'We are working our backsides off but it's making no difference'

Whichever way you look at it, however you scrutinise it, dissect it and analyse it, Australia's batting is in a mess. Its two blue-riband players, the captain and the vice-captain, are out of form. One opener, though a stalwart, is not really an opener, the other opener is young and capricious.

The No 6 is a young man who may be richly gifted but looks overpromoted at present, clearly unable to withstand the strain being imposed by the shortcomings of others. The No 5 has been a single-handed torch-bearer for Australian batsmanship for the entire series, but he came into it with his career under threat.

It was the misfortune of this lot to run into a hungry England side granted almost ideal conditions, which could have been transplanted from Derby in May (it is difficult to think of anything else that Derby and Melbourne may have in common, anything at all). Australia were as inept as England were proficient. And this after their superb, unexpected comeback victory in Perth.

Jimmy Anderson, the leader of England's attack who finished with 4 for 44 in 16 excellent overs of swing and seam bowling, said: "Looking back, it was a great toss to win. There is always a danger as a bowling unit you get carried away and expect to take wickets. We stuck to our task fantastically well.

"Throughout the series I think we have bowled really well. We have beaten the bat quite a lot, had lbws turned down, created chances and that was the day all the bits of luck came together and we got the nicks that we have missed in the past. Mike Hussey has played and missed a bit but today he nicked it, so it was just one of those days when it came off."

Anderson and his cohorts could hardly have dared ask for more assistance either from conditions or opponents. This was perhaps the nadir for Australia, their lowest score against England at Melbourne in 54 Test matches. But as if to confirm what a low their cricket has reached it was not their lowest total of 2010. That was at Headingley against Pakistan in July, when they made 10 runs fewer.

There are no easy answers and none was forthcoming from Michael Clarke, the vice-captain, who is in a desperate struggle for form and looks as if demons have inhabited him at the crease. This is a man who has scored four Ashes hundreds but by the close of the play yesterday had reached an aggregate of 135 in six innings in this series.

He is making it look as though he is performing in a bull market compared to his captain, Ricky Ponting, hard-nosed compiler of 39 Test hundreds, who as of yesterday had mustered 93 runs in seven innings in this series.

"We are working our backsides off," he said. "We want to score more runs individually and as a unit, we just didn't do that again today so ... what can you do? You have to keep working hard, trust in your game and back yourself 100 per cent. You know I think that's all you can do. We have seen both sides at certain times in this series struggle on these pitches. Fortunately, in a Test match you get two goes at it."

All he could was give his unequivocal backing to Ponting and he did so graciously. Clarke is the heir apparent, officially anointed as such on numerous occasions but now is not the time to be mounting a coup. He denied that the current captain was under pressure.

"No, I don't think so, Ricky has been a wonderful leader," said Clarke. "I think his record speaks for itself. He has copped a fair bit of criticism of late and would no doubt like to be scoring more runs. A lot of us would. There's no doubt Ricky should be the captain of Australia, the No 3 batter for Australia, and there is no doubt runs are around the corner for him. Everyone in that dressing room supports him, he is too good a player not to turn it around."

But there will come a time, and that may be as soon as the end of this match, when that can no longer be so. No Australian captain has lost three Ashes series. In so many ways it is unimaginable that Ponting could survive such a reversal. But if not Ponting, who? Clarke? Not a chance at present.

Hussey's failure yesterday meant that somebody else, anybody else had to succeed. It was somebody else's turn but it never looked like happening. Clarke said a score of 250 might have made it interesting. But they were 150 short. Clarke (was that a catch in his throat?) made it clear Australia would fight to the end. But it was impossible to escape the conclusion that he knew the end was at hand.

Warne walloped... but Hugh's counting

The Australians looked like a side desperately in need of a saviour, and the proximity of Shane Warne to the scene of their latest collapse – he was in the MCG nets yesterday – was a potent reminder to the watching supporters of exactly what they are missing. Or maybe not, if Warnie's only bowling spell yesterday was anything to go by. He took on actor Hugh Jackman in the nets and didn't exactly cover himself in glory. The Wolverine star hit him for a six and a four before taking a ball in the groin, having foolishly decided to give the blond spinner the charge. "I didn't pick it," Jackman said, doubled over but laughing. "Don't rub 'em, count 'em," Warne quipped in response.

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