UNTIL yesterday, there had scarcely been the suspicion of a pulse, but this morning sees the patient in the unfamiliar condition of being merely in need of a basket of fruit than a call for a visit from the priest. The Ashes may still be an improbable objective, but just when the TCCB may have been considering charging England admission money - along with the rest of the spectators - there is something resembling a contest taking place at last.
England have been such a distant speck in Australia's rear view mirror that their first-innings total of 321 offered dangerous delusions of adequacy, and Australia's batsmen were threatening to put it into perspective on Trent Bridge's near-blameless pitch yesterday afternoon.
When Australia were crusing at 197 for 2 midway through the final session, England's four bowlers looked as though they would require the services of a forklift truck to get them out of the bath by the time Australia had finished filling their boots. However, there was a spirit in the side yesterday that has been conspicuously absent since they won their last Test - against Pakistan eight games ago - and by stumps last night Australia were still 59 runs behind at 262 for 5.
David Boon, ominously, is still there with 88 not out, and the Australian captain, Allan Border, has yet to appear because of a bout of hay fever. Australia may still press on to a lead of three figures, but just for once, they may have to fix bayonets rather than doing it with one hand on a gin and tonic.
England's last four wickets yesterday morning were sold more dearly in terms of time, an hour and a half, than productivity, 45 runs, with Merv Hughes capturing the first two of them to take his tally for the series to 17. Andrew Caddick was lbw after another stubborn innings (his batting time for the series is a shade under six hours) and Martin McCague offered the most concrete evidence yet that he is a pukka Australian by waiting for the umpire to give him out for a catch to second slip off the bat handle.
Nasser Hussain stretched his overnight 50 to 71, but laudable innings though this was, he never looked remotely at ease against Shane Warne, and finally nudged the leg-spinner to short leg via pad and glove. Tim May wrapped it up when Mark Ilott edged to slip, leaving Peter Such 0 not out from one ball, and the Nottinghamshire crowd deprived of first-hand evidence that Essex have taught him how to bat. When Such played his cricket here, a nicked single was more than enough to earn him a standing ovation.
England's expectations of McCague fulfilling the same role for them as Hughes does for Australia extended to issuing him with large dollops of zinc cream, and, in all probability, carte blanche to engage the visiting batsmen in conversations concerning both their ability and their parentage. He was certainly all bristling aggression, worked up a fair head of steam, and what he lacked in ability to move the ball around he more than made up for with heart and stamina.
Somewhat suprisingly, given that he was omitted in favour of a late replacement at Old Trafford on the grounds that Phillip DeFreitas was more of an opening bowler, Mark Ilott was preferred to Caddick in sharing the new ball, which would have had nothing to do, of course, with England being accused of opening the attack with an Australian and a New Zealander.
Ilott's left-arm angle was largely rendered innocuous by his inability to swing the ball back into the right- hander, but just when the Australian openers looked to have seen off McCague, he slanted one across Mark Taylor to end a first-wicket partnership of 55. As Taylor and Michael Slater had previously figured in first innings stands of 128 and 260, this was a major triumph, and Boon was not too far away from playing on to McCague's next delivery.
Caddick, having taken one wicket in 438 balls in his first two Tests, then doubled his tally with his seventh delivery yesterday (albeit with an lbw decision against Slater that looked suspiciously high) before Boon and Mark Waugh came together in a third-wicket partnership of 123 in 23 overs that was never less than a pea-shelling operation, and at times came close to carnage.
Mark Waugh was in such spectacular form that he had reached 70 off only 68 balls before he got himself out through his own intoxication. Attempting to launch Such over the on side for what would have been his 13th boundary, he miscued just enough for McCague to take a well-judged catch running from mid-on.
Mark Waugh was replaced not by Border but by his elder twin, who played with no conviction at all until a half-hearted grope at McCague resulted in a thin edge to Stewart, and Ian Healy became England's third after-tea victim when he edged Ilott low to Graham Thorpe at first slip. This was all the sweeter for being the first wicket in the match to fall to an undisputed Englishman.
Boon, however, is again in remarkable form, and at least two of his boundaries have been the result of nothing more than perfectly timed defensive pushes. There is more than one bristling moustache causing England a heap of trouble this summer, and Boon's contribution with the bat is every bit as vital a cog for Australia as Hughes's with the ball.
If England can get rid of Boon early this morning, they are in business. If not, they may still be contemplating life staring down the barrel during Sunday's rest day.
MERV HUGHES has turned down an approach by Hampshire to play county cricket next season. Hughes said he was not interested because of Australia's busy winter schedule.
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