Slow march into pages of history

Andy Farrell waited for the answer to a day of enthralling mystery in Christchurch
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The Independent Online
As any good Test match should, this Christchurch epic posed ever more intriguing questions as the days went on. Come breakfast on the fifth morning and no one knew what to think, not even at the appropriately named Hambledon Guest House.

The building dates back to 1856, marginally longer than England have been playing Test cricket. In 732 previous matches, the tourists had only once passed 300 in the fourth innings to win, a staggering thought. History would be made this day.

Possibly by Daniel Vettori. Could the 18-year-old left-arm spinner, such a dominant figure in only his second Test, really bowl his side to victory? There he was from the start of the day, over the wicket into the rough outside leg stump. Ball after ball. Remix the video and you could have an aid for insomniacs, but here it was gripping edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Stephen Fleming claimed a catch off Andrew Caddick's boot, but his appeal was turned down. Umpire Darrell Hair countered that the ball was dead. It was as alive as the match. Caddick swung Vettori for a huge six - was the spell broken?

How would Fleming, New Zealand's youngest-ever captain, cope on this day? He removed himself as the only slip and went to short midwicket. Caddick swung Heath Davis's next ball his way. Three down. Nasser Hussain joined Mike Atherton.

As so often, so much seemed to rest with the England captain. Everyone - the crowd, the Kiwis, his team-mates and Atherton himself - seemed to concur. Early on he flashed at Davis and great was the chastisement. The feet were moving, the shot selection, mostly, perfect.

If Johannesburg was Atherton's innings, Christchurch was Atherton's match. In the unbeaten first innings, his pulling and hooking returned. Now his driving was sublime. Fleming took the new ball and the runs flowed.

Atherton sent Geoff Allott through the covers for four, then backward of point for three. Against Simon Doull, he clipped off his legs for two, drove square to the boundary and straight for three and his eleventh Test hundred.

Lunch at 203 for 3, 102 to get. Nerves calmed, but need a walk before ingesting. Forty minutes later and the beef and tomato sandwich is spinning in the stomach.

Atherton gone to the demon snarer, Nathan Astle; Hussain done out of the rough, via a glove, by Vettori; Graham Thorpe dancing down the pitch and popping his first ball from the spinner straight back.

"They won't get there now," someone mourned. Six gone for 231, 74 still needed. John Crawley and Dominic Cork both new to the middle. Slow progress. Silence, even the Barmy Army wondering and waiting. Astle and Vettori applying the strangle. Tea and 257 the total, 48 needed.

First over back and Cork cut Vettori for four. Confidence growing again. The boundary found more regularly. Vettori, having bowled 34 out of 36 overs at the northern end, finally takes a break and earns a warm appreciation. Two men high on one of the floodlight pylons, but neither was David Lloyd or Steve Rixon, the respective coaches.

Less than 30 needed now, the Barmy Army find their voice again. Still tense, but surely now? The 300 up with a back-foot drive from Crawley, then Cork squeezing Allott to square leg for victory. Two in a row, our cup flows over. "The Ashes are coming home," sang the Barmy Army.

The Australians may not have let England escape after their poor first two days, but Atherton, the man of the match, seemed determined for the series, and the efforts of the winter, not to be squandered.

Of the England skipper, Rixon said: "The way he went about his job was a personal inspiration. I admire that." Him and all of us.