Ian Botham, who was perhaps even more disorientated than the rest of us by the imminence of an England victory, asked a strange rhetorical question in the early hours of yesterday morning. Why on earth, he wondered, was Jason Gillespie batting in a lost-cause fifth Test of a long-dead series with his injured arm bandaged and padded against the hazards of a crumbling pitch and Andrew Caddick's late surge of competitiveness? Even at such an hour, it was maybe not the most taxing of inquiries.
Gillespie, Beefy must have briefly forgotten, is Australian. So, despite his wound, he carried his bat for three runs which were only meaningless if you did not believe the difference between winners and losers is not a passing mood but a lifetime habit.
Andy Bichel also had an injured arm. He scored 49. When Matthew Hayden was stopped from any further contribution by an extremely dubious lbw decision, he put out the glass in the dressing room window. The captain, Steve Waugh, despite scoring a brilliant century two days earlier, one that put him on Sir Don Bradman's mark of 29 centuries in probably his last Test match, completed the final strides of his return from the wicket at a sprint. No one had seen him do that before – but then maybe it was the end, and, if it was, who but him could know quite what tensions had been released?
But then the ball had trickled behind him and removed a bail. The cause of the pain written all over Waugh's normally inscrutable face was, we could be sure, that a random piece of misfortune had denied him the chance to make one last stand for all the principles he had brought to an extraordinary career.
To all of this you might add – and be right to do so – that the Aussies are the world's worst losers. Of course they are. That's why they win so relentlessly.
If Waugh does call it quits later this week – and the expression of his wife as she stood up to join what could very well be his Last Hurrah at the Sydney Cricket Ground suggested he might – he will leave a sweeping legacy for every cricketer who makes a private vow to be great. We were reminded of the force of Waugh's remarkable will in the dog days of another Ashes series two summers ago, when the captain flogged himself for fitness after being carried off with a serious knee injury in the Test at Trent Bridge which had brought the Australians another series win.
A fine century by Mark Butcher at Headingley brought England one of their now traditional consolation victories over the Australians, and in between the rehabilitation work – which, against all odds, saw Waugh return for the final Test at the Oval and wince his way to an innings of 157 not out which underpinned an Australian win by an innings and 25 runs – he watched the play at Leeds with mounting horror.
He was asked why it was so important for him to play at The Oval – the series had been won, Australia were demonstrably superior. "If you start to think like that," he said, "you might as well pack it in. You don't get so long to play this game and you have to take every opportunity you have. I'm captain of Australia and it's my job to be to be finishing the series at The Oval. So that's why I'm working so hard right now. Some time my responsibility will be over, but until it is I know what I have to do."
No doubt that was the imperative which took Gillespie into Caddick's firing line and why one of England's chief pleasures at finally winning on a tour which dragged at their spirits so cruelly was surely that they had beaten a team who still plainly cared so much.
For English observers outside of the imbecilic Barmy Army, there were some other sharp points of encouragement after the horrors of the winter. One was the majestic development of Michael Vaughan. Another was the refusal of the bowlers Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison to be destroyed by their ordeal of fire. Most significant, perhaps, was the captain Nasser Hussain's insistence that everyone should return to the " bottom line" of another 4-1 defence and understand what that meant.
"It's blatantly obvious," he said, "that Test cricket is now being played in completely different conditions to what we play our county cricket in at home." A lesser competitor would have been reduced to gibberish. But Hussain maintained his nerve and his batting and those who have long railed against the evasions and the complacency of the English game have surely recruited a biting witness for the prosecution case.
Losing to Steve Waugh's Australians was never going to be a matter of shame, but failing to learn the most important of lessons would have been a different matter. There could be no better teacher than the man who raced up the steps at the SCG, cursing not a piece of bad luck but the end of the battle.
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