Veterans feel the heat as dynasty nears close of play

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Australia's senior batsmen must make a stand. Fifth-day heroics alone can atone for their failures. Extras have contributed more runs than four members of a highly regarded order. No one has scored a hundred. No one has scored ugly runs. Only Justin Langer has made the bowlers dig him out. Lower-order rallies have stood between Australia and batting ignominy. Reputations and records are coming under scrutiny. Naked figures are no longer enough. Performances against strong sides in tough situations are a better guide.

Confronted with the toughest bowling some of them have faced in their Test careers, a supposedly powerful line-up has wilted. Even at Lord's it was clear that England - more appropriately the British Lions - had the capacity to launch a more physical and varied attack than Australia had encountered for years. It was a throwback to the early days of Steve Waugh's career, when batsmen spent much of their time fending off bumpers. It was a reminder of how impoverished international bowling had become.

Australia's batsmen have over-attacked, a habit formed in their times of plenty. Now they need to put their heads down. Saving matches on the fifth day has not been a strong point. Not many matches have lasted that long. Simon Katich did, though, keep Waugh company as Australia secured a defiant draw last year against India at the SCG. Damien Martyn played a masterly defensive innings against Anil Kumble in Chennai in 2004. Jason Gillespie kept him company for four hours. More is needed.

Ponting and his colleagues know what is in store. They will face a pace barrage and a spinner landing the ball in the rough. Accordingly they must develop a clear plan for survival.

First the batsmen need to recover their heads. Manifestly they have been rattled. Besides bowling fast and short, England have reverse swung the ball, which has helped the fast bowlers to remain dangerous. Giles has been underestimated. Cast as a plodding policeman, he has emerged as a probing detective. Predictions that he'd take 0-200 in the series have proved spectacularly wide of the mark. He will be a handful. Previously any batsmen worth his salt could subdue spin with soft hands. Now the aggressive arts are more closely studied than the defensive sciences.

Rather than building innings and partnerships, Australia have tried to impose themselves with powerful strokeplay. Langer alone has grafted for his runs. Unless the match is saved, the Australians are bound to consider changing their side. Matthew Hayden is the most vulnerable batsman.

Michael Clarke's injury complicates matters. If he is forced to miss the fourth Test, the selectors may want to avoid further disruptions. If he recovers, Hayden will be a worried man. Confronted with crafty field placings and aggressive bowling, he has been unable to establish his innings. It has been a year since he passed 70 in a Test.

Frailty has crept into his game. He has huffed and puffed without blowing down any houses. His attempt to widen his character has softened his game.

Not that Hayden has been the only weak link. Ponting has twice mistimed back-foot strokes to point. Martyn has been a liability in the field. Katich has not made his mark. Adam Gilchrist has been not been as effective. It is easily forgotten how many rescue missions he has carried out. The batting never was infallible. By reducing his threat, England put pressure on his comrades.

Nor has the fielding had much to commend it. Gilchrist has had a dreadful time behind the stumps, and the gloveman sets the tone. Inevitably the veteran fast bowlers have struggled towards the end of a long day but some team-mates have been almost as cumbersome. Without Clarke, this Australian side has more carthorses than a Victorian mail coach.

Suddenly this Australian team is looking its age. Sometimes, when the end comes, it is quick. Regardless of the outcome of this series - and it is worth remembering that England stand second in the rankings and that Australia lost by only two runs in Birmingham and that the score is level - the selectors will need to take stock.

Michael Hussey's time may be at hand. Rejuvenation is needed. Not that Australian cricket has an abundance of emerging talent. Nor is the series over. Australia might yet retain the Ashes. Right now they would settle for that. Harder days, though, lie ahead.