England continue to dominate the series and it's going to take a lot to stop them.
Unless Andrew Flintoff breaks down or the Australian pace bowling improves beyond measure, Andrew Strauss will have a hand on the Ashes urn before the teams return to London. Admittedly it is never wise to underestimate any Australian cricket team but the gap between the sides seems to be widening not shrinking. Since suffering a grievous blow in Cardiff, the visitors have been been unable to get close enough to England to explore their weak points. Now Ricky Ponting and company face a long fight to go to Leeds only 1-0 behind.
England have been stronger where it matters, at the top, tail and midriff.
Strauss, Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson have been the differences between the sides. Try as they might, the Australians have not been able to find anyone to match them. The hosts have been winning most of the battles of the new ball and also field the most influential player on either side. It is not a bad combination. Between them this trio have exerted such pressure on their opponents that the Australians have been unable to mount any assaults of their own.
Strauss has been superb and counts among the pre-eminent opening batsmen in the game. Anyone choosing a world XI would be obliged to consider his credentials, and maybe two or three others playing in this match, with his counterpart as the only Australian contender. Strauss straight drives and cuts with impressive control and appears so settled at the crease that it's a surprise when he loses his wicket. Once set, he more resembles concrete than jelly and turns Test fifties into hundreds more often than any contemporary. Apparently Don Bradman and George Headley lead the list and Strauss is placed fourth. Accordingly his dismissal yesterday was a bigger surprise than former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's.
None of the touring top order has been as composed as the English lefty. But, then, the top order has a disjointed look about it. Like fixing a leak or baking a pie, opening the batting is a job best left to experts. Among the visitors only Phillip Hughes opens the batting for his state and he is 20 and not playing. Mike Hussey used to open but somehow slipped down the list, a decision that ought to be reviewed. Only Manuel is worse at waiting than Hussey.
His nerves all atwitter, he arrives at the crease in a dither and is lucky to survive his first few deliveries. Although he did not take any first-innings wickets, or look likely to do so, Flintoff still managed to change the course of the contest with an innings so correct and coruscating that the visitors were utterly unable to contain him. Besides carting the bowling around, Flintoff changed the mood of the match, another priceless asset. No sooner had he taken guard then Ponting changed his field and Mitchell Johnson adjusted his length. The pattern was broken, and Australia began to leak runs square and behind the wicket. Throughout the match wickets have fallen when the ball has been aimed full and straight with an appropriate field. Australia played the man and not the game, and did not recover their poise. Ponting's preference for placing fieldsmen on the leg boundary as opposed to third slip or third man continues to bemuse.
Australia have searched in vain for someone to ape Flintoff. Shane Watson is a good cricketer but he's no ball buster. Still, his first attempt as an opener was the most successful from any Australian for 27 years. He played pretty well in his second outing as well. It's possible to be a capable cricketer without having Flintoff's force of personality. But Watson's bowling was not much cop. It takes him five overs to get loose and then it's time for a rest.
Alongside Flintoff, Anderson has been the most potent bowler in a high-scoring series. Flintoff's spell at Lord's and Anderson's work in Birmingham put the batsmen under intense pressure. Contrastingly, the Australians have not put together a single threatening hour. Anderson's ability to swing deliveries both ways and his use of the crease set him apart. His action is too eventful to promote consistency but his best is outstanding. Ben Hilfenhaus, his main rival, is an honest swinger of the ball and can keep a line but he lacks the precisely pitched straight delivery that brought Terry Alderman so many wickets. As was confirmed yesterday, his later spells also lack venom.
Clearly the Australians are trying to learn from Anderson. Swing has become their mantra, the Duke ball has become their Sudoku. Yesterday they did swerve the ball more than previously. Held back, bowling from closer to the crease and with a higher arm, Johnson sent down his best spells of the tour. Not that competition was hot. Peter Siddle was able to curl the ball back into the bat but lacked the required control. It was an improvement but the tourists will have been just as pleased by the sight of Brett Lee and Stuart Clark bowling on the square before play. Apparently they are fit to play at Headingly. It might be too late. As the great songster put it, "it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there."
Australia need to match the performances or reduce the impact of these opponents. After all it is a middle-ranking England side that is competent and combative as opposed to intimidating. These fine cricketers are backed up by a long batting order, a feisty spinner able to beat opponents through the air. However, they have a middle order that lacks authority.
Ponting knows England can be beaten. Apart from these three blokes, his main worry is not the opposition but his own team, and especially his pace bowling. On that score, yesterday was the most encouraging of the campaign.
View from Down Under
'Ponting was dealt a dud hand'
Australia need to turn themselves around in a few days. It can begin by backing their captain. Ponting has his limitations but is not to blame for his team's predicament. He has not deserved the attacks by local grandstanders, nor the boos of the crowd. He has been dealt a dud hand.
Sydney Morning Herald
'Bad umpires are tolerated'
Rudi Koertzen continues to confirm what the cricket world already knows, the standard of umpiring is terrible. Umpiring is such a low priority that bad umpires are tolerated and those who are past it continue to be given games. Witness Rudi Koertzen.
'Captain failed to dominate'
He may have broken Allan Border's run-scoring record but there can be no lessening of the captain leading from the front.
That was no more obvious than on Friday when Ponting failed to dominate and his side failed again. If Ponting is not out in front with spear and shield, Australia is a modest unit, made more so by Mike Hussey's form slump.
The Daily Telegraph, Sydney
Facts from the frontline
England's Barmy Army have not always been well received down under. Trumpeter Bill Cooper was ejected from Brisbane in 2006, despite protesting: "I'm a professional musician, not some drunk trying to play the didgeridoo." Strewth.
From Alec Stewart's Cricket Companion (Corinthian, £16.99). To order a copy for £15.29 (inc P&P) visit www. independentbooksdirect.co.uk