There are times in cricket when the fielding side seem utterly unable to prevent runs. Bring the field in and it goes for four, push it out and there is a single available every ball. Every cricketer, from club to Test level, knows the feeling and the Australians experienced it on Friday when Andrew Flintoff and Geraint Jones were at the crease. That is when batting seems such an easy pastime.
Then there are the times when the batsmen cannot buy a run. There seem to be 20 fielders and when the ball is finally middled it goes straight to one of them. It was like that for England as the shadows lengthened yesterday afternoon and dark thoughts began to intrude.
Sometimes the difference is in the conditions. The ball is swinging, seaming or spinning, the wicket is dry and cracked or damp and green. But at other times the demons are primarily in the mind. For all the turn Shane Warne was extracting yesterday that was the case here. To be so close to putting one hand on the urn, yet apparently so far, played havoc with some Englishmen. Tony Cascarino, the footballer, once recalled a voice in the back of his mind whispering, as he bore down on goal in a crucial match: "What if you miss it? You're going to miss it?" Yesterday that voice was in England's ear, muttering: "You're going to blow the Ashes."
Poor Ian Bell was paralysed by the situation. First he concentrated on not getting out, eking three runs in 37 draining minutes. But this was getting him, and England, nowhere. So when the opportunity appeared to come he snatched at it, lifting a shortish ball from Brett Lee towards the fence. Michael Kasprowicz intercepted and the Bell had tolled his last.
Jones also cracked under the strain. The breezy cricketer who flayed Australia for 85 in the first innings was replaced by a man who knew, again, that his batting had to make up for his fumbles behind the stumps. He, too, holed out trying to break Warne's shackles.
That wicket is credited to Warne while in the ledger Bell's is ascribed to Lee. But Warne's name should appear in brackets behind his team-mate's, just as the fielder's does for run outs. It was the pressure Warne was exerting at the other end that forced Bell to swipe at Lee.
A more experienced cricketer would have waited - unlike Warne, Lee had to tire and he was in his eighth over. Then, with Kasprowicz already hammered out of the attack, Ricky Ponting would have had to turn to the rookie Shaun Tait. When he did Tait went at six an over and was also withdrawn.
But Warne can do that to opponents. When he came out to bat yesterday sections of the crowd booed. It was a crime against sport. As a bowler Warne has been peerless, a one-off who will be dreadfully missed when he is gone. Footballers often remark that they do not mind being abused since it demonstrates the opposition fear you and is thus actually a strange gesture of respect, but cricket is supposed to be a more noble game.
Among his peers Warne receives no such disrespect for he is as popular as he is admired. Deeply in love with the game he is generous with his time and knowledge. But for his personal indiscretions, culminating in his ban for doping, he would be captaining Australia on this tour. His impact on Hampshire suggests it is to England's benefit that he is not.
When Warne finally lays the slider to rest no one will miss him more than the man who is leading Australia. More than ever, in the absence of Glenn McGrath, Warne is Ponting's go-to man. The mere knowledge of what he can do was half of the problem for England's frazzled minds. With his first-ball dismissal of Marcus Trescothick Warne ensured this would be the third successive Test to conclude with television spectators glued to the sofa.
Cricket's new devotees may have been fooled this summer into believing the sport is always this compelling: three or four days of rollicking fare followed by a gripping denouement. In the morning, however, England and Australia played a form of cricket more closely associated with Bill Lawry and Brian Statham. With the Ashes in the balance Michael Clarke and Simon Katich knuckled down as they sought to grind away the deficit then set a target Warne could defend. This is when England showed how well they have absorbed the teachings of Duncan Fletcher, their coach.
England's pace bowlers were tired and aching, having toiled since Friday afternoon largely without the injured Simon Jones. The fielders, too, were weary. Yet on the warmest day of the Test they joined the Aussies in this trench warfare, bowling a tight line and, for the most part, fielding tightly.
Just 25 runs were scored in the first hour and 50 minutes into the second only 22 more had been added. Normally the pace has been twice that. Then, with lunch approaching, Clarke's concentration wilted. Geraint Jones, this time, seized on the chance and the breakthrough had been made.
It was a reminder that England's positive play has been built on an attritional base, and is being played for a reason. Michael Vaughan and Fletcher have made a conscious effort to meet Australia's aggressive cricket head on but, as they showed in India under Nasser Hussain and Sri Lanka under Vaughan, they can scrap when it matters. Ashley Giles was on both trips and, come the nerve-shredding conclusion, yesterday that experience made the difference.Reuse content