England have to fight for their destiny

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The measure of the manner in which logic, or what was once thought five weeks and a cricketing age ago to be logic, has been turned on its head was clear once more in the Fourth Test. Australia lost their last five first-innings wickets before lunch (while adding another 119 runs in 18.4 overs), and were forced to follow on for the first time since 1988, 190 Test matches ago.

They made a fight of their second innings, which began with them 259 runs behind, and nobody should have expected otherwise. By the close they had reduced the deficit to 37, and any English followers suspecting that this makes them dangerous are correct. They should remem-ber, however, as England must, that this still translates as minus 37 for four, a completely unknown position for this touring team.

It might have been worse for them, because a stubborn fifth-wicket stand should have been ended late in the evening. Geraint Jones, England's wicketkeeper, botched a straightforward stumping opportunity as Michael Clarke was deceived by Ashley Giles into going down the track. Jones polarises opinion more than any other cricketer in the England side, but this latest miss knocked a few off his jaunty 85 on Friday. If England eventually win the series, they would do well to remem-ber not to throw the Ashes urn - or even the replica that they will receive - in his direction if they want to keep it in one piece.

For most of the afternoon England were without Simon Jones, the swing bowler who had taken five wickets in the first innings and was sent to hospital for a scan on his injured right ankle. It was an unfortunate absence, but exactly the sort of hindrance that Michael Vaughan's side must overcome to prevail.

There was a hint of controversy amid the tension. No, it was a seething mass of controversy which on reflection Australia insisted was a hint. When their captain, Ricky Ponting, was run out by a dead-eye throw from the substitute fielder, Gary Pratt of Durham, he muttered what to the untrained eye looked like a sequence of expletives in the direction of the umpire, Aleem Dar. He was miffed because he had been overcome by a sub.

Australia have been sceptical about England's use of them throughout the summer. Later, Ponting issued a contrite apology. Doubtless he meant it sincerely, without an eye on possible disciplinary action. It was a crucial throw to dismiss the man who saved Australia in Manchester. Everybody assumed that a Durham cricketer would have a seminal affect on the destination of the Ashes; not many thought it would be Pratt.

Vaughan once more set highly specific fields, changed his bowling by anything other than rote and was generally a tad more animated than usual. Like everybody in the ground he knew that the Ashes are close enough to touch for England. This is not a case of now or never - given the way in which the balance has shifted in the course of five pulsating weeks - but failing to regain them from this position would be almost unbearable for them after a comeback that few of their own families, not many in the ECB and nobody in Australia thought possible after the First Test.

This is looking like England's time, and during it nobody will be a passenger. Partly by accident but mostly by design - how they have insisted on sticking by Geraint Jones and how they might have been right all along in spite of everything, including last night's cock-up - they have found the players to bond as a real team.

There was the prospect that after saving the match at Old Trafford the world champions would finally respond here. Instead they have looked weary and unsure, shocked and bemused, and unable to withstand England's aggressive brand of cricket. The fact that they have been reduced to observations about England's canny use of substitute fielders merely displays their vulnerability.

Two points arise. If England need a substitute, Ponting cannot seriously expect them to hire Phil Tufnell for the job, and it was at least unwise for Australia's captain to try to steal runs from under the nose of man he must have known was probably lethal.

It had all started so positively for Australia in the morning. That is the approach that has taken them to the pinnacle and that, they reckoned, would stop their slide down the other side of the mountain. Matthew Hoggard went for 32 in two overs, so Simon Jones came on. He was immediately on a hat-trick as Simon Katich speared to point and Shane Warne was squared up first ball and prodded a leading edge to cover.

Adam Gilchrist was next to go, for the fourth time in the series to Andrew Flintoff. It was close enough to off stump for him to decide to hit, and the resultant edge was flying wide of Andrew Strauss at second slip. Strauss launched himself to his left, kept going and grasped the ball in the fingertips of his hand. It was some catch.

Because of the age in which we live some people immediately tried to start grading it as perhaps the best of this bit of the 21st century. Suffice to say that catches win matches, and series, and the Ashes.

Brett Lee, whose smile has illuminated the summer, had some fun and England fans twitched briefly. But it had to end, and it did with Australia far enough behind to persuade Vaughan to enforce the follow-on.

Australia had to do better this time. So they did, but Matthew Hayden might have been out to as many as 10 of the 41 balls he faced. Eventually he was caught in the gully, Justin Langer was held at short leg.

The openers with more double-century Test partnerships than any other first-wicket pair in history had failed again.

Still, England needed Ponting, and Pratt's alertness, swooping to his right, ensured they got him. Eleven balls later Damien Martyn, whose series is turning to the grotesque, feathered one from Flintoff behind. Clarke and Katich began to erode the lead, and then Jones let the ball slip through his gloves to his stomach. As it squeezed through, the ball seemed to take on the shape of a little urn.