Ponting retains heroic bottle so put the celebrations on ice

That surely is the lesson of Old Trafford, where the the glass slipped so devastatingly. It is one that in the aftermath of the Australian defiance was utterly ignored by Vaughan's predecessor, Nasser Hussain. Here is an English cricketer, and leader, with much credit in the bank. If it is Vaughan who has carried the team to the edge of a great victory, if he has at times engaged the challenge of beating Australia so brilliantly, he would no doubt acknowledge that Hussain did much to instil a set of tougher values in a team for whom surrender was too frequently far from the last option.

But then the job isn't done - not quite yet, a fact which you wouldn't have gathered from Hussain's post-match declaration in the Manchester dusk. He said: "Heroes. Absolute heroes. Each and every member of the England team was absolutely brilliant at Old Trafford. People may analyse the ifs and buts and may wonder what might have been, but the bottom line is that this was another remarkable performance."

Nasser is right about the remarkable performance; wrong about the bottom line. The bottom line is that Australia stole the draw with the fantastic commitment of bone-deep champions. They may not be what they were, they may be heading for the shadows that sooner or later come to even the greatest performers, but the heroes of the third Test at Old Trafford - in absolute, bottom-line terms - carried the names Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne and Brett Lee.

No doubt it's true there were performances of deep talent - and character - from Vaughan and Andrew Strauss, Andrew Flintoff and Ian Bell. Simon Jones bowled himself into centre stage as the series moves towards its climactic phase.

But absolute heroes are heroic absolutely. England didn't win the Test they had dominated for four days. Why? Because they could not find a way to put away champions who refused to accept something that the rest of the cricket world thought was written plainly in the sky. They could not accept they were beaten.

The absolute hero of the Old Trafford Test was unquestionably Ponting. He did not perform forlorn gallantry. He moved a sporting mountain. He got from under an avalanche of circumstance that seemed determined to bury his ambition to join a tradition of successful Australian captains such as Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh, and he played the innings of his life. This is saying so much about a man who came into this series with a huge body of work, one of just three Australians to produce four double centuries in Test cricket - Sir Don Bradman and Greg Chappell were the others - and with an average of of 56 at the highest level of the game. However, that mountain of achievement was being scaled down before our eyes. His team-mates were said to be dismayed by some of his decision-making. There was talk of rebellion in the air. His work at the batting crease was haemorrhaging authority.

That was the oppressive weight he carried to the wicket seven balls into the last day of a Test match which seemed a certain candidate to be one that marked the loosening of Australia's iron grip on world cricket. That was the mountain of doubt he eroded, ball by ball, over by over, session by session.

Where did Ponting's work leave Vaughan's England? At 1-1 in a series that at the dawn they seemed to have at their mercy. That, Nasser Hussain should know, is where the bottom line starts and finishes for the moment. The former captain may prove right in his theory that the knowledge that they have now twice outplayed the world champions will serve England well in the fourth and fifth Tests, at Trent Bridge and The Oval respectively. Maybe it is true that the psychological battle is all but won by this England team.

However, there are no prizes for guessing which team felt the rush of elation in the Old Trafford pavilion on Monday night. It wasn't Vaughan's England. It was the team who yet again had refused to quit.

This is not to belittle the efforts of an England side who have grown superbly during this summer. It is just to say that if the Australians are indeed going down, it seems certain now that even in defeat they will surely define the nature of champions. For this reason alone, the cork should stay in the bottle. That way, if it is due, the wine will taste all the finer.

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