Hopes sink as storm clouds envelop skipper

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The Independent Online

The early morning message on the electronic scoreboard was both good to know and 100 per cent accurate: "Welcome to Gloriously Sunny Headingley Carnegie," it read.

Whether Andrew Strauss spotted those few words yesterday as he led his England team through their wam-up routine (no football included, funnily enough) is anyone's guess. But what can be said with some certainty is that, well within an hour of play getting under way, the captain's mood would have been as black as the clouds that must take up residence here in order for Australia to be denied a series-levelling victory.

No one needs to look at the scoreboard to work out when England are in trouble. Just tune into a certain satellite TV channel and should you spot a scorecard from 1981 then it is reasonable to assume the old country requires a miracle of Ian Botham and Bob Willis proportions.

Strauss could have done with either of those two gentlemen yesterday (and not necessarily in their pomp), particularly before lunch when he sought something extra-special to prevent Australia from taking a vice-like grip on the Fourth Test.

Instead, both Jimmy Anderson and Steve Harmison did precious little to discomfort Michael Clarke and Marcus North in conditions which, despite the sunshine and the pale appearance of the pitch, still offered enough encouragement for the visiting bowlers to run riot again last night.

Anderson, if it were not sufficiently obvious the evening before, soon confirmed – through laboured run-up and downbeat body language – that sprinting for a single during England's brief first innings had caused more damage to either calf or hamstring than was suggested at the time.

It seemed strange, then, for Strauss to open the bowling with the out-of-sorts Lancastrian yesterday morning, and then keep him going for six overs – his only spell of the day.

That old saying about captaincy being 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill no doubt has more than a touch of truth to it. And, just at the moment, England's skipper would welcome an outrageous piece of good fortune just as warmly as a stroke of tactical genius.

Going into the last day of the Third Test at Edgbaston, Strauss surprised most people by opening the bowling with Graham Onions and Andrew Flintoff, keeping Anderson in reserve until the 16th over. When the sometimes king of swing finally appeared, he struck with his sixth delivery.

Yesterday Strauss went the other way. And guess what? After 90 minutes spent kicking his heels and watching runs flow at the rate of nearly five an over, on came Onions to present his captain with a collector's item, a maiden, and then the wicket of Clarke.

England had already tried Plan B by that stage (spinner Graeme Swann into the attack after 50 minutes). And Plan C (Stuart Broad bowling way outside off stump in an attempt to bore Clarke into submission). But nothing was working – or even likely to work. The chances of matching the efforts of 13 months ago, when England captured one South African wicket on a sorry Saturday, seemed remote.

At least Onions sorted out that nightmare scenario. But having done well enough to be given the second new ball, ahead of the grazing Anderson or the resting Broad, he seldom threatened to break through again while partnering his Durham chum Harmison.

Australia's bowlers were relentless in applying pressure on Friday, all four paceman contributing significantly to England's pitiful 102. They repeated the trick last night.

Strauss was lucky if he could create a bit of heat from one end, never mind two. Harmison, though, did manage to stir home supporters for a short time, banging in the new ball, and he was rewarded for his efforts when Brad Haddin shovelled a hopeful pull to backward short leg.

If this match pans out the way everyone expects, meaning England must win the final Test at The Oval to regain the Ashes, then Harmison should be a shoo-in for south London. After all, he got stuck into the South Africans there 12 months ago. But Strauss's attack, especially without Flintoff, remains a real concern (just like their batting, come to think of it), despite Broad's inconsequential six wickets.

Strauss has a bagful of problems, and he started worrying about them last night, no doubt, while watching four colleagues follow him back to the pavilion as England crumpled in 39 crazy minutes.