Air of despair turns to oxygen of hope

A couple of days in Leeds have dramatically changed the Australians' outlook, writes Peter Roebuck at Headingley

Although impressed by their team's rearguard action at Edgbaston, and relieved not to have gone 2-0 behind, Australians had been in despair about their prospects of hanging on to the Ashes. Notions of winning the series and retaining top place in the official rankings had long since been abandoned in all except the most optimistic quarters. Even their captain, ordinarily amongst the most sanguine of leaders, had admitted that he'd take a drawn series and walk away with a smile. Everyone sensed that Headingley offered the last chance of turning things around. A high scoring draw was expected at The Oval. It seemed a forlorn hope. The mood was dark. As one pal said: "It's not the losing. But did it have to be the Poms?"

Supporters had been following events with indignation and alarm. From the Derwent River to Roebuck Bay, locals were baffled by the omission of Stuart Clark, a highly respected operator. Whereas the winter games vary from state to state, cricket unites the country and the national team's fortunes are closely followed.

No one knew how the heck Australia were going to take 20 wickets. Mitchell Johnson was in such a bad state that people were talking about his mother. Peter Siddle could not blow out a candle. And these were the team's cracks. It did not bode well but it could have been worse. Australia might have lost in Birmingham.

Two retained wickets have dramatically affected the course of the series – England's 10th in Cardiff and Australia's fifth in Edgbaston. In both cases the denied fell back.

Everything changed on that chaotic first morning in Leeds. Beforehand it was hard to detect any alteration in the teams' mien. Certainly Ricky Ponting was hanging tough but that is his nature.

Although slightly bemused by the local obsession with the Barmy Army, he spoke quietly and with conviction at his press conference, indicating that his side intended to come out fighting. His counterpart found himself answering endless enquiries about Andrew Flintoff, another obsession. In hindsight, though the Australians had already changed.

Johnson's face-to-face aggression in Birmingham pointed towards a rejection of inhibition. Dropping Nathan Hauritz and summoning Clark confirmed that the think tank understood the urgency of the situation and was willing to correct its mistakes.

Brad Haddin's determination to play was also inspiring. Broken fingers take at least three weeks to mend yet he took his place and refused to show any sign of discomfort.

England had changed as well, and not to their advantage. Flintoff's loss was crucial or else what has all the fuss been about? Next came the call-up of a notably South African batsman, an outsider, a nomination calculated to upset the atmosphere. To make matters worse, Matt Prior suffered a back spasm before the coin had been tossed. England were in a pickle, and its batsmen had little time to prepare properly, and it showed.

For two days Andrew Strauss's team have played loose cricket, giving wickets and runs away, allowing the Australians to ride roughshod over them. Inevitably fortune changed its affiliation – the decisions have started to go Australia's way.

Now the mood is entirely different. Suddenly the Australians have a sprint in their step, their supporters think they can repel the English onslaught.

Two moments from Headingley capture the turnaround. England's first wicket fell to a spectacular slip catch by Marcus North, a fellow widely regarded as a safe but unfussy poucher. If anything Clark's innings was even more unlikely. Amongst the most sensible of bowlers, the lanky paceman is amongst the most madcap of batsmen, nor is competence his strong point. Yet he produced three rapturous strokes that sent the ball sailing over the ropes.

Assuming nothing untoward happens, Australia will go to The Oval needing only to draw to hold on to the Ashes, and with momentum on their side. In 2005 – a series that does occasionally get mentioned in this neck of the woods, England were in the same position. So near and yet so far.

Five days is a long time though, and batsmen cannot simply walk to the crease and try to block. In any case that is not the modern way.

Moreover, Australian batsmanship has always recognised the importance of taking and keeping the initiative. A turning pitch might also cause complications but the Australians are starting to look, well, Australian again. Ponting and colleagues mean to complete their mission.

Lois Pryce... Life Without a Postcode. Lois lives on a boat with her husband.. Registering to vote in the election has prooved to be very difficult without a fixed residential post code. (David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing