Of course it is not over yet, hardly half-way through. Always risky to judge a play with the female interest tied up, the hero languishing in jail and two acts remaining. Australia could still win at Trent Bridge and romp to the 3-1 victory that was widely forecast before the series began. So far, though, so very good. Certainly, the series has lived up to expectations and hardly anything does that; the Taj Mahal, African sunsets, Border collies, Sauvignon blanc and catching a wave maybe, but that's about it.
Beyond dispute, this Ashes confrontation has been wonderful as a ferocious and desperate challenger suffers an early fall, rises to his feet, shrugs off the blow, shakes himself down and in this moment of revelation, this time of crisis, launches the sort of counter-attack needed to convince observers that, far from being over, the fight has just begun.
Among series played in the last 25 years, only the epics in the West Indies and India bear comparison with the fury of this contest. Curiously, Australia did not win either series. In the Caribbean, Brian Lara produced the most brilliant sustained display of batting it has been my privilege to watch. On the subcontinent Very Very Special Laxman played the innings of his life as his team recovered from a heavy defeat and the humiliation of a follow-on to win a match at Eden Gardens. They took the series, too, scraping home in a tight finish at Madras. It was noisy, exciting, exhausting and glorious.
Generally, it takes an inspired performer rising to the peak of his powers to stop these Australians. Even they cannot do it alone. Laxman and Lara were helped by capable, modest partners prepared to play second fiddle. Dr Johnson needed his Boswell.
England have produced their own champion, a true warrior, a man previously large in limb but small in thought, a man now prepared to take on all comers. He, too, has an assistant, a blue-haired fellow whose extroversion has helped to release the Lancastrian's dormant spirit.
Having seen every ball of those matches in the Caribbean and India, having watched the ground filling on the fifth day in Barbados as news spread that Lara was moving, having heard the cacophony in Kolkata as Australian wickets fell on that last evening, I can confirm that these present encounters have surpassed even those memorable confrontations. When Lara was batting or Curtly Ambrose bowling the cricket in the West Indies was compelling. Otherwise it was often mundane. And the Indian series, though magnificent, could not quite match the sustained tension of this Ashes campaign.
Lord's was the start of it: the ground a picture; the pitch fast; every ticket sold; and expectations through the roof. Responding to the atmosphere, the Australians attacked their opponents like wolves upon a buck. England stood their ground until the third day when, quite suddenly, they fell back and were routed. England's submission renewed fears that the series had been oversold.
But Michael Vaughan and his players learnt their lesson. Never back off against Australia. Birmingham was an epic. Disturbed by the loss of their best fast bowler on the first morning, and misreading the pitch, the Australians made their first serious mistake at Edgbaston by giving England first use of a friendly surface. Human error has its part to play in these dramas. Stress does funny things to the mind.
Australia were outplayed and still nearly won. On the cusp of victory the Englishmen fell back. Did you suppose the champions would go down without a struggle? They almost stole the match from under the very noses of their increasingly alarmed hosts. Shane Warne, Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz took their side to within a boundary of victory on an extraordinary fourth morning that might have lasted five minutes and still attracted a full house. The runs kept coming and before long the hosts were in a pickle and their supporters were torn between nervous silence and roared support. Again there was a lesson. Never let your opponents smell fear.
At last came the relief of a final wicket taken in a blur of glove, celebration and despair. And then glory again as the home hero did not join his excited comrades but instead marched across to commiserate with his valiant but defeated foes. At that moment Andrew Flintoff demonstrated that he has greatness within.
Next came Manchester, the crowds on that fifth morning, Ricky Ponting's supreme innings and the unbearable tension of the denouement. And it was not a movie. It was happening before our very eyes, with real people, their hopes, dreams and failings. And all this fuss over a bit of leather, a hunk of wood, and a ridiculous game that lasts five days and sometimes ends with honours even. Has there ever been a better series? I doubt it.Reuse content