In the annals of sport, choking is a common phenomenon. It is one of the elements that make games worth watching. Rarely, however, can it have been exhibited with quite the collective zeal of England in the past two days.
The finishing line in the Ashes was in sight, the home side were narrowly ahead by dint of good fortune, careful planning and two inspirational individual performances. Nothing was certain, of course, but if they held their nerve and remained disciplined, the terracotta urn – the object of all the fuss – would be coming home.
Instead, England arrived here and froze. The great prize seems as far away as it can ever have been. Their batting after winning the toss on the first morning was shambolic, their bowling was no less awry on both days so far and their batting crumbled woefully yet again in the late afternoon yesterday.
Their only consolation can be that there will not be many days left to take ineffectual cricket to new lows. There is supposed to be little between these sides, which is as well for England because otherwise the margin of defeat in this match would be rather more severe than the innings defeat which is certain.
Australia secured a first-innings lead of 343, rattling along yesterday at four runs an over, and by the close of the second day they led by 261. In two hours of batting before the close, England began well but then came cataclysm. Five wickets – and it should have been six – went down for 20 runs in 39 minutes and 44 balls. It was wretched. England played poorly, Australia played well: only one side have been ready for the contest.
The evening succession was lamentable to behold. Andrew Strauss was pinned leg before when he was again looking in good fettle in a first-wicket partnership of 58. The hapless Ravi Bopara lasted one ball, might have been the victim of a dodgy decision and has 105 runs in the series at an average of 15.
Ian Bell edged Mitchell Johnson to slip, his return to the side imbued with misery and failure. Paul Collingwood, who looks in horrible form again, was palpably leg before to a swinging ball from Johnson. Alastair Cook edged an away swinger from him. And Matt Prior was dropped at third slip off the last ball of the day. It could be said that Johnson, who looked all but washed up a couple of weeks ago, is back. His three wickets last night came in 14 balls; he has repaid the faith put in him.
The faith of the England selectors, often misplaced, can never have been so severely tested. Having been so resolute in their frequent refusal to select, they will now have a week to decide what to do. If they reflect the manner in which their team have played here, there will be nothing calm about their deliberations.
To say that the inspirational qualities of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff are being missed is not to give full justice to the disorderly cricket of those left behind.
By mid-morning the miracle of Headingley 1981, when England saved their Ashes campaign by winning the Third Test after being asked to follow on, was being invoked as evidence of what could happen. Different circumstances apply this time but as England's shoulders drooped yesterday it was impossible to espy the figures who might effect a transformation.
Australia will level the series sometime today, probably in the morning. Patience has been the major difference between the sides as much as skill. The tourists have played authentic, high-powered Test cricket.
It has been played at pace but it has never seemed rushed. Everything that England did in both first innings appeared to be designed to make something happen immediately, like teenage boys fumbling round frenetically in the dark with their best girl, pretending that they knew what they were doing but not, in truth, having a clue.
It was Test cricket in the raw, and it looked frightening and frightened: they wanted the Ashes and they wanted them pronto. Only disaster could ensue and only disaster did. What must not be forgotten in the fall-out (and in a cricketing sense it will be of nuclear proportions) is that the Ashes are still at stake.
All the form and mental edge will be with Australia. Presumably, England cannot choke again because they will no longer be expected to cross the line first. The disappointments have been legion but Bopara and Jimmy Anderson stand out in this match. Bopara's dismissal on Friday was as tame as it is possible to be for a premier batsman in a blue riband series. It was a callow shot which led to his downfall, a half-hearted prod to gully, and it can be seen now that the young Essex batsman has been trapped utterly out of his depth without a lifeboat.
Of course, he has suffered by comparison with the No 3 batsman on the other side, Ricky Ponting, one of the most formidable No 3s in the history of the game. But it has still been a grim spectacle. England's selectors were not alone in being enchanted by Bopara's three consecutive centuries against West Indies but they are alone in being paid to make critical assessments based on matters beyond talent.
