James Lawton: The cracks in the mystique of McGrath grow wider every day

He stood for a few moments, shoulders stooped and head bowed

Sometimes you see an old champion stumble and you wonder if it is the last of him as a destroyer of even the most hungry of his challengers. For some years now it has been the most self-deceiving and futile speculation in the case of Glenn McGrath, who will be 37 in two months' time, but here at the end of one of the most frustrating days of his extraordinary career, the cricketers of England had surely earned the right to ask the question.

It came, after all, not out of impertinence but their success in denying a pace bowler of unmatched mystique even a breath of encouragement on the dry, flat track which rewarded a winning toss by the captain, Andrew Flintoff, by giving his team a chance to stand and fight the growing idea that the defence of the Ashes was already in ruins.

McGrath and his equally mythical team-mate Shane Warne were powerless to stop England's dogged retrenchment and then the stirring onslaught of Paul Collingwood and, most menacingly of all, Kevin Pietersen. Though Warne, particularly, found moments of stunning creativity, there were no wickets - and no succour - for the men who have dominated their sport for so long.

For these legendary figures it meant that nothing short of dramatic intervention in the second-day action unfolding in the small hours of the English morning could take the heat out of the possibility that we might just be seeing one of the greatest Test teams of all time growing old before our eyes.

Collingwood for a second time in less than a week grafted his way to the point of a century but it was the power produced so easily by his team-mate Pietersen that was again the greatest single threat to the Australian belief that the recovery of the Ashes was just a matter of time after the slaughter of England in Brisbane.

It was, no doubt, because of the meaning of Pietersen, the sense that he has both the talent and the self- belief to finally tear down the dynasty in which McGrath and Warne have been so fundamental, that the veteran paceman was utterly unable to conceal his despair when he failed to catch the prodigy off Brett Lee from the penultimate ball of the first day.

McGrath was just a stride or two away from pouching the ball that Pietersen, his lust to inflict damage for once overreaching itself on this day, had skied beyond mid-on.

A missed opportunity, you might say, need hardly register on the radar of a bowler who still hoards the last of his ability with such miserly brilliance, but there was something about this one, it was hard not to believe, which reached into the old hero's bones. He stood for a few moments, shoulders stooped and his head bowed, and in that picture it was clear that the defiance he displayed to his critics last Monday morning after his superbly crafted performance at the Gabba was now quite beyond him.

In Brisbane he mimicked the arthritic walk of an old man as he left the field. In Adelaide yesterday, there was no impersonation. It was a hard reality that, all Australia was hoping when it went to bed after a day of jarring parity with the Poms, may just soften with a good night's sleep and a resting of the blistered heel that had McGrath's place in the match in jeopardy almost to the start of play. McGrath satisfied his captain, Ricky Ponting, in a late workout in the nets. Earlier, Ponting had said that probably only a foot amputation would keep his supreme strike bowler out of the action and, after losing the toss, told the crowd that McGrath was feeling better than he had before his masterclass in Brisbane.

That was the rhetoric, however. The action told a different story. Though McGrath played a key part in containing the English ability to score quickly in optimum batting conditions early in the day, he never began to show the kind of deadly panache which was never more dramatically displayed than at Lord's in the summer of 2005, when he bowled his team back into the first Test with an unforgettably inspired precision. Such a tour de force was never likely in the beautifully manicured environs of the Adelaide Oval but that did little to lessen Australian fears about the course of the series when he became increasingly marginalised.

The wickets went to Stuart Clark (two) and Lee, and McGrath was in deep hibernation when Ponting had the occasional left-arm spinner Michael Clarke bowling an innocuous 10 overs in the rush to claim a new ball that was handed to Lee.

Australian worries inevitably centred on the suspicion that McGrath might indeed be in danger of looking too old between here and the final Test in Sydney at the turn of the year. He may still be a glory of the nation's sport but it is also true that he is one who is coming to need excessive coddling.

Certainly, that was the most common explanation for Ponting's puzzling decision not to enforce the follow-on despite a first-innings lead of 445 in Brisbane. The captain said that part of the the reason was to allow the cracks in the pitch to widen. It was also a chance to further wear down the spirit of England. But then he did agree it was also an opportunity to rest up his bowlers, and, no doubt, one in particular.

Here, on the first day, the policy seemed to be in operation again even as England, first through Ian Bell, then Collingwood and most dramatically Pietersen, began to move powerfully away from the uncertainties created by Andrew Strauss's third straight soft dismissal and the errant drive of young Alastair Cook.

In England's cowed state in the first Test indulging McGrath's weary bones was, as it turned out, an easily negotiated risk. In Adelaide, the encouraging possibility for England is that the consequences might just be entirely different. Pietersen's immense presence, while not precluding the possibilities of the kind of light-headed slow start that had betrayed his overnight stature at the Gabba, was certainly guaranteed to work on those Australian fears that McGrath, and Warne might just have seen the last of their glory.

This was, of course, the deepest hope of England, who were required to build substantially on their first day total of 266 for 3, to exploit the huge advantage of batting first fully, and nothing could have been more encouraging than the sight of Pietersen plundering, again, the resources of Warne.

It was batsmanship born of an unfaltering arrogance as much as superb technique. It was, among other things, the arrogance of youth, and nobody needed to tell this to Glenn McGrath as he stood utterly alone contemplating the potential cost of his failure to cover the necessary ground. Not because of any lapse of concentration. Not because he didn't know what to do quite precisely when Pietersen had his latest rush of blood and sent the ball skywards. But simply because his legs were too slow, too old. For such a proud man, there could be no more bitter conclusion on the day this Ashes series came back to life.