Having awoken to the grave outcome of losing this Test match, England are now clinging to its shirt tails like grubby street urchins looking for scraps. With their second innings listing, England's hopes of saving this match were given renewed hope when Nasser Hussain, playing with vigour and cunning, scored his second century of the series. By the close, he and a studiously precise John Crawley, had added 123 for the fifth wicket, a stand which if not guaranteed the draw, at least made Australia leave the field checking their pockets.
It will probably be, as has been England's wont, a case of too little too late and with an unbroken day likely in which to take six wickets, Australia remain firm and deserving favourites, not least because of the fallibility of England's tail-enders and their appalling display in the field earlier in the day.
Nevertheless, although rearguard actions of Johannesburg proportions are not the norm, England, considering the limp nature of much of their cricket in this match, will not lack the motivation for a repeat performance. If it happens, it will surely relegate Jo'burg into second place, and a session more of Crawley and Hussain will surely see Aussie hearts begin to flutter.
Having succumbed to an old technical frailty in the first innings, Hussain returned to the clean-striking batsman we last saw at Edgbaston. Since his controversially claimed catch at Old Trafford, Australia have made him the No 1 target for their sledging. It may not be as blatant as it used to be, but in Hussain's case it has been incessant as a running tap.
Before yesterday, there were those in the England camp who were convinced that the taunts were beginning to get to him. Fortunately, Hussain's courage and flashing blade has proved them wrong, a victory that will be doubly sweet should he and Crawley, playing equally surely, continue to defy the Aussies today.
Outplayed for all but two brief moments of this match, England began their second innings needing to bat five sessions to save the match. With a massive first-innings deficit of 329 runs, it was a proposition that prompted Ladbrokes to resurrect their famous 500-1 odds against an England victory. Odds famously denied here in 1981, when Botham and Willis, playing like men possessed, entered Ashes folklore forever.
The current England captain, despite watching that series as a boy, is, however, a tad more realistic, a trait personified by his statement earlier in the season when he said England were "not looking for heroes, just heroic cricket."
Normally that involves him having to play a back to the wall innings to save his team's hide. This being Australia, however, that did not happen and Atherton not for the first time in this series was undone by a searing throat ball from Glenn McGrath, which the batsman parried to third slip.
Never shy of doing their homework, Australia have pinpointed the England captain's hesitancy against the short ball. Because of his bad back, Atherton likes either to hook or ride the bounce. Having got him out doing both, Australia have peppered him into rethinking his method. On yesterday's evidence, he has yet to find a workable solution.
With the departure of their skipper in the first innings, England had folded as quickly and predictably as an old map. With him gone again, following Mark Butcher's dismissal by McGrath for 19, England again threatened to collapse.
Playing more cautiously than he prefers, Alec Stewart reached 16 before he chopped a grubber from Paul Reiffel on to his stumps. Fortune rarely favours those in need of it and Stewart's second failure here, now means he has now scored just 126 runs in eight innings.
His Surrey team-mate, Graham Thorpe, despite a rare lapse by Steve Waugh in the gully, did not fare any better. He was later caught by Waugh's brother, Mark, off Jason Gillespie, after Ian Healy had parried the edge towards second slip.
At Old Trafford, it was Australia's old hands that had impaled England. Here it has been the new generation, who, showing a taste for this pivotal occasion, have all but spit-roasted them.
Matthew Elliott, for whom this match represented a coming of age, was a towering presence at the crease. When he eventually fell one run short of his double century, playing over the top of a yorker from Gough, his innings had realised 27 runs more than the sum of England's first effort, on this pitch.
It was also an object lesson to England in what happens when you miss chances at this level, particularly easy ones such as that which Thorpe spilt at slip, when Elliott was on 29. For that reason, as well as the two other chances put down by England, Ricky Ponting's was probably the purer hundred and the one that demoralised England.
That much was clear yesterday, when another bout of poor bowling was matched by some scrappy fielding. When humiliation is piled on this thick, all but the strongest wills tend to wilt. As expected, Australia cashed in, adding 128 for their last three wickets including an unbeaten stand of fifty between Reiffel, who ended unbeaten on 54, and McGrath, a batsman who has only reached double figures in Tests, on three occasions.
It was a dire performance from a side that had achieved parity on the second afternoon, when Australia had been 50 for 4. As at Old Trafford, England have had their opportunities, though not the unquestioning self- belief of their opponents, to see them through.
That was last seen at Edgbaston, where England clearly surprised their opponents. Since then, England have been predictably disappointing despite their much hyped bonding sessions. Despite deep-seated weaknesses raising their ugly heads, all will probably be forgiven, should they leave here level this evening.
