; West Indies won by one wicket.

Australia had led by 161 on first innings, but after West Indies fell to 248 for 8 chasing 308 to win, Brian Lara protected Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh from the strike to score the last 60 needed virtually on his own to finish on 153 not out.

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