Australia 244 & 119-1 England 215: Ponting poised to reclaim urn as England's hopes slip away

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The Independent Online

There was something foreboding about the final delivery of the second day here and the reaction of Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting after the ball had run away to the fine-leg boundary for four. The pair were jogging when they met in the middle of the track and, after a strong and meaningful clinch of the hands, they trotted back to the Australian changing room with purpose and big smiles on their faces.

As Hayden approached the Perth crowd, who were standing and applauding his unbeaten 119-run partnership with Ponting, he punched two or three little upper-cuts before skipping up the terracing. It was a small gesture, aimed solely at the Aussie fans, but it suggested that he thought Australia were almost home and the Ashes had all but been regained. They probably have.

England's demeanour was in stark contrast. Andrew Flintoff's side looked haggard and disjointed as they drifted towards the changing shed and the hard, wooden benches within would have provided little comfort. The compulsory ice bath may have killed the pain, but only briefly.

This was a dire day for England. Had they won it, and posted a first innings in excess of 350, they would have taken a huge stride towards making one of the most remarkable Ashes comebacks. Instead, after being bowled out for 215 and then watching Australia ease to 119 for 1, they are heading for Ashes ignominy.

Their position would have been even worse but for another masterful innings by Kevin Pietersen and a defiant last-wicket stand of 40 between England's first-day heroes Stephen Harmison and Monty Panesar. When Pietersen was on strike the pitch looked pristine and the ball unerringly struck the middle of his bat. The bowling here has been of a high quality but the surface holds few terrors, as Hayden and Ponting showed during unbeaten fifties.

Pietersen hit one six and eight fours in his 70 before being caught at long-on trying an ambitious heave at Brett Lee. The stroke will be criticised by some but he had to try something. Pushing singles to fielders on the boundary to eke out runs with the tail is not the way Pietersen plays, and long may that be so.

England began the second day 193 runs behind on 51 for 2 and with ambitions of taking a first-innings lead. Players need to be mentally strong at this level and Flintoff's team, when put under pressure, buckled for the fourth time on the tour. They fell apart on that first morning in Brisbane in the field and in their first innings there and on the fifth morning in Adelaide. If a team want to retain the Ashes they cannot afford such lapses.

Here, though, England's demise had as much to do with naïve batting as a failure to cope with a tough situation. The team of coaches and analysts must have advised the batsmen how to bat at the WACA. The pitch may not possess the pace and bounce it did a decade ago, but there is still more life in it than in most Test tracks, so thrusting a vertical bat at the ball when it is wide of the stumps is filled with danger.

It is why Justin Langer and Michael Hussey, natives of Western Australia, leave the new ball whenever possible. They trust the bounce and do not worry about the "oohs" and "aaghs" from the fielders as the ball travels over middle stump. Big shots are played but only when the ball is wide. The combination of width and bounce allows a batsman to go after the ball with a horizontal bat. If edged, the ball often flies high over the slips.

With conditions here so different to Adelaide, it would have made sense for all of England's batsmen to play in the two-day game here against Western Australia. Paul Collingwood and Flintoff, whose techniques were most exposed by the conditions, would have been given the chance of valuable practice, but rest was preferred instead.

Australia's bowlers are aware of the conditions and how to bowl at the WACA. Stuart Clark, the new Glenn McGrath, told me prior to the Test that he did not expect to get batsmen out bowled or leg before here. His plan was simple: bowl a tight line on off-stump and wait for the opposition to come at him. And, as they tried to score runs from balls that were not there to hit, wickets would come.

Collingwood was the first to succumb when he pushed weakly at the 18th ball of the day and was caught in the gully. It was the classic WACA dismissal and it provided McGrath with his 50th Test wicket here. How many others have fallen in similar fashion? A high proportion, I would guess.

With Collingwood gone much was required of Andrew Strauss and Pietersen, the only remaining players in England's line-up who have looked like posting big scores. Strauss was in control before he drove wildly at a full delivery from Clark and was given out caught behind. Strauss did not want to go and replays suggested that he had a right to be disappointed. It is the second consecutive time that the opener has been given out wrongly. These things even themselves out but it may well be too late for England when Strauss gets his good fortune.

Flintoff's batting in Australia is a worry. The captain keeps saying he is in good form but he does not look it. He has never seemed comfortable against high-quality fast bowling and this was so here. Twice Lee overpitched and twice Flintoff struck him strongly down the ground for four, but when the ball was dug in short he wafted crudely at it. These were not the shots of a man holding aspirations of scoring a hundred. Flintoff's torment ended when he tentatively edged an Andrew Symonds leg-cutter to Shane Warne at slip.

