Ashes back in balance after England tamely surrender their grasp
Australia 268 & 309 England 187 & 123: Australia complete last-morning demolition of tourists to regain the initiative in a series that had seemed to be beyond them
The Ashes were so close that England could touch them. But after less than an hour of play on the fourth morning of the third Test yesterday, during which time they lost five wickets and the match, it must have felt that the urn was on another planet.
Or if not quite that far away, heading towards Australia at the speed of sound. England will wonder how it could happen like this. Coming into the match they were dominant, 1-0 ahead in the series after a thumping win in Adelaide and all was well with their world.
The opening stages of the Test went exactly according to plan and form. It is usually the local breeze known as the Fremantle Doctor which influences matches at the Waca, but this tricky little blighter was absent throughout. Instead a human whirlwind, Mitchell Johnson by name, swept in and blew England away.
They were never to recover; they were never in any condition to respond thereafter because they simply did not know what had hit them.
By yesterday, they merely went through the motions of batting, virtually surrendering their wickets, glad to escape this ground which has been the scene of many Pommie humiliations.
They lost by 267 runs, their last five wickets tumbling in 50 minutes. It was as wretched as their deeds in South Australia two weeks ago had been glorious.
When the third Test started England had played 11 Tests in Perth, of which they had won one and lost seven. The win column still stands at one. It is now 1-1 in the series and if the Ashes, as seemed so wonderfully possible for much of Thursday, cannot now be won by Christmas, equally, as has been the case in recent years, they cannot be lost either.
Perhaps it was the natural sensation after seeing their hopes so cruelly dashed but it did not feel like a level series as England left the field yesterday.
It felt as if a corner had been turned by Australia, that what happened on Friday morning had taken them from the depths of despair to sunlit uplands. That is what defeat by 267 runs can do to rational thought.
The more logical presumption is that there is little between these teams, as there was little between them in England last year. Instead of provoking close matches, however, it leads to domination by one or the other on a rotational basis. It was Australia's turn in this match and soon maybe it will be that of England again. Maybe.
What was brought home so forcefully in Perth, though, was just how hard Australia are to beat in their own country, especially by Poms. South Africa managed it two years ago, but they have an exceptional unit at present and had to break scoring records to do so.
England have until Boxing Day, when the fourth Test starts at Melbourne, to regroup. It will be extremely difficult for them to prepare with the single-mindedness with which they conducted the first part of the tour. Most of the group's wives and children are here now, as they should be. It is not to blame the so-called WAGs for anything, but it is entirely understandable that they will claim some of the time and thoughts of their husbands and daddies.
There may be an unsung advantage in this. It may preclude the players thinking of Johnson, what he has done to them and what he can do in the future. It is the stuff of nightmares.
But if Johnson is the warrior-in-chief he is not acting in isolation. He is the sort of player who carries his colleagues with him. When Mitchell fires, the rest follow as they did in this match.
There are other matters for England to consider over the crackers. They bowled adequately enough in the third Test but nobody came close to reprising what Johnson had done and the belief was merely reinforced that if Graeme Swann is repelled by their opponents the attack is fatally diminished.
Swann had nothing to work with at the Waca – it was why Australia opted not to play a spinner – but it is indubitable that Australia are coming hard at him. Mike Hussey, in particular, is coming hard at him, using his feet down the pitch, refusing to allow him to settle into a rhythm, and ready to pull and cut anything remotely short.
Hussey now has 517 runs in the series at an average of just over 103. He is at the top of his game again and it is remarkable that he was one innings away from having his Test career terminated before this series started. But he was. Now England have to counter him, while somehow continuing to keep Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke quiet.
There are selection conundrums which England must have feared but tried to push to the back of their mind.
Ian Bell looks their best batsman but he is stuck at No 6. Paul Collingwood, so important in other areas such as fielding at slip to Swann or anybody else for that matter and as the fifth bowling option, is in one of his batting troughs. He is not worthy of his place at present but dropping him would be a braver move than keeping him. And perhaps a more foolhardy one. The series seems to have caught up with the 21-year-old fast bowler Steve Finn, who is leaking runs, but he will come again. Matt Prior, keeping wicket excellently, is badly short of runs.
The match saw one more significant change. While the captains both preferred to evade the issue yesterday, there was unquestionably a more fervent atmosphere in the middle.
Australia, perhaps tiring of England making most of the sledging running, raised (or lowered, depending on your viewpoint) their standard. There was the suspicion that England did not especially like what they received.
