Stephen Brenkley: Heaven waits as a cricket nation prays

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The Independent Online

For once, the billing is not entirely born of the urge to ignore the past and inflate the status of all current human events. The Fifth Test of the 2005 Ashes is, at the least, the most significant played by England for 52 years.

By the time it begins, Australia will have held the Ashes for 16 years and 38 days, having won eight consecutive series. In 1953, those figures were 18 years and 358 days and six series. In both cases a great team were in decline, if not disarray, in both cases nobody could quite believe what was happening.

As now, the nation was rapt by events as a team led by a Yorkshireman (Len Hutton then, Michael Vaughan now) started to make the people believe again. In this summer's series three of the matches have been of the sort that you could not take your eyes off while being unbearable to watch at the same time. They were compelling without being so close in 1953. Grounds were full and a total of 549,650 watched the series. This year, some 600,000 will have witnessed the games if the last one goes the distance, as it probably will because the weather may well intervene.

There are differences. Then, millions of people did not watch the matches on television because millions of people did not have television, despite the surge in purchases prompted by that summer's coronation. Then, sponsorship was alien to the game and the present sponsors, npower, were not even a twinkle in the eye of their German parent company.

And then, England, regardless of abundant optimism in the country, had clung on to the Aussies' coat-tails, only once gaining a first-innings lead and twice having to fight like tigers for a draw. It was still 0-0 going to The Oval.

This time it is Australia who need to win, this time it is England who have made the running after going down to a heavy defeat (shades of the 1954-55 series there). It is indubitable that England deserve to regain the Ashes, not least because they have confounded so many expectations. It is equally indubitable that they will assume anything at their peril, which gave slight cause for concern the other day.

The testimonial match for Michael Vaughan at Leeds on Wednesday, attended by most of the England team, exuded a mild air of triumphalism, a tad redolent of the Labour Party rally up the road in Sheffield on the eve of the 1992 General Election. And look what happened there. Maybe it was the media fanning the flames, not the players.

Both teams are desperate to be at full strength, both have grave injury doubts. Simon Jones, England's new warrior, is struggling with a soft-tissue ankle injury, Glenn McGrath, Australia's old one, has tennis elbow. Both are making progress but the feeling is that the odds are stacked against both.

So crucial is Jones's ability to reverse- swing that England will have a real poser of whom to pick in his place. The names of Chris Tremlett, 12th man throughout the series, Paul Collingwood and Andrew Caddick keep getting mentioned. The form bowler in county cricket is Nottinghamshire's left-arm swinger Ryan Sidebottom, who won one Test cap in 2001. Tremlett could expect to be picked given this selection panel's insistence on consistency, but the most important match ever is hardly the time to make a Test debut. Collingwood would be an eminently sensible defensive option.

Australia have nothing and everything to lose at The Brit Oval, a place also unheard-of 52 years ago. Knowing they must win, they can cast all caution to the winds, or go home to opprobrium anyway. Yet England have played so assertively after the overwhelming defeat in the first match, winning almost every session on every day, that it is justifiable to think that they have it in them to see off the world champions.

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, is not given either to overstatement or overexcitement, but he sounded as though he too might have been taken by surprise by the response after Lord's and the meeting that took place after it between him and captain Vaughan. "It was crunch time and it was a key meeting," he said. "We discussed the attitude of the players and how we could lift them.

"We knew we had to be aggressive, and I think we forgot that during the one-day series and might have switched off at Lord's. The key was never to talk of or mention failure. What Michael did was offer a clear direction, and if we waited for the Aussies to come to us after Lord's, we would lose the series."

More histories of this compelling series will eventually be written than there are cover versions of "My Way". But some consensus may eventually be possible. If there was a pivotal point it was the way in which Marcus Trescothick, especially, and Andrew Strauss took on the Australian attack sans Glenn McGrath after England had startlingly been put in at Edgbaston.

It was the admirable Trescothick at his absolute best (how he deserved a century) and it seemed to tell the others that they no longer had to toil under the Australian yoke. Trescothick may not move his feet too much but he moves hearts. Fletcher has been his biggest fan since plucking him from deep in the shires in 2000, when England were, as usual, deep in something else altogether.

"He's been very important," said Fletcher. "He was the one who set the tone. It's easier for the others to follow when the man at the top has shown the way. He's been crucial. He kept very quiet about what the Aussies were saying about him and didn't get sucked in. He must have thought about it, but he showed his character by responding on the field."

Character is what Fletcher has sought in his players as much as ability, the sort of character he likes and supposes may benefit his team. He has never said as much, but it is probably why, ultimately, he preferred Geraint Jones to Chris Read. Character, then, and Fletcher and Vaughan's scrupulous planning, backed by the captain's instinctively imaginative bowling changes.

In his heart and almost his words, Fletcher probably thought this team's best opportunity of wresting the great prize would be in Australia in 2006-07. "I'm not surprised by the team's confidence but I am surprised we have managed to get into this position so early," he said.

Now, the whole cricket-crazy country should pray for the right ankle belonging to Simon Jones to get better. In the end it may easily come down to the old verity of catches win matches for England. But England can reclaim the Ashes.