The Ashes are coming home. If that is the kind of reckless statement designed to invoke a miraculous rearguard action or an act of God to prevent it coming to pass, it can also be said with certainty that it will require both to stop England reclaiming the prize.
After a bizarrely fluctuating series, they unerringly took the Fifth Test away from Australia yesterday. By the time England's second innings had ended in declaration, just before 5pm, Australia were left either needing 546 to win or to bat some 200 overs to force a draw and thus retain the trophy.
There is still work to do, and a lot of it if the sun shines on a pitch which is no longer a terror track either in reality (which it never was) or in the players' minds (which it became fairly early on the first morning, at the first sign of a sprinkling of dust). But it is wearing naturally and there is turn and Australia, who had reduced their arrears to 465, will have to defy several facets of cricketing history and logic.
This state of affairs was difficult to envisage when play began on Thursday morning. England had been so comprehensively outplayed in the previous match, which allowed the tourists to draw level at 1-1, that it was possible to fear for their future as cricketers. In some cases that concern still exists but by any standards it has been a comprehensive response.
The selectors' decision to drop Ravi Bopara and invite Jonathan Trott to make his debut was not only vindicated but made to appear a stroke of genius. Trott, who batted with enviable control throughout, made 119 yesterday to supplement his important 41 in England's first innings.
He was the fulcrum of an innings which was given a solid base by the captain, Andrew Strauss, and was frequently scintillating as it neared its end. By then England were not quite toying with Australia but they were having considerable fun as a succession of late-middle-order batsmen came in and gave lessons in long-handle Test-match batting. Joyful it was to watch, as well. The spectators loved it and there is still something about The Oval in a late summer Test that cannot be matched on any other English ground. They almost will memorable performances from the home team.
If there remain doubts about Trott's credentials to play for England, since he is South African, they were submerged by an outpouring of genuine happiness when he reached his hundred. It was greeted by an excited crowd as if he were a combination of CB Fry and Raffles and really they did not care if he came from Mars, as long as he was helping to bag the Ashes.
Trott's innings, which began when England were in a spot of bother on Friday night, spanned five hours and while it possessed few memorable shots it contained no false ones either. Only when he was in the nineties was his hundred placed agonisingly in doubt for a moment, as the ball rolled back off an inside edge from a defensive stroke and went by the leg stump.
Undisturbed, he drove the next ball square for two and clipped the one after that through mid-wicket for four. It made him the 18th England player to score a hundred in his first Test match; the seventh against Australia; and the third against Australia to be born outside England, following Ranjitsinhji and the Nawab of Pataudi snr. Of more immediate pertinence, it was only the second England hundred of this series.
From the composed manner in which he conducted himself, it will not be his last in Test cricket. He was helped by the fact that Australia did not bowl especially well, for the gusto had left their game, the demons had fled the pitch and they had no first-rank spinner. The surface was the object of some opprobrium in the first two days although the feeling was that if it had sued for slander it might have won considerable damages.
True, it was imperfect and some balls went through the top as others turned, but it was not a minefield. Australia were bowled out for 160, the decisive innings of the series – partly because Stuart Broad produced a spell which could not have been more inspired or inspiring had it had an accompaniment written by Mozart, partly because they allowed themselves to believe that the pitch was coming to get them. For cricketers, the demons in the mind are always more incisive than the demons in the pitch.
England, on the other hand, had no demons with which to contend because they were so far ahead It was unmistakable that the pitch had flattened. Crucially, however, it was still taking spin and Australia had only a mixed trio of twirlers with no specialist skillt. Marcus North, two-century hero of the series, had to bowl 30 overs, something he has managed only once for any of the five English counties he has represented.
That North took four wickets could only encourage the aspirations of England's off spinner, Graeme Swann, pictured left. If Australia were to get out of this everything would be forgotten of course but their decision not to play a spinner – when England were on the verge of playing two – will always seem extraordinary.
Trott, while a model of calm, could count himself fortunate to have his captain as partner at the start of the day. Strauss has been England's player of the series for all manner of reasons but one of them is the fact that his batting has been so determined. Once more Strauss was in the best of order and all through the morning England were untroubled. On the stroke of lunch he launched into a drive against North, the ball gripped and he was caught at slip.
Three balls later, the new batsman, Matt Prior, drove a ball into Ricky Ponting's mouth at silly point. It was all Ponting needed, one in the gob.
In the afternoon, after Prior was run out, there was much brio about England. Andrew Flintoff was given a reception fitting a hero and after he went back 18 balls later, Stuart Broad played with delicious, upright audacity and Swann smote 63 from 60 balls in a 90-run partnership with Trott.
A wicket or two then would have set the seal on matters but there was no way past Simon Katich and Shane Watson, who put on 80, their third half-century stand in three matches. They need a few more yet but England still went to bed last night dreaming terracotta dreams.
The Oval Scoreboard
Third day of five; England won toss
England – First innings 332
(I R Bell 72, A J Strauss 55; P M Siddle 4-75)
Australia – First innings 160
(S M Katich 50; S C J Broad 5-37, G P Swann 4-38)
England - Second innings
A J Strauss c Clarke b North
(191 balls, 8 fours): 75
I J L Trott c North b Clark
(193 balls, 12 fours):119
M J Prior run out (Katich)
(9 balls, 1 four): 4
A Flintoff c Siddle b North
(18 balls, 4 fours): 22
S C J Broad c Ponting b North
(35 balls, 5 fours): 29
G P Swann c Haddin b Hilfenhaus
(55 balls, 9 fours): 63
J M Anderson not out
(29 balls, 2 fours): 15
Extras (b 1, lb 15, w 7, nb 9): 32
Total (9 wkts dec, 95 overs): 373
Fall (cont): 4-157 (Strauss), 5-168 (Prior), 6-200 (Flintoff), 7-243 (Broad), 8-333 (Swann), 9-373 (Trott).
Bowling: B W Hilfenhaus 11-1-58-1, P M Siddle 17-3-69-0, M J North 30-4-98-4, M G Johnson 17-1-60-2, S M Katich 5-2-9-0, S R Clark 12-2-43-1, M J Clarke 3-0-20-0.
Australia – Second innings
S R Watson not out
(69 balls, 5 fours): 31
S M Katich not out
(53 balls, 7 fours): 42
Extras (b 4, lb 1, nb 2): 7
Total (0 wkts, 20 overs): 80
To bat: *R T Ponting, M E K Hussey, M J Clarke, M J North, †B J Haddin, M G Johnson, P M Siddle, S R Clark, B W Hilfenhaus.
Bowling: J M Anderson 4-1-13-0, A Flintoff 3-0-14-0, S J Harmison 5-1-24-0, G P Swann 5-0-19-0, S C J Broad 3-1-5-0.
Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pak) & B F Bowden (NZ).
Third umpire: P J Hartley.
Match referee: R S Madugalle (SL).
Series level at 1-1 after four Tests.
Century duty for England
Hundreds on Ashes debut:
G P Thorpe, 114 no, 1 Jul 1993
WG Grace, 152, 6 Sep 1880
R E Foster, 287, 11 Dec 1903
IJL Trott, 119, 20 Aug 2009
Hundreds on test debut:
MJ Prior, 126 no, 17 May 2007
AN Cook, 104 no, 1 Mar 2006
AJ Strauss 112, 20 May 2004
FC Hayes 106 no, 26 Jul 1973
JH Hampshire, 107, 26 Jun 1969
CA Milton, 104 no, 3 Jul 1958
PBH May, 138, 26 Jul 1951
SC Griffith, 140, 11 Feb 1948
PA Gibb, 106, 24 Dec 1938