It might have helped the long-term cause if England could have made a decent fist of it yesterday. The ground was full, the support almost evenly divided. But the tourists, losing from Friday morning, had finally been seen off the previous night when they lost two wickets in the last two overs. All their batting apart from Bell was gone and had been exposed.
They did not have the heart for it yesterday. Ryan Harris was the main beneficiary, taking a career-best 6 for 47 with fast, accurate bowling. he took the first three wickets to fall yesterday, including Bell, who vainly appealed his leg before decision, before Johnson joined in the rout, bowling Swann off the inside edge, before Harris wrapped up proceedings with the wicket of Finn.
Harris and Johnson took 18 of their opponents' 20 wickets in the match. For England the Ashes are no longer within touching distance. It will take all they can muster to bring them back into sight.
Third Ashes Test, the Waca, (third and fourth days of five): Australia beat England by 267 runs
England won toss
AUSTRALIA First Innings 268 (Johnson 62, Hussey 61, Haddin 53)
ENGLAND First Innings 187 (Bell 53, Strauss 52, Johnson 6-38)
Australia Second Innings
Friday overnight 119-3
S R Watson lbw b Tremlett95
174 balls 11 fours
M E K Hussey c Swann b Tremlett116
172 balls 15 fours
S P D Smith c Prior b Tremlett36
62 balls 2 fours
†B J Haddin b Tremlett7
10 balls 1 six
M G Johnson c Bell b Collingwood1
R J Harris c Bell b Finn1
P M Siddle c Collingwood b Anderson8
26 balls 1 four
B W Hilfenhaus not out0
Extras (lb6 w4 nb2)12
Total (86 overs)309
Fall: 1-31, 2-34, 3-64, 4-177, 5-252, 6-271, 7-276, 8-284, 9-308, 10-309.
Bowling: J M Anderson 26-7-65-1 (4-3-5-0, 7-2-20-0, 7-1-19-0, 1-0-3-0, 5-1-13-0, 2-0-5-1), C T Tremlett 24-4-87-5 (5-2-11-0, 4-0-9-1, 4-1-7-0, 5-0-29-1, 4-0-20-2, 2-1-11-1), S T Finn 21-4-97-3 (6-1-36-2, 3-0-12-0, 7-2-29-0, 2-0-13-0, 3-1-7-1), G P Swann 9-0-51-0 (4-0-26-0, 5-0-25-0), P D Collingwood 6-3-3-1 (one spell).
Progress: Third day: 150 in 47 overs, 200 in 54.3 overs, Lunch 211-4 (M E K Hussey 60, S P D Smith 16) 57.0 overs, 250 in 67.1 overs, Tea 297-8 (M E K Hussey 111, P M Siddle 3) 83.0 overs. Hussey: 50 74 balls, 6 fours, 100 136 balls, 13 fours.
England Second Innings
Saturday overnight 81-5
*A J Strauss c Ponting b Johnson15
35 balls 3 fours
A N Cook lbw b Harris13
16 balls 1 four
I J L Trott c Haddin b Johnson31
61 balls 3 fours
K P Pietersen c Watson b Hilfenhaus3
P D Collingwood c Smith b Harris11
27 balls 1 four
J M Anderson b Harris3
I R Bell lbw b Harris16
23 balls 3 fours
†M J Prior c Hussey b Harris10
9 balls 1 six
G P Swann b Johnson9
5 balls 1 four
C T Tremlett not out1
S T Finn c Smith b Harris2
Extras (lb8 nb1)9
Total (37 overs)123
Fall: 1-23, 2-37, 3-55, 4-81, 5-81, 6-94, 7-111, 8-114, 9-120, 10-123.
Bowling: B W Hilfenhaus 10-4-16-1 (3-1-3-0, 7-3-13-1), R J Harris 11-1-47-6 (2-0-11-0, 2-0-10-1, 2-1-1-1, 5-0-25-4), M G Johnson 12-3-44-3 (5-1-23-1, 2-0-5-1, 5-2-16-1), P M Siddle 4-1-8-0 (one spell).
Progress: Third day: 50 in 13.5 overs. Close of play: 81-5 (J M Anderson 0) in 27.0 overs. Fourth day: 100 in 32.4 overs.
Umpires: B R Doctrove (WI) & M Erasmus (SA)
TV replay umpire : Aleem Dar (Pak)
Match referee: J J Crowe (NZ).
Man of the match: M G Johnson.
Score in five-match series stands 1-1.
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