Geraint Jones departed nine minutes later when he drove loosely at Symonds and was caught deep in the gully. The stroke, and his batting on the tour, has made a mockery of Duncan Fletcher's assertion that Jones was better equipped to score runs in Australia than Chris Read. The England coach's judgement has been sound since he took charge in 1999 but he is having a shocker this winter. Panesar looks like scoring more runs than Jones, let alone Ashley Giles.

Day Two: How They Rated

England

Paul Collingwood 2

Naïve shot for the WACA with its extra bounce.

Andrew Strauss 5

Looked good before another poor decision.

Kevin Pietersen 8

Even he cannot take the Aussies on his own.

Andrew Flintoff 3

Aussie quicks seem to have bedevilled him.

Geraint Jones 0

A mark to match his score.

Matthew Hoggard 6

100 per cent commitment, as ever.

Australia

Stuart Clark 7

The new McGrath.

Glenn McGrath 6

The old Clark.

Brett Lee 7

That's more like it.

Shane Warne 5

Only five required for 700.

Andrew Symonds 8

Two good wickets, brilliant in the field.

Ricky Ponting 8

Another captain's innings.

Matthew Hayden 8

Worryingly good.

Second-day scoreboard

Australia won toss

Australia - First Innings 244 (Hussey 74).

England - First Innings (Overnight: 51 for 2)

A J Strauss c Gilchrist b Clark 42

109 min, 71 balls, 6 fours

A N Cook c Langer b McGrath 15

26 min, 15 balls, 2 fours

I R Bell c Gilchrist b Lee 0

5 min, 2 balls

P D Collingwood c Hayden b McGrath 11

43 min, 33 balls, 1 four

K P Pietersen c Symonds b Lee 70

80 min, 123 balls, 8 fours, 1 six

*A Flintoff c Warne b Symonds 13

47 min, 31 balls, 2 fours

ÝG O Jones c Langer b Symonds 0

10 min, 4 balls

S I Mahmood c Gilchrist b Clark 10

24 min, 18 balls, 1 four

M J Hoggard c Hayden b Warne 4

47 min, 39 balls

S J Harmison c Lee b Clark 23

55 min, 33 balls, 3 fours

M S Panesar not out 16

41 min, 26 balls, 3 fours

Extras (w1 nb10) 11

Total (299 min, 64.1 overs) 215

Fall: 1-36 (Cook) 2-37 (Bell) 3-55 (Collingwood) 4-82 (Strauss) 5-107 (Flintoff) 6-114 (Jones) 7-128 (Mahmood) 8-155 (Hoggard) 9-175 (Pietersen) 10-215 (Harmison).

Bowling: Lee 18-1-69-2 (nb6) (5-0-24-1, 7-1-23-0, 6-0-22-1); McGrath 18-5-48-2 (nb4) (5-1-18-1, 7-3-17-1, 5-1-12-0, 1-0-1-0); Clark 15.1-3-49-3 (w1) (8-3-20-1, 1-0-4-0, 4-0-15-1, 2.1-0-10-1); Warne 9-0-41-1 (2-0-8-0, 7-0-33-1); Symonds 4-1-8-2 (one spell).

Progress: First day: 50: 60 min, 13.1 overs. Close: 51-2 (Strauss 24, Collingwood 10) 14 overs. Second day: 100: 149 min, 31.5 overs. Lunch: 122-6 (Pietersen 27, Mahmood 6) 39 overs. 150: 227 min, 48.1 overs. 200: 283 min, 60.2 overs. Innings closed: 4.07pm, tea taken.

Pietersen's 50: 164 min, 108 balls, 6 fours.

Australia - Second Innings

J L Langer b Hoggard 0

1 min, 1 ball

M L Hayden not out 57

151 min, 103 balls, 9 fours

*R T Ponting not out 57

149 min, 112 balls, 7 fours

Extras (b 0, lb 4, w 1, nb 0, pens 0) 5

Total (for 1, 151 min, 36 overs) 119

Fall: 1-0 (Langer).

To bat: M E K Hussey, M J Clarke, A Symonds, ÝA C Gilchrist, S K Warne, B Lee, S R Clark, G D McGrath.

Bowling: Hoggard 7-2-21-1 (one spell); Flintoff 8-1-23-0 (3-1-13-0, 5-0-10-0); Harmison 8-1-30-0 (6-1-24-0, 2-0-6-0); Panesar 10-1-29-0; Mahmood 2-0-12-0 (w1); Pietersen 1-1-0-0 (one spell each).

Progress: Second day: 50: 54 min, 12.1 overs. 100: 114 min, 26.1 overs.

Hayden's 50: 123 min, 77 balls, 8 fours. Ponting's 50: 112 min, 85 balls, 7 fours.

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and R E Koertzen (SA).

TV replay umpire: S J Davis.

Match referee: J J Crowe.

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