At high noon the tour reached its most desperate hour. Alastair Cook, once among England’s most successful captains, took guard at the Members’ End.
It had been another futile morning. Australia had plundered 134 runs from 17 overs, 28 of them in the 17th alone. Cook might have had that still whirring uneasily through his mind. The fissures in the pitch before him were enough to make anybody crack up. He had 10 hours and 30 minutes to bat. At the Prindiville Stand End, Ryan Harris began his run. The crowd roared, the ball was fast and full and Cook pushed forward.
Perhaps he narrowly misjudged the line but it hardly mattered. The ball held its own through the air, then hinted at moving away off the pitch to clip the top of off stump. It was an impeccable ball, a classic, a perfect storm. England, needing 504 to win and keep the Ashes alive, were 0 for 1. Cook was out to his first ball for the first time in Tests.
The Ashes Podcast: Stephen Brenkley and Tom Collomosse review the fourth day of the Third Test in Perth. Listen below...
The hollowness of that moment for England was matched by Australian ecstasy. The captain and primary target had been removed. The match was not yet done but whatever happened next, whoever took the wickets and scored the runs, England could go no lower.
There were risibly bad moments on the fourth day before (the catch two fielders left for each other during Australia’s onslaught) and after (Kevin Pietersen’s steepling drive to long on when England were supposed to be fighting to save their skin) but that was when enough seemed to be enough, when God was finally determining that there was to be no fourth successive Ashes victory, when the wheel had turned full circle for Cook.
He made 766 runs in the Ashes here three years ago at an average of 128; he now has 154 in this at 26. That is around his average for all his other Tests against Australia save for those in his series mirabilis. No one would have wished that ball on England’s captain yesterday but no one was surprised that he received it.
Australia were denied a fourth-day win by a combination of Ian Bell, who did not survive until stumps, and Ben Stokes, who did. Stokes stroked the ball cleanly and nervelessly. He is one of those infernal positives sought in defeated dressing rooms.
This rubber might very well finish 5-0 but in that instant the entire ill-starred venture was encapsulated. England were amid their worst day’s cricket since the day before. Which was saying something.
Those who were firm in their beliefs that the tourists would come to Australia and claim the great prize for the fourth successive time have been made to look like frivolous dolts. But even those who counselled caution, who knew the perils of playing in Australia, who recalled what happened in 1958 when another England side full of high achievers who had won three Ashes series fell to their doom, could not have predicted this merciless onslaught.
England have been so outplayed in each of the first three Tests that they have been left more than 500 to win in their second innings in all of them. That has never happened before. Comparisons, though odious, are inevitable with other calamitous campaigns. But this seems less excusable than the disastrous tour, led by Andrew Flintoff, seven years ago.
That was shambolic, with a man who should not have been captain and had no working relationship with an accomplished coach who was losing the plot. But Australia were a side containing four or five of the most formidable men to have played the game, hell-bent on vengeance for their defeat in the epic ’05 series in England.
Cook and Andy Flower have an adult relationship based on liking and mutual respect. But on the third and fourth days of this match England have produced cricket breathtaking in its meekness, vulnerability and stupidity. Australia may be driven but, man for man, they are not in the same league as the men who humiliated England in 2006-07.
The Waca, whose $500m redevelopment plans were shelved yesterday, putting its future in peril, was full, hot and excited. Few among the crowd would have anticipated the violently entertaining cricket which followed. For an hour Australia humiliated England. Humiliation in sport is never easy on the eye, for it negates the notion of the contest. Shane Watson was 29 not out from 66 balls overnight and after receiving another 10 balls had reached fifty.
Thirty balls after that he had made his fourth Test ton. He was out only after Bell dropped a high, miscued drive and Tim Bresnan threw down the stumps at the end to which he started running too late. Watson struck Graeme Swann, who had bowled with admirable control the previous day, for 14 off his first over and 22 off the next. Worse, much worse, was to ensue.
Before this match, George Bailey was one of several batsmen in Australia’s top six whose place was under threat (another was Watson). A top-edged pull fell between Jimmy Anderson and Bell. They left it for each other, the Australian dressing room collapsed into laughter.
Bailey completed the mayhem. If anybody had suggested a month ago that Bailey would strike Anderson for three sixes, two fours and a two in a Test over they would have been declared barking. As the final straight six whistled over Anderson’s head – and with it a goodly portion of this fine bowler’s self-respect – Michael Clarke declared at 369 for 6.
Cook went, Michael Carberry followed after another stay of brief promise, Joe Root optimistically referred his jabbed catch behind and then came Pietersen. He was finding batting easy – he hit Nathan Lyon for one six with long on back but it was surely tempting providence to do it again. He did it again. It is increasingly difficult to believe that the hunger still burns within Pietersen’s soul.