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Set for the final fling

An unrelentingly dramatic Ashes series with enough plot twists to satisfy the most demanding sports devotee reaches an appropriate climax at the Oval today.

cricket Updated: Aug 20, 2009 11:42 IST

An unrelentingly dramatic Ashes series with enough plot twists to satisfy the most demanding sports devotee reaches an appropriate climax at the Oval this Thursday.

At a time when attendances for five-day matches are plunging worldwide, the fifth and final Test between England and Australia is a sellout and public interest in both countries is high.

England, for only the third time in cricket’s oldest and most cherished rivalry, go into the final Test needing to win to regain the Ashes.

The home side scraped an unlikely draw in the first Test in Cardiff, then recorded an emphatic victory at Lord’s for the first time in an Ashes Test since 1934.

They took control at Edgbaston before a final-day rally by Australia secured an honourable draw and were then totally outplayed by the visitors at Headingley.

As a result of the fourth Test, Australia feel they can atone handsomely for their 2-1 defeat in the 2005 series and return home with a series victory on an Oval pitch which promises plenty of runs.

“You can guarantee it’s going to be a very good surface, particularly early,” Australia captain Ricky Ponting told reporters. “It’s reasonably dry so it might spin a little bit late, all in all it’s a really good wicket. If you look at the results over the last couple of years there have been big innings. Teams have made 600, 580 and I’d expect at some stage in this Test there will be those sorts of innings as well.”

Ponting said last week how much defeat had hurt in 2005 and he will be fully aware that only one Australian captain has lost two Ashes series in England.

Still, after Headingley, he has every reason to feel confident with the team he has helped reshape since Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist retired two years ago.

His vice-captain Michael Clarke has played beautifully with two centuries and a 93, Mitchell Johnson has recovered from an awful start to the series to bowl with hostile intent and the backup pace bowling was excellent in the fourth Test.

Ponting now has the luxury of choosing between Stuart Clark, whose nagging accuracy brought overdue control to the attack at Headingley, Brett Lee and Nathan Hauritz.

Lee has fully recovered from a muscle injury and may win a recall if the selectors think reverse swing will be a factor at the Oval. Hauritz will play if the pitch looks likely to take spin.

England’s top-order batsmen failed twice at Headingley, highlighting just how important the injured Kevin Pietersen has been since making his debut in the 2005 series.

Jonathan Trott, another South African-born batsman, will make his debut at the Oval in place of Ravi Bopara with Ian Bell moving up to number three.

Trott is a distant relation of Albert Trott who played for England and Australia in the 19th century and remains the only man to hit the ball over the Lord’s pavilion.

While Lord’s will always be the world’s ultimate cricket venue, London’s second ground commands a special place in fans’ affections.

The last Test of the English summer has provided a stage for the great players to make their farewells and this week Andrew Flintoff will play his final Test before concentrating on one-day cricket.

If Flintoff’s fragile right knee holds up, he could provide a final twist to the series with a repetition of the furious fast bowling which ensured an epic victory at Lord’s.