This was the series that had it all. The cricket world had barely caught its breath after the drama of England's two-run win at Edgbaston that levelled the series at 1-1. 

Of course the score should never have been 1-1 at all - Michael Kasprowicz's glove was not handling his bat when it got the faintest of touches on Steve Harmison's lifting delivery on the way through to Geraint Jones behind the stumps. But that is a story for another day. 

The show rolled on. And what a show it was.

Just four days later, the teams had taken the short journey from Birmingham to Manchester amid rumours that this was already shaping up to be one of the greatest Ashes series ever. No one believed, however, that Old Trafford, or for that matter Trent Bridge or the Oval after it, could live up to the drama, suspense and intrigue provided by Edgbaston. How wrong they were: Old Trafford had it all.

Two spectacular captain's knocks from Messrs Vaughan and Ponting; an exhibition in reverse swing bowling from Simon Jones; the returning Glenn McGrath back to his best; a homegrown hero being willed in from the stands, in search of the final wicket; the same last gasp drama seen in Birmingham.

It was also a Test that proved that the men playing it were men after all, and not aliens sent to provide cricket of the highest quality for the world to marvel at. Simple catches were dropped, stumpings missed, wickets given away softly. Jason Gillespie looked a shadow of his former self; England's revered bowling attack was unable to budge Australia's defiant tail.

This was drama of the highest order: the middle test of the series that had it all was arguably the most exciting of the five.

This game also brought a new dimension in terms of recent series between the old enemies: This was the first draw in 17 Ashes Tests. Australia's dominance throughout the 1990s and early 2000s had meant that England hadn't often had a look in, until 2005.

McGrath, who had been ruled out at Edgbaston having trodden on a cricket ball in the warm-up, returned in place of Michael Kasprowicz in Australia's only change, while England stuck with their winning formula from Edgbaston. 

With Edgbaston creating a hysteria that had not surrounded cricket for years and Ashes fever truly gripping the nation, an estimated 10,000 had to be turned away from Old Trafford on the final morning as England fans smelt blood. With 22,000 packed in to the famous old ground, a further 7.7 million joined them in living rooms across the nation as Richie Benaud and Channel 4's final summer covering English test cricket continued in style. 

Day one belonged to the England captain. Vaughan started it by winning the toss and inevitably choosing to bat. His 166 made victory look a distant prospect for Australia but it was hardly a chanceless knock. Missed by Gilchrist on 41, bowled by a McGrath no ball shortly after and dropped again on 141, Vaughan, whose form had been under fire in the first two tests, hit back at his critics and feasted on Gillespie's tame bowling. His old partnership with Marcus Trescothick flourished once more and Ian Bell started to repay England's faith for the first time in the series. Vaughan eventually fell tamely as he attempted to hit Simon Katich into Row Z. Contributions right down the order guided England to a total of 444.

Shane Warne stole the show too by becoming the first man to take 600 Test wickets as he dismissed Trescothick. He and Brett Lee shared eight wickets as McGrath, struggling with the dodgy ankle that had ruled him out in Birmingham, put in a preformance of true grit but went wicketless.

Australia's response was flat. They had a great deal to thank Warne for after his flashing 90 saved the follow-on and anchored their total of 302. Simon Katich left a swinging peach from around the wicket from Flintoff. Michael Clarke didn't come in until number eight due to the back pain that troubles him to this day and walked to the crease looking frail and batted looking even more like an invalid. Hayden, Langer, Martyn, Katich and Gilchrist all got starts but for once, not a single one converted them into a 50. England's bowlers, led by the indomitable Welshman Jones, who finished with 6-53, were all over them and it showed. Rain on Saturday meant the pressure rose further.

With a lead of 142, England went for the jugular. Andrew Strauss played a coming-of-age innings to compile 106, all after being struck by a Lee bouncer in the second over. Strauss had enjoyed a prolific start to his international career but had struggled in the series until this point. Bell once again provided support but McGrath scythed through the rest of England's top order to nab another 5 wicket haul.

Vaughan declared with the lead at a healthy 422, surely beyond even the great Australia's reach. Langer and Hayden saw out a few overs to get them to the close of play unscathed.

That was just the prologue, however.

Langer fell in the second over of the final day, bringing the underfire Ponting to the crease. The captain responded the only way he knew how as his much-vaunted team mates fell all around him. He enjoyed partnerships with Clarke and Warne as the tension mounted to an almost unbelievable level.

With Warne gone to a great catch from Geraint Jones, England's chances took a blow when his namesake Simon was forced to leave the field with cramp.

Ponting tickled a catch to the keeper and trudged off looking like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. No one else got close to 50 but the legendary captain trudged off in a rage, blaming only himself. His 156 was one of the great rearguard efforts but how he would have loved to have seen it through. Instead, Lee was joined by McGrath with four overs to survive. Flintoff and Harmison had their tails up and the 22,000 packed into the ground were cheering their every move and willing them on.

Flintoff, in search of his fifth wicket, was electric but the tail enders remained defiant. It felt like Edgbaston all over again but Harmison failed to produce the goods in the final over and as Lee nudged the final ball into the leg side, the emotions from Edgbaston had gone full circle.

The Australian balcony was rapturous while England looked dejected. Flintoff, in one of the great moments of sportsmanship, had comforted Lee at Edgbaston. This time it was the Lancastrian who needed an arm round him.

England looked disconsolate, believing that their only opportunity to go 2-1 up may have gone begging.

Vaughan has said since, however, that through the misery of failing to finish the job, that this was the moment he truly realised England could win the Ashes. Watching Australia celebrate a draw made England see quite how far they had come since the drubbings of the previous decade.

We all know how the story ends. Let's hope for the same level of drama at Old Trafford this week.

 

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Topics:
#Australia cricket
#England cricket
#The Ashes
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