Spills spell disaster for the butterfingers brigade

Fast forward to lunchtime yesterday. England trudged off the field having conceded a match-winning lead. We had witnessed a shambles. How to explain it? Better call on a shrink than a coach. The pressure meant something went 'phut' in the collective head of the England team.

The evidence was dropped catches. With Australia on 377 for 9, Glenn McGrath got a fairly thick edge on to a ball from Simon Jones, which flew routinely at waist height to Andrew Flintoff at second slip, and he dropped it.

Compare that with Brett Lee's athletic performance diving forward to pick up with his fingertips a slowly falling ball; he said later he was looking for skin from his elbows on the outfield. He went for it because he knew wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist could not reach it. The commitment was complete. That abruptly terminated a bold attempt by Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick to come to terms with Australia's attack. For Flintoff the feeling was mortification. For Lee it was elation. For England, it might well come to be seen as the final surrender of a rare advantage they had gained on day one. Anticipation was first rewarded, and then spent. Asked what England might do about it, Trescothick was philosophical: "Just keep practising harder, relax in the field. I think it's an individual thing. We've improved our catching so much over the past two years. It's been brilliant so far. Hopefully this was just a slip, a bad day, and we'll move on from there, hopefully."

Of course, Flintoff was not the principal culprit. When the finger of blame is pointed it will be at Geraint Jones and Kevin Pietersen. The sight of Jones behind the stumps is not good for spectators of a nervous disposition. He is not a neat keeper; consistency for him is dropping the ball once every couple of overs, but after four innings in the Bangladesh Tests and Australia's first innings here, you could argue that he might not be pretty to look at, but he had not dropped a catch. After scoring 30 in a stand of 58 with Pietersen, the consensus was that Jones was the best bet as batsman/keeper. Not any more. With Australia on 338 for 8, the dogged Jason Gillespie edged a catch to Jones's right. He reached the ball easily with his gloved right hand; in it went and out it came. On 384 for 9, McGrath was undone by a short ball from Simon Jones, which flew up off the splice and was dropping sharply two yards behind the stumps. Jones had to run hard and dive, but when he got to the ball, it fell through his gloves. Jones the bowler's look turned from unsympathetic to dirty.

Friday had been a tale of two other catches. The first was a splendid diving performance by Damien Martyn on the midwicket boundary to dismiss Kevin Pietersen off Shane Warne's bowling. This catch would not win the match, but it did stop a batsman in his tracks when he was threatening Australia's first innings lead. The second was a dropped catch. The fielder was Pietersen at short extra cover and the batsman was Michael Clarke, scorer of 91 invaluable runs, who was then on 21. This catch might have been the moment at which England lost the match, and that was his third dropped catch in the game. Afterwards, Pietersen made light of the matter. "A dropped catch? That's part of cricket. I've dropped loads of catches in my career." The inference is that he will proceed to drop many more.

At the close on Friday England's mood was still infused with self-belief. ("We're in a good position to turn this game and change history," said Pietersen.) Yesterday morning that belief seemed to drain away into the Lord's turf. Shoulders sagged; facial expressions turned grim. As England's first five wickets fell for 39 runs after tea, the easy explanation was that they were suffering from the fashionable ailment known as mental disintegration. This was a favourite expression of Steve Waugh to describe the effect of constant pressure on the opposition. But for England yesterday, it seemed more a case of self-imposed mental disintegration.

For all Trescothick's talk last night about not giving up, the collective mind has been weakened. For a start, Duncan Fletcher might tell his remarkable new No 5 batsman and run-out wizard to stop being so cavalier about dropped catches. The Australians would not be, which is one reason why they are now odds-on to win a series that only last Thursday afternoon England's supporters believed - and hoped - would be close.

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