Australia won toss
ENGLAND - First innings 172 (J N Gillespie 7-37).
AUSTRALIA - First innings
(Friday: 258 for 4)
M T G Elliott b Gough 199
(455 min, 351 balls, 23 fours, 3 sixes)
R T Ponting c Ealham b Gough 127
(263 min, 202 balls, 19 fours, 1 six)
I A Healy b Ealham 31
(61 min, 46 balls, 6 fours)
S K Warne c Thorpe b Ealham 0
(3 min, 5 balls)
P R Reiffel not out 54
(108 min, 72 balls, 5 fours)
J N Gillespie b Gough 3
(18 min, 18 balls)
G D McGrath not out 20
(38 min, 30 balls, 1 four)
Extras (b9, lb10, nb35) 54
Total (for 9 dec, 513 min, 123 overs) 501
Fall (cont): 5-318 (Ponting), 6-382 (Healy), 7-383 (Warne), 8-444 (Elliott), 9-461 (Gillespie).
Bowling: Gough 36-5-149-5 (nb8) (6-3-10-2, 3-0-13-0, 5-0-25-0, 5-1-17- 0, 4-1-11-0, 5-0-28-1, 3-0-15-0, 5-0-30-2); Headley 25-2-125-2 (nb12) (10-1-43-2, 3-0-13-0, 2-0-10-0, 3-0-17-0, 3-0-22-0, 4-1-20-0); Smith 23- 2-89-0 (nb7) (8-1-28-0, 2-0-10-0, 3-0-17-0, 3-1-5-0, 2-0-9-0, 5-0-20-0); Ealham 19-3-56-2 (nb2) (2-1-8-0, 4-2-7-0, 10-0-32-2, 3-0-9-0); Croft 18- 1-49-0 (2-0-11-0, 2-0-2-0, 7-0-24-0, 1-0-1-0, 4-1-7-0, 2-0-4-0); Butcher 2-0-14-0 (nb6) (one spell).
Progress: Third day: 300: 325 min, 80.2 overs. New ball: Taken after 81 overs at 302-4. 350: 364 min, 88.3 overs. Rain stopped play: 12.57pm. Close: 373-5 (Elliott 164, Healy 27) 95.2 overs. Fourth day: 400: 422 min, 102 overs. 450: 462 min, 110.4 overs. 500: 512 min, 122.4 overs. Declaration at lunch.
Elliott 50: 114 min, 95 balls, 7 fours, 1 six. 100: 185 min, 156 balls, 14 fours, 2 sixes. 150: 356 min, 284 balls, 18 fours, 3 sixes.
Ponting 50: 118 min, 81 balls, 8 fours. 100: 227 min, 165 balls, 14 fours, 1 six.
Reiffel 50: 89 min, 61 balls, 5 fours.
ENGLAND - Second innings
M A Butcher c Healy b McGrath 19
(20 min, 18 balls, 3 fours)
*M A Atherton c Warne b McGrath 2
(27 min, 13 balls)
A J Stewart b Reiffel 16
(41 min, 30 balls, 3 fours)
N Hussain not out 101
(235 min, 166 balls, 13 fours, 1 five)
G P Thorpe c M E Waugh b Gillespie 15
(40 min, 30 balls, 1 four)
J P Crawley not out 48
(159 min, 129 balls, 8 fours)
Extras (b4, lb1, nb6) 11
Total (for 4, 263 min, 63 overs) 212
Fall: 1-23 (Butcher), 2-28 (Atherton), 3-57 (Stewart), 4-89 (Thorpe).
Bowling: McGrath 18-4-72-2 (nb2) (7-1-37-2, 2-0-6-0, 6-2-24-0, 3-1-5- 0); Reiffel 16-1-39-1 (nb4) (9-0-22-1, 4-0-12-0, 3-1-5-0); Gillespie 13- 3-51-1 (7-1-29-1, 6-2-22-0); Warne 12-3-34-0 (nb1) (9-2-25-0, 3-1-9-0); S R Waugh 4-1-11-0 (nb1) (one spell).
Progress: 50: 47 min, 10.3 overs. 100: 121 min, 26.5 overs. Tea: 102- 4 (Hussain 38, Crawley 6) 27 overs. 150: 184 min, 43.2 overs. 200: 250 min, 59.5 overs.
Hussain 50: 118 min, 79 balls, 5 fours, 1 five. 100: 226 min, 164 balls, 13 fours, 1 five.
Umpires: M J Kitchen (Eng) and C J Mitchley (SA).Reuse content