By JOHN LEICESTER
2009-08-24 04:44 AM
Even at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the dramatic way in which Andrew Strauss' squad conjured up this victory _ pure cricket magic at times _ would strain the limits of credulity. Given how unlikely England victory seemed going into the deciding fifth test, its triumph over Australia at The Oval was pulled, with sleight of hand, like a rabbit from a hat. There were moments when the theater was eye-blinkly unreal.
Australia collapsing Friday afternoon to the swing and spin bowling of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann. Australia's captain Ricky Ponting and vice captain Michael Clarke run out for six balls in six crazy minutes on Sunday afternoon _ just as it seemed that the world-record target of 546 runs to win that England had set might not be enough, after all.
And Jonathan Trott's second innings 119 on Saturday, a maiden test century that epitomized how England shook off its horrible defeat in the fourth test at Headingley and found new reserves of grit and concentration on The Oval's cratered but not doctored wicket.
Limited-overs cricket may be all the rage, perhaps even the financial future of the sport, but only test matches like these fully satisfy the appetite. It's the difference between savoring a five-course meal and gorging on junk food.
As Radcliffe, who knows a thing or two about drama, said during a spell in the BBC's commentary box: "Test cricket is like a play in five acts."
How Ponting must wish that he could borrow Potter's magic wand and turn back time.
Back and forth through the summer, fortunes swung between these old adversaries. Both sides struggled, neither was dominant.
Did the best team win? Perhaps not. But England _ sometimes collectively, at other times with individual brilliance _ summoned up its best cricket at crucial junctures. What it lacked in punch, England made up for by making sure that its blows stung when they landed.
"They've won the big moments," said Ponting.
Strauss was equally honest. "When we were bad we were very bad and when we were good we managed to be good enough," he said.
For Australia, the future is uncertain. Having twice lost the Ashes on English soil, Ponting is bracing for questions about his captaincy. For England, its 2005 series win probably ranks as a bigger achievement, considering the quality of players that packed that Australian side. Theirs was a bigger scalp than this side still finding its feet.
Unearthing replacements for the likes of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath or Matthew Hayden _ who whitewashed England just two years ago in Australia _ was never going to be easy. Although this rejuvenated squad still had the never-give-up attitude that is expected of Australian sides, that proved inadequate this summer. Australia's bowling attack for the opening test in Cardiff _ the four frontliners had previously played just 35 tests between them _ couldn't finish off England when it had the chance.
Paul Collingwood's 344-minute second-innings resistance at the crease in Cardiff proved to be one of the pivotal moments for England in this series. "Without him and his innings England would have been in a whole lot of trouble," Ponting said then.
An opening win might have carried Australia through the five-match series. Instead, snatching an unlikely draw felt like a win for England. It took that energy through to victory in the second test at Lord's. Strauss, leading from the front as he did for much of the summer, laid the foundations for that victory with his first innings 161. Andrew Flintoff terrorized the Australia batsmen to clinch the win with 5 for 92 _ a vivid reminder of the great all-rounder he used to be before injuries blunted him.
Flintoff wasn't the pivotal player at The Oval but, ever the showman, he stole the show Sunday in his last test with his 30-yard (meter) throw from mid-on that ripped out Ponting's stump. Flintoff immediately knew the run-out was good, thrusting both arms into the air.
What a fighter Ponting again proved to be. He spat great gobs of blood Saturday after being smacked in the mouth by a ball. On Sunday, he doggedly amassed 66 on a wicket he clearly mistrusted, suspiciously studying it between balls and tampering down offending bumps and chunks of dirt with his bat.
Fittingly, a trumpeter in the crowd played the theme tune from "Rocky." But there was no Hollywood ending for Ponting this time. When run out, he dragged himself from the pitch with the reluctance of a kid sent to bed during his favorite TV program.
Whether England builds from this victory will depend in part on how it gets its players through the punishing schedule of modern cricket without wearing them down. Flintoff was dulled by injury before his time and batsman Kevin Pietersen was lost to an Achilles tendon injury after the Lord's win. But in the likes of Broad and Trott, and in the steady captaincy of Strauss, England's future seems bright.
Then again, it always does after beating the Australians, the oldest but most respected of adversaries.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.