England discovered yesterday that they have a tussle on their hands to win the Ashes in Australia. Indeed, the events of the Third Test suggested it could be rather more and that Australia may not have their hands loosened from the urn without the involvement of a small amount of explosive.
At the beginning of this series it was said by all and sundry that the sides could be separated only by a gossamer thread. By the time England had come from behind to break run records in Brisbane and dominated in Adelaide this assessment was being revised more hastilythan the number of cables in the possession of Wikileaks.
Australia were said to be in disarray and looked it. Their selectors gave every impression of panic and their players were talking a much better game than they played. The Ashes would be home by Christmas, snow or no snow.
At the end of the third day in Perth, Australia were giving every appearance of an irrepressible force and their selectors could be viewed as ancient seers whose word should never be doubted even at its craziest. A lead of 200 at the start was almost doubled thanks in large part to an impeccably judged hundred from Mike Hussey, his second of the series, his fourth in the Ashes and his 13th in all Tests. Still, England had stuck well at their task and, set a target of 391 to win, nobody was saying it was impossible.
To the point that only four higherscores had been made to win Test matches and that England had never made more than 332, it was indicatedthat that was then and this was now. Why, only two years ago at this very ground, the Waca, South Africa had made 414 to win and lost only four wickets in the process. This argument made it seem as though Australia could be at least 100 runs short.
Two hours later, England were 81 for 5 and the match had disappeared over a far horizon. Good bowling and bad batting were the reason – that and the gossamer thread. Last year in England it was like this. Eventually,England prevailed with a sturdy victory at The Oval to take the series 2-1 but the teams kept exchanging positions as the rubberwore on. Australia arrived home still not believing the result.
What yesterday perhaps confirmed is that the closeness of the teams does not necessarily lead to close matches. Instead, it may mean that one side can seem pre-eminent in one match and then be useless in the next. The trick is to be in former mode whenthe finish line approaches. To their credit but also because of previous recent experiences, England tried to put to the back of their minds thatthe Ashes could be secured in this match. On the first morning, as Australian wickets again tumbled like Lib Dem promises, it really seemed that this time the tourists could seize a decisive advantage.
On reflection it could be seen that they did not make the most of their initial breakthroughs and that Australia were allowed back into the match a touch too much. From 69 for 5, they recovered to 268 all out. England were then the victims of a Mitchell Johnson ambush.
For this they could perhaps be forgiven. It was one of the great Ashes spells, containing high velocity and late swing. England did not expect the swing because they had never seen it before and were therefore woefully unprepared. It could happen to anybody. They were also not quite ready for the Australian sledging, which was merely a counter-offensive.
But the thinking was that they were still in touch, still inspired by recent deeds. When they knocked over Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke, captain and vice-captain respectively,anything seemed possible again.Wickets early yesterday and who knows what might have happened.
But Australia, with Hussey and Shane Watson at the crease, batted with admirable application. Watson may be a manufactured opening batsman in that nobody assumed he was before he was asked to do the job in Test matches, but he has the enduring attributes. He leaves well and often and he plays straight. And then he makes capital.
For almost an hour the fourth-wicket pair were subject to a stiff examination, especially by Jimmy Anderson. They opted for survival, banking on the bowlers running out of puff. When Watson was out for the fourth time in the nineties, England had a brief glimmer.
But Hussey, who had hardly stirred at first, took control. His cutting and pulling were fierce but he drove through the covers with precision as well. To think he was one Sheffield Shield innings away from being dropped for this series. He made a century in that innings and has now scored 517 runs in the series.
By the time he was last man out after batting for more than five hours and facing 172 balls, giving the recalledChris Tremlett five wickets in an innings for the first time in a Test, his job was done. Graeme Swann, England's kingpin, had bowled onlynine overs because Hussey liked what he saw. England now had to do their job, to demonstrate that all the togetherness in the field, the constant jollying, the verbal volleys, really meant something.
Alastair Cook, scorer of two centuries in the series, was first to go, lbw to Ryan Harris. On another day he might have survived. Andrew Strauss was next, pushing at a lifting ball from the rejuvenated Johnson. Kevin Pietersen scored a vigilant but unsettling three runs before changing his bat and immediately chasing a wide one.
It seemed that England might finish the day with three down and hope still springing eternal. But Johnson was too good for Jonathan Trott and Brad Haddin took a rebound catch from Ponting at second slip. In came the nightwatchman, Jimmy Anderson, to protect Paul Collingwood. Off the penultimate ball of the day, Anderson rejected a fairly conventional single as Collingwood, badly out of form and hanging on now to his place, nudged to square leg. To the last, Collingwood played away from his body and was well caught.
Australian jubilation, English misery. The Ashes still to play for.
England won toss
Australia: 1st Innings: 268 all out (76 overs)
England: 1st Innings: 187 all out (62.3 overs)
Australia (2nd innings continued: 119 for 3 overnight)
S R Watson lbw Tremlett 95/221/11/0
M E K Hussey c Swann b Tremlett 116/296/15/0
S P D Smith c Prior b Tremlett 36/83/2/0
B J Haddin b Tremlett 7/17/0/1
M G Johnson c Bell b Collingwood 1/5/0/0
R J Harris c Bell b Finn 1/14/0/0
P M Siddle c Collingwood b Anderson 8/33/1/0
B W Hilfenhaus not out 0/5/0/0
Extras (lb6 w4 nb2) 12
Total (all out, 86 overs) 309
Fall 1-31 2-34 3-64 4-177 5-252 6-271 7-276 8-2849-308 10-209.
Bowling Anderson 26-7-65-1; Tremlett 24-4-87-5; Finn 21-4-97-3; Swann 9-0-51-0; Collingwood 6-3-3-1.
England (2nd innings – target 391 runs)
A J Strauss c Ponting b Johnson 15/35/3/0
A N Cook lbw Harris 13/16/1/0
I J L Trott c Haddin b Johnson 31/61/3/0
K P Pietersen c Watson b Hilfenhaus 3/23/0/0
P D Collingwood c Smith b Harris 11/27/1/0
J M Anderson not out 0/1/0/0
Extras (lb7 nb1) 8
Total (5 wickets; 27 overs) 81
Fall 1-23 2-37 3-55 4-81 5-81.
Bowling Hilfenhaus 10-4-16-1; Harris 6-1-22-2; Johnson 7-1-28-2; Siddle 4-1-8-0.
Umpires B R Doctrove (WI) and M Erasmus (SA).