ENGLAND must have realised the game was up the moment they spotted John Major on the pavilion balcony yesterday.
On Friday the Prime Minister watched Surrey lose control of their match at Canterbury. Yesterday he saw England suffer the same fate. Glenn Hoddle must be dreading the prospect of him turning up for Chelsea's match at Stamford Bridge next Saturday.
Yes, football is here already - not that England's cricketers are likely to complain. Anything that enables their misery to be wiped from the back pages and tucked quietly inside will come as a relief after this shattering summer.
The pattern continued for much of the third day of the fifth Cornhill Test yesterday with Australia taking a 132-run first-innings lead then dismissing new captain Michael Atherton as England trimmed the deficit to 43 by the close. Matthew Maynard has a hairline fracture of a knuckle on his left hand, but he will bat; Graham Gooch, as ever, is still at the crease and England once more require heroics of him today.
Without them the spectre looms of Australia inflicting the first 5-0 series win away from home in Ashes history. They are only three-up but the way in which they recovered from 80 for 4 to 408 all out in this game suggests only rain or a bland Oval pitch for the final Test can deny them.
It is not just on the scoreboard that the Atherton Age is taking its time to make an impression. He is a firm believer in good conduct on the field but, in the week the Test and County Cricket Board decried the falling standards of behaviour in the game, his team attracted the censure of match referee, Clive Lloyd. At 285 for 6, with Merv Hughes six runs into what would become an important innings, they believed Graham Thorpe had caught him off Peter Such.
Alec Stewart whooped out from behind the wicket and ran joyously towards the bowler, only to pull up when he saw umpire David Shepherd unmoved. A disappointed Thorpe then sent the ball back to Such on the ground, possibly thrown, possibly rolled, but not by the customary under-arm lob.
It was a confused incident, and so was the official response with Lloyd and England team manager Keith Fletcher agreeing there was dissent - but not on the perpetrator. Lloyd said: 'I have noted the Stewart incident and will be putting it in my report. If it happens again I will be taking it up with the England team.' He added he did not think Thorpe's action of any consequence.
But England manager Keith Fletcher did and he said of Thorpe: 'I felt he showed dissent and have spoken with him. I told him 'no more'.'
Stewart, however, had argued he was not 'trying to do anything except congratulate Suchie' and Fletcher accepted that.
Lloyd was also brought into action by the spectators. Although the fans were better behaved than most international crowds this summer, the usual procession of villains was led away and, perhaps influenced by England's Indian experiences, some pelted Tim May with fruit. An apple appeared to hit him on the forehead and Lloyd asked police to patrol the area on the Rae Bank side.
Alcohol-fuelled frustration will have provoked the aggression. The depths of the desire for English success was painfully evident, with the crowd - not quite capacity but enough to take match receipts past pounds 1m - eager to acclaim whenever England flirted with glory. Unfortunately for them there were few such moments. England took just one wicket at either end of the morning and, by the time they extracted the tail, 10 minutes before tea, it was too late, as Ian Healy and Hughes had pushed the game beyond their reach.
In the absence of genuine pace both batsmen are more than useful performers and, by batting within their limitations, they exposed England's. Healy, craggy and determined, repeatedly drove John Emburey and worked the quicker bowlers square either side of the wicket while Hughes produced a frustrating mix of ostentatious defence and bludgeoning attack. Together they added 107 for the seventh wicket, an Ashes record at Edgbaston. While the Waugh twins' Friday partnership of 153 had wrested ascendancy of the Test from England, this one established it in Australia's hands. And it had all started so brightly when, after Australia had resumed at 258 for five, Steve Waugh reached forward to the 21st ball of the day, from Martin Bicknell, and was caught behind. It was one of many testing deliveries from Bicknell who took the first three wickets.
He bowls from close to stumps with keen aggression but lacks the pace to worry batsmen and also bowled too many 'four' balls, straying down the leg-side frequently enough to drive any captain to distraction. Not that Atherton showed any signs of despair in another mildly encouraging day.
If he fell into the habit of ritual hand-clapping on occasion, he was far more prepared to switch his bowlers around than Gooch. Against that he resisted the temptation to try Thorpe or Gooch as a potential partnership-breaker, relying on various permutations of his four main bowlers, usually with seam at one end and spin the other. Bicknell eventually dealt with Healy (surprised by the bounce when slashing at a wide one) and Hughes (dragged on slogging) but Shane Warne and Paul Reiffel prolonged the innings until Atherton finally paired the spinners. Emburey had Warne caught off a top-edged sweep and, seven overs later and 10 minutes to scheduled tea, Reiffel played the wrong line to Such.
Gooch and Atherton approached the task of regaining parity with refreshing forcefulness. Hughes was thumped off the back foot through cover for four by Gooch and Tim May similarly driven by Atherton and the pair duly clocked up yet another half- century opening partnership with metronomic ease.
But Warne, briefly regaining the control he possessed earlier this summer stemmed the runs then, with 60 on the board, had Atherton caught low at silly point by Allan Border. Robin Smith nearly went that over - which Warne finished with one wicket for six runs off five - but survived to the close.
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