Bopara has that quality in abundance and he may one day make lots of runs for England but he has been disturbingly exposed. What England do about it is far from clear. If they drop Bopara for his own sake as well as that of the team – and last night's dismissal left little option unless they take to the extreme a combination of loyalty and stubbornness – the next batsman in line appears to be Jonathan Trott. But he has barely batted at No 3 for Warwickshire this summer.
This was meant to be Anderson's summer and given the prevailing conditions this should have been his match. But after seeming to come to terms with his position as the leader of England's attack at Lord's, he blew it here, albeit he was hampered by injury. It is hardly ideal for bowlers to have a total of 102 to bowl at but he sent out appalling signals when he began Australia's innings with two long hops.
Yesterday, his third ball was driven for four, his fourth was a wide. He did not know whether to bowl outswingers or inswingers. By the time the second new ball arrived Strauss did not trust him. He opted for Steve Harmison, who pitched too short, and Graham Onions.
England's most successful bowler was Stuart Broad, who took 6 for 91, his best figures in Test cricket. Deserved, too, as he mopped up Australia after they had established their dominance. Although England had a minor triumph in preventing Michael Clarke from reaching his third century of the series, they could not stop Marcus North reaching his second. Clarke was as classy as he has been all summer long; North was solid, playing the shots he knew he could play.
England must have been embarrassed by Stuart Clark, of all people, climbing in to their bowling with 32 from 22 balls and three mountainous sixes. But there were greater embarrassments to come.
Second day of five; England won toss
England – First innings 102
(P M Siddle 5-21)
Australia – First innings (Overnight 196-4: R T Ponting 78, S R Watson 51)
M J Clarke lbw b Onions (195 min, 138 balls, 13 fours) 93
M J North c Anderson b Broad (325 min, 206 balls, 13 fours, 1 six) 110
†B J Haddin c Bell b Harmison (27 min, 23 balls, 1 four) 14
M G Johnson c Bopara b Broad (72 min, 53 balls, 5 fours)
P M Siddle b Broad (2 min, 1 ball) 0
S R Clark b Broad (25 min, 22 balls, 1 four, 3 sixes) 32
B W Hilfenhaus not out (7 min, 3 balls) 0
Extras (b9 lb14 w4 nb 3) 30
Total (464 min, 104.1 overs) 445
Fall (cont): 5-303 (Clarke), 6-323 (Haddin), 7-393 (Johnson), 8-394 (Siddle), 9-440 (Clark).
Bowling: J M Anderson 18-3-89-0, S J Harmison 23-4-98-2, G Onions 22-5-80-2, S C J Broad 25.1-6-91-6, G P Swann 16-4-64-0.
England – Second innings
*A J Strauss lbw b Hilfenhaus (97 min, 78 balls, 4 fours) 32
A N Cook c Haddin b Johnson (136 min, 84 balls, 4 fours) 30
R S Bopara lbw b Hilfenhaus (1 min, 1 ball) 0
I R Bell c Ponting b Johnson (15 min, 12 balls) 3
P D Collingwood lbw b Johnson (10 min, 10 balls) 4
J M Anderson not out (19 min, 7 balls) 0
†M J Prior not out (9 min, 6 balls) 4
Extras (lb 3 nb 6) 9
Total (5 wkts, 146 min, 32 overs) 82
Fall: 1-58 (Strauss), 2-58 (Bopara), 3-67 (Bell), 4-74 (Collingwood), 5-78 (Cook).
To bat: S C J Broad, G P Swann, S J Harmison, G Onions.
Bowling: B W Hilfenhaus 11-2-37-2, P M Siddle 6-2-4-0, S R Clark 5-1-17-0, M G Johnson 10-2-21-3.
Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pak) & B F Bowden (NZ).
Third umpire: I J Gould.
Match referee: R S Madugalle (SL).Reuse content