Peter Roebuck: Wily paceman shows Harmison the meaning of menace

Where the younger man has been inhibited, the old-stager has cut loose
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England stand on the brink of cricketing calamity. Ricky Ponting and chums have won the opening two rounds of this contest decisively. His batsmen have put quick runs on the board and his bowlers have taken early wickets. Moreover, the breakthrough was made by Glenn McGrath, a man desperate to prove he is not a spent force.

Almost as much as his batsmen, McGrath (pictured right) was helped by the profligacy of his opponents. His opening overs had been undistinguished. Probably he was trying too hard to make things happen. Even great bowlers get nervous. McGrath went over the wicket and around, and was punished. Although he was faster than in India, he was not exactly menacing.

Then came the break. Determined to attack, Andrew Strauss pulled optimistically and skied the ball. Michael Hussey claimed the catch. To say that McGrath was relieved by this turn of events would be to say that children quite like cream cake. His next delivery was a ripper that drew Alastair Cook into a stroke and cut across him.

McGrath's contest with the England spearhead, Steve Harmison, was bound to be pivotal. Suffice it to say that the local has prevailed by a country mile. Where the Englishman has hesitated, the veteran has attacked. Where the younger man has been inhibited, the old-stager has cut loose. Great sportsmen understand the forces at work on a field. These wickets rounded off two fine days for the Australians. Most of their runs had been scored by blokes with years left in the game. On this evidence the Aussies will not only regain the Ashes, they will retain them.

Perhaps the next few days will show the Poms in a better light. Defeat would be a heavy blow. Admittedly they lost the opening encounter in 2005 but that was in a different place at a different time. The Aussies were unsettled. England were alive. Now they are the fellows with the furrowed brow. Success can be hard on the soul.

As has been abundantly clear over the past two days, the Australians have improved. As much could be told from the maturity and adventure detected in Michael Clarke's batting, and from the contributions of Hussey and Stuart Clarke, experienced customers playing their first Ashes innings. These fellows are proven warriors. It is a myth that Australia favour youth. Most of these blokes serve long apprenticeships.

Australia will be hard to stop. Ponting's older players want to erase bad memories while the youngsters mean to show that the future is in safe hands. Moreover the squad has a settled look. Justin Langer and McGrath have taken care of that. Meanwhile, England have lost two senior batsmen and their most menacing fast bowler is looking forlorn. Nor is there much time to recover. Modern tours grant as much breathing space as Japanese commuter trains.