Prior ensures England hold all the cards

Wicketkeeper rampant after Strauss elects to bat again and put game beyond Australia's reach.
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The Independent Online

History beckons for England. After 75 years, the place which had become a fortress for Australia has begun to collapse around them like a house of cards. It is certain that they will resist, since this record above all records – never having lost a Test at Lord's since 1934 – is one they are desperate to preserve because much else would disappear with it.

To do so, however, and also avoid going behind in the Ashes, they will have to bat for most of the last two days of the Second Test. To achieve the target set they would have to make comfortably the highest total scored in the fourth innings to win a Test match. To survive, unless they go into complete self-denial, which is hardly in their collective nature, they may still surpass the second highest fourth innings of all.

Being Australia, they might have a crack. Being Australia, they might just do it. But those fallen cards are stacked against them. England are hardly flawless but Australia's bowling attack, with honourable exceptions, is beginning to look ragged. The man who was intended to lead them to glory, Mitchell Johnson, has been overcome by the weight of expectation and the side of the wicket he bowls on is determined by fluke. Drunks have driven along country roads more steadily.

By the time England had stretched their lead to 521 runs Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, was fit to burst. Steam was coming out of his ears all day and some concealed thermostat was having to work overtime to prevent the top coming off. If someone had mentioned that it was Dennis Lillee's 60th birthday yesterday (it was also the day on which WG Grace was born) he might have offered him a bowl for old time's sake. It might not have been just for old time's sake.

Much to the delight of another packed house, England were rampant in the evening as Matthew Prior scored a thrilling half-century which he might have converted into an equally thrilling century but for a spectacular piece of fielding.

There was a peculiar rhythm to the third day. England eventually took the two remaining Australia wickets in the morning but did not enforce the follow on. This was greeted dubiously in many quarters but if it looked like a milksop's sort of decision it was based firmly on recent precedent, which cricket captains have to observe like lawyers.

Twice recently at Lord's they have been denied by rearguard actions after imposing the follow on, first by Sri Lanka in 2006, whom they failed to dismiss in 199 overs and against South Africa last year when 167 overs yielded a measly three wickets. The hour that England were forced to spend in the field yesterday morning was also quite sufficient to tell their captain, Andrew Strauss, that it was not a bowler's day.

The difference between the sides was 210. England then had the ebullient start they required with Strauss and Alastair Cook merely continuing what they had started during their exemplary first-innings partnership. Cook was as flamboyant as he can have been while batting in a Test match but was out lbw for the third consecutive innings, playing across the line of a straight ball.

Shortly after, when Strauss edged a drive against a turning off-spinner from Nathan Hauritz to slip, England had their two most enterprising batsmen at the crease. There followed some excruciating work by two tortured souls. Neither Kevin Pietersen nor Ravi Bopara could time the ball and their shot selection was done randomly. They appeared to be in a competition to see who could play in the least appropriate fashion.

Both men had escapes. Pietersen might have been run out when a leg before appeal was turned down and he was taken out of the crease with the impetus of his shot. Instead of scrambling back he looked distracted, more concerned about what verdict the umpire was about to reach. Had Ponting's direct throw hit, as it should have done, Pietersen would have been on his way.

In the next over Ponting shelled a straightforward chance at second slip after a loose drive by Bopara. Australia's captain looked into the middle distance. He was mad as hell all right but he was a man for whom the anger management courses appeared to have worked.

Bopara, scorer of three successive Test hundreds earlier this year, is finding that the Ashes is a different ball game. An army of amateur psychologists is probably already on his case, but only in the minimal time off they are taking from scrutinising Pietersen. There is something wrong with Pietersen and whether it is technical deficiencies leading to doubts in the mind or mental uncertainty creating technical flaws it is already emerging as a big something.

England's best batsman, although the highest scorer in the first innings at Cardiff, is playing like a man in turmoil. He began with a characteristic stroke, a hoisted four over the infield off Hauritz, but then wafted about like a man chasing flies. He made Bopara look a model of assurance.

Having tried the approach which is known as "have a go you mug" the pair suddenly changed their minds. They began to play no shots at all, hoping that this might get them back into form. Runs all but dried, and with them so went the initiative. The last 15 runs before tea yielded 25 runs and nothing was happening.

On the stroke of the break, Bopara launched a frantic slog at Johnson towards mid-on where Hauritz immediately claimed the catch. Lesser batsmen would have been glad that their ordeal was over but Bopara stood his ground. The interminable replays were as so often indeterminate but the benefit of the doubt as so often went to the batsmen and not the fielder. But at last Bopara was out, nudging one limply to short leg and giving Hauritz his ninth wicket of the series. The selectors will soon have to ask themselves a hard question and if the hard answer will not be yet forthcoming this cannot go on.

At length Pietersen unfolded a couple of lovely cover drives as if to stamp his authority. But he then groped too far at one and was on his way. Perhaps he does not do long dark nights of the soul, perhaps he should.

Prior, Paul Collingwood and Andrew Flintoff at last illuminated the innings with 86 runs coming from 74 balls. Glorious stuff but the real glory still awaits.

A week, Australia might have observed, is a long time in cricket.