Vaughan variety show pulls curtain down on Australia

Australia's survivalist strategy, with a redoubtable fifth-wicket stand between Simon Katich and Michael Clarke, means that an England victory is not assured; not quite yet. What can be asserted is that even a famously ebullient Shane Warne, whose mastery of verbal spin matches that inflicted by his wrist on a cricket ball, would have been hard pressed to extract much comfort from this situation.

On the eve of this series, the mantle of moral Ashes domination had been passed from the green baggy boys to the blue caps. Today should confirm the reality of that transition.

Like the playground bully who, once actually confronted, bursts into tears, the menace of Australia had been in large part illusory - particularly with Glenn McGrath unavailable. Fortunately for England such fears were always in their followers' minds rather than the players' psyche. Michael Vaughan's men had prepared for this series without any evidence of the demons dancing in their peripheral vision that so many observers believed would cow them into ultimate submission.

At first, there was trepidation from Vaughan's men; perhaps they found it difficult to behold and accept the vulnerability of Australia's top-order batting, and how susceptible it had become to a ruthlessly hostile, versatile England bowling attack. Yet, even after the initial Ashes defeat at Lord's, there was a sense that Australia's hitherto firm grasp on world cricketing supremacy was inexorably being prised away by the mother country.

Such quoted derision from Warne's Pom baiter-in-tandem, McGrath - "when I got those five wickets it shattered them; the most disappointing aspect of England's performance was their lack of resilience" - has long been reduced to recycled newsprint and probably returned into circulation as those cardboard 4s and 6s, hoisted to accompany Flintoff's enterprising - rather than explosive - century here on Friday.

The tourists had arrived, anticipating that their sheer reputation, the terror of McGrath and wiles of Warne, and the batting potency of Ricky Ponting & Co, together with a policy of applying pressure on certain supposed suspect areas of their hosts, could inhibit a team rejuvenated since the nations last met. But powerful sides prevail by dint of their overall strength and character, a fusion of diverse elements, and the esprit de corps created by a line-up which remains unaltered for four Tests.

Yet, remember how the doubts and niggles were articulated after Lord's - and even subsequently? How many of the England team had their position analysed forensically for evidence of weakness by the most censorious arbiters of all, the former England players now bearing microphones and laptops? Particular targets were Ashley Giles, Geraint Jones and Matthew Hoggard, but also Vaughan himself, his batting prowess coming under scrutiny.

But England retained the faith in that XI, and have been rewarded. Failure, or, indeed, fear of failure, has not been allowed to faze Vaughan's men. For every player there has been a venue where he has prospered.

Jones, the keeper, has refused to be bowed by some vicious condemnation, and having restored his confidence behind the wicket - notwithstanding the missed stumping of Clarke yesterday - has shown his flair in front of it, playing the foil par excellence in a crucial pairing with Flintoff.

Before this Test, Hoggard, whose tenacity is always a crowd-pleaser, had not found his swing bowling as profitable as the others in England's hunting party. Yet, here on Friday, on a ground that traditionally enhances his deliveries, the leggy blond's presence told, economically capturing a trio of Australian wickets: Langer, Hayden and Damien Martyn.

The fact that Vaughan has been able to summon a variety of weapons from his armoury, with no inherent weaknesses - certainly not Giles, whom the visitors had ridiculed - has permitted the captain to crank up the pressure relentlessly when Australia are on the rack.

And then there's been the iconic Flintoff, who in his first Ashes series has nagged away in the subconscious of the Australians, complemented by the astute captaincy of Vaughan, just as Ian Botham benefited from the leadership of Mike Brearley. On Friday, Freddie confirmed himself an intelligent as well as an instinctive sportsman in constructing his century. This was more about buckle than swash, in the sense that he buckled down to a patient display, prepared to nick singles as and when, as well as meting out some heavy punishment when the opportunity presented itself.

His contribution allowed England the luxury of a sustained assault here yesterday. Just over an an hour into Australia's second innings, a hush had descended, even amongst the hokey-cokeying Father Christmases. From the spectators, that rarity in these three days, a frisson of concern. Fifty runs on the board and not a wicket snared by England. How expectations have soared this summer. Then Flintoff arrived to put their minds at rest.

One expects England to do the same to Australia's Fourth Test ambitions later today.

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