Even England fans must admit it was worth staying up for

Shane Warne... England's nemesis.   | Photo Credit: Photo: AFP

Mike Marqusee

When I switched on the fifth day's play shortly after midnight, my plan was to watch no more than an hour. Surely this was a Test heading for a draw, played on a somnolent pitch. But, as the commentators noted, if anything was going to happen it would be in the first hour or so.

So I expected nothing more than a drift into Anglo-Australian stalemate and a relatively early night. Besides, I pay Rupert Murdoch for the privilege and like to get my money's worth.

The cricket proved well worth staying up for a marvellous demonstration of the game's capacity for surprise, for sting-in-the-tail theatrics.

Of course, England fans will feel deflated, and who can blame them? This was a painful way to go 2-0 down in an Ashes series.

The advantage

In these circumstances, there's an advantage in not being an England fan, beyond the obvious one of being spared the pain.

You can savour the cricketing moment you can laugh at it (and you have to laugh). You can reel with the topsy-turvy, tragicomic drama, and in the end switch off the telly feeling invigorated, not downcast.

One of the guilty pleasures of sport is the spectacle of (someone else's) collapsing hopes. As a non-English person resident in England for 35 years, and in other respects domesticated, I hope I'm permitted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The particular virtue of Test cricket's unpredictability is that it is not merely random. What happened on the fifth day was foreshadowed earlier.

England secured a small first-innings lead, but appeared tentative throughout. One of Test batting's most demanding disciplines is judging and varying the pace of an innings, finding the right mixture of offence and defence.

On the fifth day, with relentless Australian pressure, England's batsmen looked stranded between the two. Despite the English victory of 2005, the Australians still seem better equipped to deal with the peculiar pressures of the Ashes.

The Warne factor

England also succumbed to Shane Warne, whose influence on the series goes way beyond wicket taking or verbal sparring.

For me, watching Warne turn the ball and torment the batsman is a big part of what cricket's all about.

There's no other sport in which a player can rise to such eminence by virtue of shuffling a few steps and rotating his wrist. If Warne hadn't been a great leg-spin bowler, what else could he have been?

The Warne-Pietersen duel saw the proud humble the proud, not once, but twice. In England's first innings, the young Kevin Pietersen dispatched the not-so-young Warne to the boundary with such ease that the old master was forced into crassly defensive tactics.

But in the second innings Warne snared Pietersen, and did so with aplomb. Warne is irresistible, one of global sport's most remarkable figures of the past 20 years.

Received wisdom

The received wisdom is that English cricket needs a winning England team, in particular an Ashes-winning team.

The high drama of 2005 is said to have drawn large numbers of new fans to the old game.

It would be a shame if it were to dissipate now, especially when cricket has demonstrated some of its unique glories so vividly, albeit in the middle of the night on a subscription channel.

Is there anyone who would now want to see this contest settled in fewer than five Tests? Does anyone believe that Twenty20 will ever offer anything as engaging as the fifth day at Adelaide?

It's the second innings, the possibility of the draw, the wear and tear of the pitch that lift the drama from the incidental to the epic, ratcheting up the test of skill and stamina and offering the kind of reversal of fortune that even England fans must admit was worth staying up for.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006