SPORT

Australia beaten fair and square

PETER ROEBUCK

PETER ROEBUCK  

After 16 years of domination, the Australians have been forced to finish second best to a spirited England side that rallied after an early defeat to produce some thrilling cricket. Ricky Ponting's side threw everything at its opponent but it was not quite enough. England survived a few alarms and numerous scrapes till finally the hour came when an entire nation could celebrate a famous victory.

A magnificent and well calculated onslaught from Kevin Pietersen changed the course of the match after Glenn McGrath had brought it back to life with a burst of two wickets in two balls. Pietersen's attack on Brett Lee after lunch brought 37 runs in three mostly short-pitched overs, as Australia's gamble in unleashing its fastest bowler backfired.

Stirring knock

Hooking and straight driving with courage and panache, the African raised youngster blasted his adopted country towards victory. Spared twice, the newcomer played a stirring innings, twice clouting Shane Warne for sixes over mid-wicket, thereby revealing eye and intent. Nor did he lose his head. Although he clobbered the lesser bowlers, he kept the closest of eyes upon McGrath and Warne.

It was a fine time to produce the best attacking innings of the series. That Ponting played the best defensive innings in the series tells the tale of the balance of power between the sides. From the first day in Birmingham, Australia was playing from behind. England's furious attack that day took its opponent by surprise. It was a masterpiece of courageous cricket.

Australia never quite recovered. By the end of the series both its pace bowling and opening batting were in trouble. Amongst the tourists, only Shane Warne lived up to expectations, though Justin Langer also gave stout service.

No one could doubt that England (or, more correctly, Britain) deserved to win the series. Australians may argue that bad light stood between them and a squared series. England can point out that rain prevented it from taking a 3-1 lead. Nor did the host win by stealth. Instead, it looked the Australians in the eye and exchanged blows till the weaker side fell.

Formidable warrior

England also found a hero, a powerful, formidable and proud warrior who stood resolute on the battleground, rousing colleagues, intimidating foes and inspiring supporters. Andrew Flintoff began the series with a whimper and ended with the loudest of bangs. Simply, he is a great cricketer, the best fast bowler in the world, a fine representative of his country and a staunch team-mate.

Australia had its own champion, and how impressively he played. Throughout, Warne bowled valiantly and with supreme skill, but without much support or help from a captain who allowed him to bowl long spells. That Warne dropped the crucial catch on Monday was cruel luck. Happily, the crowd acknowledged his contribution with several sustained ovations. Rising to the occasion and ignoring his exhaustion, Warne also ran 70 yards to congratulate Pietersen when England's saviour finally departed.

Sporting atmosphere

Both captains deserve credit for the sporting atmosphere that prevailed. Michael Vaughan led his side superbly. Naturally, the Australians would be disappointed but they were beaten fair and square. England was the better side. Ponting now has the chance to shape his own side.

Perhaps, though, the last word belongs to a cheerful crowd's lone trumpeter, a splendid gentleman who reminded all and sundry that it is only a game by routinely greeting Justin Langer with his rendition of "heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go."

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