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Triumph of survival on day for ages

In the end it came down to a battle between Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, tail-end Charlies who will never be forgotten now in that secondary capacity, and the last that England, despairing England could throw at them.

When Lee raised his bat in the triumph of survival, he was merely finishing the epic work of his captain Ricky Ponting. But the nerve to withstand the last three balls from Steve Harmison - the man who broke Australia at Edgbaston last weekend - belonged in a category of its own. It was a dramatic capsule of the most draining kind, and to that Ponting, back in the pavilion after his superb day of personal resurrection, would no doubt be the first to agree.

It was already a day for the cricket ages. You could see that it would be before a ball was bowled and thousands streamed away from the old ground after being told every ticket had been taken.

Even the few among them in the blazers and the club ties had the faces of street urchins shooed from the glittering window of a five-star restaurant, and they were right to be so disappointed. Long before the final act of the day-long drama, the biggest crowd at Old Trafford since the Australians of Bill Lawry beat Peter May's England in 1961 - and Richie Benaud bowled the England captain for nought - knew it was part of one of the richest, most gripping passages in the history of Test cricket.

Some might have been inclined to talk, or at least think, of anticlimax after the drive to an apparently inevitable English victory foundered on the astonishing resistance of Ponting.

Yes, of course the national yearning was for a spectacular Ashes breakthrough by Michael Vaughan's young team - a team who for two years had been preparing themselves for this chance to break down 18 years of Australian domination - but sometimes the gap between what is desired and what is possible becomes simply Himalayan in scale.

That's how it began to look to the most passionate supporters of England as the old pavilion clock counted down the minutes, the overs and the light, and Ponting and Warne, who were alleged to have been at each other's throats in the bitterness of defeat in the second Test at Edgbaston, made an alliance that might just have saved the Australian cause in this staggering collision of entrenched power and trusting ambition. Now the captain and his most celebrated player fused into an extraordinary block of unbudgeable Aussie will.

From Warne it was another example of his extraordinary ability to roll back the boundaries of the possible on a cricket field - one made all the more amazing last night when he walked out at precisely the moment it seemed that England had once again broken down Australia's once legendary resistance to the idea of defeat. Ponting had gambled on the stonewall defensive technique of Jason Gillespie after Michael Clarke, hobbling in pain with a bad back for most of the match, fell to a beautiful Simon Jones delivery after supporting his captain quite superbly.

Gillespie, for once, found himself struggling to fend off the impassioned assault of hugely committed Test-quality bowlers. Matthew Hoggard did the damage when he got through the most obdurate forward defensive stroke in the upper echelons of tail-end batsmanship. This left us with the latest challenge to face Warne in the most dramatic autumn of his career. For so long - and in all the circumstances of his recent performances with both bat and ball this wasn't the greatest of surprises - he was again staggering in his presence and his nerve.

Indeed, there was a sobering point for the English spirit when the unthinkable became something that could no longer be rejected out of hand. With Ponting reaching down for the innings of his career, might Warne just be capable of helping him to conjure the runs for the most unlikely Test victory of all time? That idea, which would have been so fanciful when Australia faced the mountainous task of surviving three sessions and 35 minutes beneath the shadow of a target of 423 runs, was growing hugely right to the moment when he lost his wicket in another moment drawn from cricket fantasy.

That Geraint Jones, the embattled wicketkeeper who is fighting for his place in this England side, should make the crucial catch, and that it should be one brushing the miraculous, was in the end simply consistent with all that had flowed from the moment the action unfolded at Lord's last month. Andrew Flintoff, who had done so much to drive England to this point of dominance, delivered the ball that squirted off Warne's bat and into the slips. There it flew off Andrew Strauss and was picked an inch off the ground by Jones. On Saturday night Jones had missed a stumping off Warne, then dropped a simple catch. In 48 hours he had travelled as far as is possible in the upper levels of sport. It was then almost a formality that he should take the catch, off Harmison, that sent back the ultimately heroic Ponting.

There were four overs left when one of the greatest acts of defiance ever seen on a cricket field was brought to a close. Ponting scored 156, but that meant virtually nothing. He batted for the longest day Australian - and English - cricket will ever know; and the fact that England, this, battling, fighting England could not break down the resistance of a team who are supposedly heading into the sunset makes the rest of this Ashes series into a class of competition entirely of its own.