In only three weeks a remarkable transformation has taken place. The old order seems to have been changed so completely that supernatural forces might be at work. England have become Australia and, stranger still, Australia have become England. Never was this more clearly illustrated than on the first day of the third Test. England, in the jargon de nos jours, were again all over Australia.
Having won the toss and decided to bowl, always a bold choice and frequently a foolish one, the tourists reduced their opponents to tatters. It was not quite as spectacular as the tatters of Adelaide when Australia were 2 for 3, but at 36 for 4 yesterday, it was tatters all the same.
There was a recovery of sorts which England may have had cause to rue but a total of 268 all out from 75 overs still made it England's day yet again. Scores, as ever, do not tell the whole story. There was a fatalism about Australia and a purposefulness about England which made for a telling difference. Radio commentators could be heard talking about English arrogance. Now that really is something.
But their fielding at present is a joy to behold and they took two stunning slip catches yesterday, which were the sort that defined Australia's pre-eminence in their great years. It is perhaps the biggest change of all and perhaps that vast improvement has helped advances in other aspects. Even when things were briefly going against them yesterday, England looked a side at ease with themselves, Australia did not.
England made one enforced change because of the injury to Stuart Broad and, as expected, gave Chris Tremlett his fourth Test cap. Tremlett, from his first over, did precisely what was required. Australia made four changes to the team which was heavily defeated in Adelaide. Their selection is all over the place and the four-man panel must be threatening the world pin supply since their preferred method of choosing players seems to be based on sticking the tail on the donkey.
At the last minute, they opted not to play the left-arm spinner, Michael Beer, about whom there had been so much fuss in the preceding few days. Ricky Ponting, their captain, was seen in animated discussion with two of the selectors, Greg Chappell and David Boon, and turned sharply on his heels as he walked away and could be seen telling Beer he was not in.
It meant they were left with an attack of four fast bowlers with Steve Smith to bowl some leg-breaks if and when necessary. This smacks of strategy being made on the hoof. England have been planning for these Ashes for months and have never once deviated from their mission statement.
Too many of Australia's premier batsmen are out of form. Ponting, a champion in every way as his colleague Mike Hussey observed later, is having a dreadful time of it and for the third time in five innings had to make his way to the crease after the loss of an early wicket. Phillip Hughes, the recalled opener, was the man to depart, playing a grotesque stroke across the line to a ball which seamed through his bat and pad. It marked a wonderful return to Test cricket for Tremlett, a horrible one for Hughes.
It was clear Ponting had decided he must impose himself on proceedings and immediately struck three fours, though one was edged hard through a vacant area where fourth slip might have been. But he looked agitated in his determination and it was no surprise when he went hard at a ball from Jimmy Anderson. Paul Collingwood took a memorable diving catch at third slip.
As if the captain's wretched form – his scores in the series are 10, 51 not out, 0, 9 and 12 – is not bad enough for Australia their vice-captain is performing an impeccable impersonation of a walking wicket. It was hardly ideal for Michael Clarke to come in at 17 for 2 with the ball moving around, but that is what No 4 batsmen have to do.
During his 13-minute stay, Clarke made Ponting seem like a player at the peak of his powers and the shot he played to a good ball from Tremlett, with the bat well from body, spoke of a batsman out of love with his game. Shane Watson was the fourth wicket to fall before lunch and Smith, drafted in as the No 6, went soon after it.
It was left to Hussey and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin to try to salvage something and they played with admirable authority. Haddin refused to let Graeme Swann settle into any early rhythm and drove hard down the ground. Hussey was as busy as ever and they put on 68 in 79 balls. Swann, however, was instrumental in removing them both. His clever ball to Hussey induced a faint edge and when Haddin pushed much too hard at a ball from Anderson, he took an excellent catch high above his head in the slips.
At this point, England might have been thinking of restricting Australia to a total around 200, but the tail batted with some grit. Mitchell Johnson, returning to the side, had somehow regained his confidence in all the nets he has been having and his 62 from 93 balls was full of his trademark hits to the area known both as wide mid-wicket and cow corner. Johnson is the most enigmatic of cricketers. There seems no explanation for the vagaries of form which are vast. At the start of England's innings, Johnson appeared to have rediscovered his lost swing.
But England could be forgiven for thinking they could see the Ashes, if only out of the corner of their eye.
Waca, Perth (First day of five): England trail Australia by 239 runs with all first-innings wickets remaining; England won toss
Australia: First Innings
S R Watson lbw b Finn 13, 40 balls 1 four
P J Hughes b Tremlett 2, 6 balls
*R T Ponting c Collingwood b Anderson 12, 10 balls 3 fours
M J Clarke c Prior b Tremlett 4, 10 balls 1 four
M E K Hussey c †Prior b Swann 61, 104 balls 9 fours 1 six
S P D Smith c Strauss b Tremlett 7, 37 balls
†B J Haddin c Swann b Anderson 53, 80 balls 6 fours 1 six
M G Johnson c Anderson b Finn 62, 93 balls 8 fours 1 six
R J Harris b Anderson 3, 5 balls
P M Siddle not out 35, 59 balls 3 fours
B W Hilfenhaus c Cook b Swann 13, 12 balls 3 fours
Extras (lb 3) 3
Total (76 overs) 268
Fall 1-2 (Hughes), 2-17 (Ponting), 3-28 (Clarke), 4-36 (Watson), 5-69 (Smith), 6-137 (Hussey), 7-189 (Haddin), 8-201 (Harris), 9-233 (Johnson), 10-268 (Hilfenhaus).
Bowling J M Anderson 20-3-61-3 (5-2-12-1, 4-1-3-0, 6-0-26-0, 5-0-20-2), C T Tremlett 23-3-63-3 (7-1-18-2, 7-1-16-1, 4-1-7-0, 5-0-22-0), S T Finn 15-1-86-2 (7-1-28-1, 4-0-33-0, 4-0-25-1), P D Collingwood 2-0-3-0 (1-0-2-0, 1-0-1-0), G P Swann 16-0-52-2 (15-0-51-1, 1-0-1-1).
Progress First day: 50 in 22.1 overs, Lunch 65-4 (Hussey 28, Smith 5) 26.0 overs, 100 in 36.1 overs, 150 in 43.3 overs, Tea 179-6 (B J Haddin 52, M G Johnson 25) 54.0 overs, 200 in 59.3 overs, 250 in 73.4 overs. Hussey: 50 98 balls, 7 fours, 1 six. Haddin: 50 67 balls 6 fours, 1 six. Johnson: 50 78 balls 7 fours, 1 six.
England: First Innings
*A J Strauss not out 12, 41 balls 2 fours
A N Cook not out 17, 31 balls 1 four 1 six
Extras (0) 0
Total (0 wkts, 12 overs) 29
To Bat I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, M J Prior, G P Swann, J M Anderson, S T Finn, C T Tremlett.
Bowling B W Hilfenhaus 4-2-5-0 (one spell), R J Harris 4-1-16-0 (one spell), P M Siddle 2-1-4-0 (one spell), M G Johnson 2-1-4-0 (one spell).
Umpires BR Doctrove (WI) & M Erasmus (SA)
TV replay umpire Aleem Dar (Pak)
Match referee JJ Crowe (NZ)Reuse content