In its way this was Nightmare in St John's Wood, part 18 for England. It is that many matches (and 71 years, certain to become 75) since they last beat Australia at Lord's and as in recent history, wherever they have played, their nemeses did not change. In the first innings it was Glenn McGrath, yesterday it was Shane Warne who mesmerised and cajoled them to their downfall. It begins to look possible that reports of their cricketing deaths were greatly exaggerated. Neither is the bowler he was, but both have adapted to changed circumstances.
England had a disastrous third day, which was mercifully ended by bad light. They have five wickets left and need another 246 to win. Kevin Pietersen is at the crease, approaching his second half-century of the match having already hooked Brett Lee for six, but he is chasing a lost cause. The batting was so innocuous, so badly exposed that it was impossible to avoid musing on the retirement on Friday of Graham Thorpe and the decision to drop him from the side which preceded it. It looked to be a bold risk at the time as the selectors overlooked a 35-year-old left-hander who looked weary in favour of the zest and brio of youth. By mid-afternoon yesterday it seemed like the reckless jettisoning of valuable experience.
The conundrum was not whether to choose two of Thorpe, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen. It was the feeling that neither Thorpe nor Pietersen could bat higher than five and that Pietersen had done enough in one-day matches. But this was more than nominal, it changed the method of approach and affected everybody else in the order. Pietersen has done everything that could have been expected in this match in terms of runs, though, despite his exuberance, his three dropped catches and missed throws at the stumps did not make him a much better proposition than Thorpe in the field.
The dice, however, have been cast. England's top three have to start contributing runs, preferably by the bucketful, and they have to start in Birmingham. The captain, Michael Vaughan, was always crucial to this campaign and the suspicion yesterday, as he misjudg-ed the line to be bowled for the second time in the game, is that his form is indifferent.
At the start, England had a slender hope of staying in the match by quickly claiming the remaining three Australian second wickets. Instead, they spurned three more catches, all of which were more straightforward than difficult, and by the time they bowled out the tourists shortly after lunch, they needed 420 to win.
This was academic, beating as it would the world record of 420 and the Ashes record of 404 made by Bradman's Australians in 1948. Briefly, while Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss were fluently putting on 80 for the first wicket, it was possible for dreamers to dream.
Then Warne was summoned and things changed immediately. He had a bit of rough to exploit from the Nursery End and his usual amount of front. He was turning it prodigiously but at these times the ones that go straight on are just as menacing.
This was a tremendous piece of sporting theatre. Before Warne took a wicket he had several appeals for leg before turned down and both he and his colleagues were becoming excitable. It was to the credit of the umpire, Aleem Dar, wrong or right, that he remained imperturbable.
In the over before tea, Warne had a loud appeal against Trescothick rejected. It turned and beat the batsman but his stride understandably saved him. It was Strauss's turn to be befuddled afterwards, once inside edging one that turned, then deciding not to play a shot against another. Warne was incredulous and Ponting had a word with Dar. Thus reprieved, Strauss attempted to remove his bat, deciding late to eschew the hook against a fearsome Lee. It went towards silly point and Lee halted his follow-through, switched direction and took a marvellous running, diving catch. The contrast with England was too grim to contemplate for long.
Warne, getting nowhere with leg before verdicts, had Trescothick edging to first slip and then thoroughly bamboozled Bell into playing no shot. This lbw verdict was plain, though Warne's reaction to the umpire might not have been "La-di-Dar". Bell will make Test runs but this has been a poor match for him (though his Test average remains above 100).
Vaughan missed the ball playing from his crease. He looked tired and if he is tired now, he should be an intriguing case by September. Flintoff edged Warne a tad naïvely to the wicketkeeper and England were 119 for 5. Pietersen ensured there was no further loss of wicket or face before bad light intervened with 10 overs unbowled.
As the series wears on, England may be worn down by those four missed chances as much as their batting. All must have had a corrosive effect on their confidence, not to mention that of the bowler in each case, Simon Jones, though only one amounted to dropping the Ashes.
Perhaps Michael Clarke is too short in the international tooth to have mentioned the point to Kevin Pietersen yet. It is, apparently, only apocryphal that one so long in it as Steve Waugh told Herschelle Gibbs back in 1999 that he had dropped the World Cup. But it is possible that Pietersen's oversight at cover in failing to hold on to a careless drive just before tea on Friday was significant beyond the moment.
Clarke was 21 and Australia were 139 for 3 at the time, and respectively they went on to make 91 and 384. It was a mistake to be ill-afforded against this opposition, and England simply tried to perfect the dropping art yesterday. Pietersen avoided increasing his tally to four but Geraint Jones added two to his career canon and Andrew Flintoff also grassed one at second slip. These catches went down at 333, 376 and 384.
Jones the bowler did well to avoid giving Jones the wicketkeeper something more than an old-fashioned look. It had started well enough with Ashley Giles effecting a smart, athletic run-out from gully with a direct hit at the bowler's end. But England were held up by Australia's patience, particularly that of Simon Katich who was careful to protect the weaker men around and aware of the need to build an unassailable lead.
Unless it rains for two days, or unless Pietersen completes another kind of miracle, England will have demons to exorcise. The sight of the urn containing the prize has already receded from view.