TEST MATCHES may last 15 sessions but they often pivot on just one and yesterday the third Test turned, probably irrevocably, in Australia's favour in the final two hour segment of its third day.
England, having restricted the tourists to a 52-run lead, lost three wickets in 30 minutes leaving them effectively 70 for 4 at the close.
With the groundsman, Ron Allsop, expecting the rest day to further dry out the wicket and help spin, England's coach, Keith Fletcher, said: 'another 200 runs could make it an interesting game.'
First England have to get them and if their swing goes awry during the inevitable rest-day golf round today, it will be because the weight of failure has again descended on their shoulders.
That is a pity for it was briefly lifted yesterday and the series was the better for it. Like John Wayne using a red Indian guide to hunt down the Sioux, England's Australian, Martin McCague, led them in sight of the fabled territory of a first-innings lead and Test mastery.
McCague, who was pointedly congratulated on his four wicket haul by Graham Gooch - the man who had regarded him as 'too Australian' to pick - dismissed David Boon immediately after he had completed his second successive century, with Australia still 37 runs behind and with just two wickets left.
They were then outflanked and ambushed by Merv Hughes and Shane Warne, who first played important innings and shared four wickets as Australia regained the initiative, then forced it home. They have now taken 40 wickets in the series, 11 more than England's 11 bowlers have managed. To find they can bat as well is too much.
England had begun their innings with just half an hour to negotiate before tea but even that proved too long for Michael Atherton who, after a confident start, gloved a hook at Merv Hughes. There was an element of doubt as to whether Ian Healy had taken the catch cleanly and he stood his ground while Ken Palmer, at square-leg, was asked his opinion by, we are led to believe, Allan Border - which suggests the Australian captain is going soft in his old age.
Palmer, who was unsighted, initially reached for his walkie-talkie before realising Barry Dudleston, the third umpire, is not yet allowed to adjudicate on such decisions. Barry Meyer then reiterated his decision, sending Atherton to the pavilion which had already been enthusiastically pointed out to him by several helpful Australians.
Robin Smith, who has belatedly realised that the best way for a player of his nature to attack spin is to do so with brutal intent, restored the mood with a violent assault on Tim May and a calculated one on Warne. With Mark Lathwell carefully feeling his way in this company, Smith brought up his 50 and England's 100 only to go softly, caught behind off a thin edge to Warne.
Lathwell, who Fletcher admitted had stuggled against Warne, fell two overs of leg-spin later, leg-before playing no stroke, and Stewart soon paid for his habit of getting too far across when he was lbw to Hughes. The night-watchman, Andy Caddick, blocked out the remaining minutes while Gooch prepared for his latest one-man stand with a defiant pull off Hughes.
That was a rare echo of the sense of purpose that had infused England's bowling attack from its first ball and had been quickly evident in the morning with Ilott striking with his fifth delivery. Rediscovering the rhythm of his final spell on Friday, he darted the ball away off the pitch to find Brendon Julian's edge.
That brought Border to the crease but even the sight of Boon and Border, the barnacled scrappers of Australian cricket, failed to intimidate Ilott and McCague, who set about them with vigour. McCague had Border weaving with a particularly fast spell.
The Australian captain, having taken 31 minutes to get off the mark, then mis-hooked Ilott just short of Lathwell as he ran sedately in from fine leg. The Somerset youngster might, with greater urgency, have attempted a forward diving catch - although the likely upshot would have been a bloodied mouthful of broken teeth.
The next ball, to Boon, was edged past slip for four, but thoughts of his vulnerablility were quickly dismissed as the following delivery was handsomely driven to the long-off boundary to bring up his 16th Test century. They are coming increasingly frequently and he is, as Keith Fletcher noted, Australia's best batsman being all the more dangerous for having conquered the mental block about failing to make a hundred in England.
Thus it was a surprise - one greeted by an enormous roar - when an indecisive push outside off-stump at McCague ended with his stumps uprooted just a run later. With Border uncomfortable England strained for their innings for a year and eight Tests. That they failed to achieve it was due to some calculated hitting from Hughes and shrewd batsmanship from Warne.
Hughes, pulling mainly to mid- wicket, hit 17 in 19 balls before Ilott, coming round the wicket, swung one in to bowl him. Warne batted for 15 minutes short of two hours being rarely troubled; like Hughes - and Caddick - he is a useful man to have in the lower order.
By then Such had ended Border's painful three-hour exhibition of scratching and groping at the crease. Although unwell with hay fever and an upset stomach - he was later forced from the field - he increasingly looks a man whose powers are draining away. Unlike Gooch, his batting is deserting him before his fielding and he is being protected by the strength of the men above him.
Still, one is loath to write off such a great player and he knew well enough the importance of eking every possible run to maximise his team's lead. He remains a very difficult batsman to dislodge when he only aims to survive and, as before this series, he only fell when risking extravagant attack. This time, having driven Peter Such over the top once, he failed to reach the pitch of the next ball and holed out to mid-wicket.
May went 11 minutes later but not before Warne had stretched the lead far enough for England to be under pressure from the start of their innings. They never shook it off and it will take a repeat of Gooch's Old Trafford display, or the first rain interruption of the summer, if England are to keep the series alive.
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