Throughout Australia yesterday there was a sense of shock. It was tinged in turn with a feeling of inevitability. Nobody in the country, perhaps apart from the selectors and the captain (and their conviction is by no means certain), seems to believe that any team other than England can win the Ashes.
The Australian squad chosen for the Third Test after the bitter, heavy defeat in the second match of the series was greeted with incredulity. It smacked of panic rather than planning, of desperation as opposed to the informed guesswork that usuallygoverns team selection.
There are three Tests still to play, but already the ghosts of 1986-87, when Australian cricket was on its knees, are being invoked. The fact that Australia have won none of their past five Test matches, culminating in capitulation against England in Adelaide, has elicited a sense of foreboding so pervasive that no team could avoid it.
The selection of the 26-year-old left-arm spinner Michael Beer has astonished everybody apart from those who made the decision, and probably even them. Beer has played only five first-class matches, none so compelling that he demanded attention. Without any doubt at all he cannot have been in the selectors' short-, medium- or long-term thoughts unless they were hanging round the St Kilda club in Melbourne where he plied his trade until last season, when he took the plunge to try his hand in Western Australia.
Beer is a bizarre choice for all sorts of reasons. He took five wickets in WA's defeat against England last month but he also went at five runs an over, the tourists taking a particular liking to him as they chased their target. Beer follows into the team his fellow left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty, who was also picked on a hunch and has sadly been made to look out of his depth.
Until Doherty, orthodox left-arm spin had been ignored in Australia for a quarter of a century. The last specialist in the team was Bob Holland, whose last Test was in 1986. Australia are going against the natural order. It is England who have relied historically on finger spin, usually of the left-arm variety. Nor can it be said that Beer has been picked to exploit his hometown pitch: the Waca is notoriouslyunkind to spinners and he has played three matches there.
One of Australia's successful wrist- spinners, Stuart MacGill, who took 208 Test wickets, said: "I am gobsmacked, shocked, I can't believe it. The team will have to change again after the next Test. Good on Michael Beer, good bloke and good player, but look at this as a job interview and show me his qualifications to get this job. He doesn't have any. He is not qualified for the job they've given him. Sending him out there next week, what are they trying to do?" If it was an extreme reaction, it was not a solitary one.
There is more. A match after being dropped for poor form, Mitchell Johnson is back without having played a game. That would seem to defy logic, yet these selectors have managed to rationalise it. It is all like being in England 20 or so years ago. The Ashes are at stake so it is tempting to cast round for something, anything, that might work. But the more they look, the more frantic the search becomes.
In this febrile atmosphere, Ricky Ponting must somehow pull his team together in one direction. But Ponting himself is under the direst pressure. He wrote in his newspaper column yesterday that he had not given even a moment's thought to resigning and was also given the dreaded ringing endorsement by James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, who said there was no suggestion that there was anything but ultimate confidence in Ponting as player and captain.
But it is unthinkable that he could continue should Australia lose the Ashes for the third time under his leadership. Ponting is not scoring the runs expected of him – one hundred from his past 33 innings – and is therefore not raising the level of the rest of the team. In their halcyon days of not so long ago, the great players made the good players around them seem considerably better.
It remains possible, as was suspected before the series began, that there is barely a fag paper between the teams and that Australia will reply in kind this week. Of the 11 Test matches between the sides in Perth, England have won only one and that was in 1978-79, when Australia were fielding a second team because of the breakaway World Series Cricket.
Possible, then, but, a nation seems to think, futile. England have dominated the previous seven successive Test days in a manner they cannot have imagined. It is their Ashes to lose now and Australia know it.