Clarke delivers wake-up call to England's dream

It was when Damien Martyn and Michael Clarke walked out after the tea interval yesterday with the Australian score at 140 for 3, which, with the first-innings lead of 35 added, was a point of strength rather than domination.

England went through the Long Room and down the pavilion steps quite pensively, men with troubled expressions and body language which might have been most charitably described as tentative. Martyn and Clarke, the veteran and the not-so-young man who was once required to carry the burden of being described as the "new Bradman" were something of a contrast. They cut through MCC members with the bravura of mightily committed - and confident - champions.

Indeed, the 24-year-old Clarke swished his bat so vigorously he reminded you of the time the great pugilist Marvin Hagler built up the first bell in his epic fight with Tommy "Hitman" Hearns in Las Vegas. Hagler pounded his gloves on his own head so energetically that one concerned ringside observer speculated that if they had played a few more bars of the American national anthem the champion might have knocked himself out. In fact, he beat Hearns in three of the most compelling rounds ever seen in a boxing ring.

Clarke's contest with England's bowlers took a little longer - two hours 31 minutes - and, tragically for his career records, he did knock himself out. But by then you had to believe the course of this Ashes series had been turned, irresistibly, in his team's favour.

Clarke's 91 was the majority share of the 155-run stand with Martyn and by the time it came to an end Australia were 290 runs ahead with six wickets left. That was a stranglehold that seemed beyond Australian dreams when Steve Harmison led England's battery of pacemen with a five-wicket assault in the first innings that seemed to justify at least some of the summer-long hype building around England's chances, but it would have been tightened even more fiercely had the boy from Sydney not lost his head and his wicket.

When he played on to Matthew Hoggard he was awash with both adrenaline and glory and if some of the older heads in the Australian dressing-room might have regretted his rashness, they also had to be grateful for the force of his intervention - and at least a little understanding of why he believed his name was written against a century in the sunlit sky above Lord's.

As a young man waiting for the exit of such Australian batting bankers as the Waugh brothers and Darren Lehmann, some worried that Clarke's ambition might sour. But his resolve remained as bright as the sunrise over Bondi, when he played his first Test in Australia. In Brisbane, India and Bangalore results were spectacular - centuries that flowed as surely as the one that seemed so likely here yesterday until his rush of blood.

In Brisbane and Bangalore, Clarke was supported by grandparents and parents and they were in place again yesterday. So was the nerve of the man touted to be potentially one of the great names in Australian cricket, and long before the end of his aggressive innings it seemed that all the high hopes of the English summer had been crushed by the old reality of a superior cricket culture.

This conclusion - so unavoidable as Clarke took up the fight with Martyn - author of one of the great Test catches earlier when he sped along the boundary and brought to an end the spectacular resistance of England's dynamic but somewhat erratic debutant Kevin Pietersen - was somewhat clouded in the last hour of action. England, brought back from the dead by Clarke's hugely extravagant shots, claimed three more wickets - those of Martyn, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne.

It left Australia with a lead of 314 runs and three wickets standing and you did not have to be a paranoid Englishmen to be concerned by the dust blowing up as the Lord's groundstaff tended the pitch. Warne watched it too, with what seemed reasonable to believe was an optimistic eye. With Glenn McGrath still high from his destruction of English batsmanship on Thursday, England's celebrations seemed to be more about rescued respect than re-discovered optimism.

Of course England are obliged to keep on talking the talk. However, they do have a difficulty. It is matching, punch for punch, a team which over the year has perfected the art of winning.

What Clarke brought to Lord's yesterday was the fiercest belief in his right to be among the winners. It is a trait of most Australians - and South Africans. We were reminded of this last point by the ferocious commitment of Pietersen, when he repaired to a degree the wreckage of the England innings with a 58 that contained two sixes - one off Warne, one off McGrath - an extraordinary measure of belief in his ability to take his first Test match utterly by storm.

This sense was further increased when he brilliantly ran out Justin Langer - suddenly Pietersen was more than another hopeful England lunge on foreign talent, he was, for a little heady while, a combination of Ian Botham and Batman.

That upward mobility could not be sustained, however. When he dropped Clarke, who was on 21, in the last over before tea, it meant that he would later face charges of extreme negligence in allowing Australia to take hold of the first and huge pivotal Test match. The indictment became even more severe when you remembered that in the Australian first innings he had also put down two catches.

However, any accountancy of Pietersen's mistake was liable to the charge of excess. It might well be true that without the reprieve of Clarke, Australia would not be in nearly so dominant a position this morning. But to hide behind this would be both unfair - and counter-productive. Pietersen made a crucial mistake, but with a bat in his hand he was a symbol of desperately needed hope. England must pray that they find a little bit more of that fire and spirit this morning. Unless they do, they will again be crushed by the sheer weight of Ashes history.

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