Derek Pringle in Australia : A glimmer of light in a dark age England's quest for the Ashes ends in frustration but comfort can be drawn from a fighting performance

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The Ashes stay where they were, but at least England's performance in last week's Third Test showed there is still something glowing in the embers of English cricket. It may be a while before it once again bursts into flame, but on the evidence of the riveting draw at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the kindling is in place. All that is needed is for the dead wood to be removed and a few more bright young sparks like Darren Gough and John Crawley to be brought in.

Sydney apart, there has been little to cheer England supporters. Disconcertingly outplayed in the first two Tests, England seemed to be drifting dangerously out of control. Their captain Michael Atherton, increasingly unsmiling, with jaw clenched tight at the crease looked a man made gaunt by pressure, unable to raise his team's game.

Many came to Sydney to see England self-destruct. Instead, they saw a team regroup in much the same way as they did in Barbados after the humiliations of Trinidad, and England comfortably outplayed Australia for most of the match. Unfortunately, as Mark Taylor would tell Atherton after Australia's frustrating tour of Pakistan, where they dominated a series they eventually lost one-nil, winning more sessions than the opposition does not always guarantee you victory.

There were many unpredictable features of this match. The pitch, so often a snake pit on the last day, proved venomous on the first three days instead as rain and overcast conditions allowed the seamers to reign in a land where spin was once king, a change that clearly upset Shane Warne, whose single wicket was the only one to fall to a spinner throughout the five days This helped England, whose bowlers must have thought they were back in Blighty instead of bushfire country, and they looked notably moreat home when the cloud was about. Just to confuse things further, when the sun did eventually come out on the fourth day, the pitch went flat and so did the match, despite the exhortations of history upon Australia's captain.

Eventually, persistent drizzle juiced up the pitch enough for the second new ball to start making inroads as England were given one last tantalising scent of victory. England had allowed themselves four and a half sessions to bowl out Australia, and it wasn't until the final, albeit extended, one that they began to make any headway.

Afterwards, the England captain thought it disappointing that they had not been able to bowl the opposition out in the time they had set themselves. Disappointed yes, yet somehow relieved as well, as his side had at last performed with credit. When askedwhat he thought had turned England around since their abject display at Melbourne only a few days earlier, he replied :"A day off." The wry grin once more illuminated his young face.

Although winning the toss did not prove crucial, losing it after the humiliation of the Christmas Test would have been a huge blow to Atherton and his men. As it transpired, the pitch deteriorated very little, but the thought of bowling at Australia on it first and facing Shane Warne on it last, would have sapped any remnants of England's confidence before a ball was bowled.

As it was, Australia bowled first, with McDermott and Fleming both moving the ball dramatically off the seam and through the air. English wickets began to tumble until one fresh-faced Lancastrian joined the other to begin a fightback. Together, Atherton and John Crawley put on 174 for the fourth wicket. This was more like the fight Atherton had asked for and got from his men at Brisbane, but was strangely lacking at Melbourne. Atherton has proved a remarkably resilient captain, who is somehow fortified by adversity.

If this proved the largest partnership of England's first innings, the wagging of the tail - the first time it had done so in the series - was a decisive feature. In particular, Darren Gough's swashbuckling 50 and Devon Malcolm's mighty hitting seemed tounnerve the Aussies and for the first time since Allan Border's retirement; tempers boiled over and mistakes were made. Mark Waugh even dropped two catches and if regular Australian onlookers are to be believed, that happens once every leap year.

No less important for England, though, was Fraser's staunch support at the other end. So straight and watchfully did he play that he hardly missed a ball. In all, the last three wickets contributed 112, and it knocked the stuffing out of Aussie confidence.

Nor were the three tailenders any less impressive when it was Australia's turn to bat. For the first time in the series, Gough took the new ball as he and Malcolm kept a full length and testing line. With a working total on the board, Atherton could be much more aggressive in his field placings. The pressure told as first Malcolm and then Gough cut through the upper order while Fraser chiselled away at the middle.

It was while Gough and Fraser were in tandem, with Australia reeling at 65 for eight, that Atherton made a decision that gave Australia a way out. With the follow-on target of 110 still some way off, it soon became apparent that McDermott, who had just joined his becalmed captain, was not going to block. Sensing this, Atherton immediately replaced Fraser with Malcolm at the Paddington End.

The move was a bold one. So far in the series, Atherton has come under increasing criticism for his unimaginative captaincy, a factor that perhaps preyed on his mind when he made this decision. Nevertheless, he appeared to seek consensus from his senior players and Malcolm moved in for the kill. Luck can make or break decisions such as these, and twice McDermott came perilously close to being caught.

In the end, it took an outrageous leg-break from Gough to part Taylor from the crease, but not before Australia had avoided the follow-on and in the nick of time as well, for Gough's next ball ripped out Damien Fleming's stumps and Australia were back inthe hutch for 116, Gough finishing with a Test best of six for 49.

A side bowled out for such a low score considers itself fortunate not to lose the match, a point Mark Taylor made at the end of the game. Unsurprisingly for a team firmly on the back foot, England dithered when they should have gone for the jugular. Sluggish batting, ended by Atherton's declaration with Hick marooned on 98 after the Worcestershire player had patted three deliveries back down the pitch off Fleming, meant that England's lack of urgency failed to let Australia know who was running the game.

Atherton's caution was perhaps understandable, but far better he lose the Test trying to force victory than to settle for a draw. Yet his field placings up until the second new ball were negative. For the second time in the match, Fraser bowled well and his four wickets in 13 deliveries with the second new ball as a rain-freshened pitch allowed the hard seam to bite and spit, brought the game closer than England could have hoped at tea.

The weather had been a dominant factor throughout the Test, but it proved a double-edged sword for England as the game moved to a climax with Atherton unable to use his seam bowlers as the gloom descended, with Australia seven wickets down. And the Australian spinners Warne and May managed to keep their counterparts Tufnell and Hick at bay long enough to secure the draw.

This was a fascinating game of ifs and buts, of missed opportunities and sloppy umpiring. What, for instance, might have happened had John Crawley caught Michael Slater earlier in the day, or had umpire Darrell Hair called for a replay of Mark Taylor's run out?

From England's point of view it was a great improvement, for they dictated this Test match from start to finish, without ever giving the impression that they wanted to win it. Nevertheless, two sterling performances by the forgotten men Crawley and Fraser were overshadowed only by the superb contribution of Darren Gough, an all-round effort which rightly won him the man-of- the-match award.

As Atherton acknowledged at the press conference after the match, Gough is the liveliest presence he's seen in the dressing-room since during his time as an England player. So much so, he added, that you can sense the others feeding off his optimism. "I just wish we could start a series well instead of leaving it until we are behind," the England captain said. "We need to perform to our potential. Deep down, we need to believe in ourselves more often. As Goughie says: `If we don't believe i n ourselves,who will?' "