The dead-rubber England victory was something of a ritual during Australia’s long Ashes supremacy from 1989-2005, a feelgood finale signifying little. Think Phil Tufnell at the Oval in 1997, or Dean Headley at the MCG 16 months later – jaunty cameos with no wider meaning.
Sydney 2003 was different. Not just because it was Test cricket at its most compelling – close, fluctuating, full of subplots – but also because it signified a stirring in England’s cricketing mood, among us travelling thousands and in a team performance portending greater things to come. The road to 2005 began here.
The bare facts are that England won the fifth Test by 225 runs, denying Australia a historic 5-0 whitewash and salvaging something from another catastrophic Ashes tour. But they don’t indicate just how tight this match was until its closing stages, nor how important it felt. Australia’s fans were desperate for the hitherto elusive 5-0, England’s – who had spent the preceding weeks revelling in noisy self-deprecation – yearning for some reward from a long, expensive trip. And to attend all five days of such a match is to lose yourself totally in the game’s rhythms and dramas.
Sydney 2003 was about two batsmen above all: Michael Vaughan and Steve Waugh – one the coming man, the other a legend in his final Ashes Test. First Waugh: when the Australia captain came to the crease on the second afternoon, his side were in bother – 56 for three in response to a rare decent England first-innings total of 362, adorned by a hundred from Mark Butcher and handy half-centuries from Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart. England were up for this.
But so was Waugh, under pressure after an indifferent personal run. From the start he batted as if a century was predestined, playing with a style and swagger more reminiscent of his brother, Mark, than his usual nuggety self. A style and swagger reminiscent, in fact, of his very first Ashes innings – a big hundred at Headingley in 1989. He reprised that style for his last.
Day two had its fairytale ending after Waugh had motored to 98 before the final ball of the day, Gilchrist at the other end having joined him at 150 for five for a swashbuckling partnership worth 83 at that point. The off-spinner Richard Dawson delivered it, outside off stump, and Waugh clobbered it square on the offside to the boundary, provoking frenzied celebrations from the home supporters who remained in the ground after stumps, chanting his name.
The following day it was Vaughan’s turn. The match was deliciously poised after Australia were bowled out for 363 to lead by one run. Vaughan was enjoying perhaps the most stellar run of form of any England batsman this century, having compiled four daddy Test hundreds in the past five months. His fifth, here, was the pick of them all, albeit against an Australian attack shorn of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath through injury. Few players of his generation could drive so beautifully as Vaughan in his prime and he took victory away from Australia in one afternoon. He eventually fell for 183 the following day to a dubious lbw, comfortably the top-scorer of the series.
Their tails up, England got into Australia from the start as the hosts chased 451, fourth-innings specialist Andy Caddick leading the charge, taking two of three early wickets. But Australia rallied to 91 for three at the close, leaving victory by no means a given.
Our fears were unfounded. Caddick zipped into life again, ending with seven wickets as Australia were skittled for 225.
Caddick didn’t play for England again; other key contributors here – Hussain, Butcher and Stewart – never played another Ashes Test. But Vaughan had made himself the inevitable choice to replace Hussain as captain the following summer and the seeds of recovery symbolised by Sydney bloomed under his leadership. As we filed out of the SCG that afternoon, a dead rubber had never seemed so full of life.