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November 24, 2006
As the shadows lengthened across the Gabba and a fervent crowd found its true voice for the first time in the match, the question suddenly became when, not if, Australia would win this match. Theirs was a performance lifted straight from the era of Steve Waugh, with psychological punches raining in on England from all quarters. There were runs all down the order, including a career-best for the No. 10, Stuart Clark; nervy dropped catches from England's fielders, and further humiliation for the hapless Steve Harmison, whose lack of match fitness is becoming the subject of a national enquiry.
Resuming on an ominous 3 for 346, Australia cantered along to an eventual total of 9 for 602 declared - their first 600-plus score against England since Waugh's one-legged epitaph at The Oval in 2001. Ponting made 196, another sumptuous knock that earned him an unqualified standing ovation, but it was McGrath's late performance that really stole the show.
In his first first-class match since January, and with the usual whispers about his longevity tracking his every step, he induced a nervy hoick off Andrew Strauss that was brilliantly held at square leg, before stitching up Alastair Cook with his very next ball - a trademark offcutter that zipped off the splice and into the hands of Shane Warne at first slip. Clark then added the scalp of Paul Collingwood, caught behind for 5 as he aimed a flick to leg, and at 3 for 42, England's prospects were dead in the water.
In truth, they had been dead long before that, after their bowlers had been subjected to another bout of ritual humiliation. Only Andrew Flintoff escaped with his reputation fully intact - enhanced, even - as he strode from crisis to crisis, bowling his lungs out to salvage a long-lost cause. Once again he was the only man to generate the pace, accuracy and menace needed to unsettle the Australians on a rock-solid batting pitch. In his second over of the day, he had Ponting leaping for cover with a fizzing throat-ball - the only moment in the match that Ponting had looked less than superhuman.
Flintoff's demeanour throughout, however, was one of quiet, contemplative fury as his fellow seamers failed abjectly to follow his lead. Once again Harmison was at the root of all England's problems. He hadn't been trusted to open the day's proceedings, as Flintoff opted instead for his two most likely swing merchants, Matthew Hoggard and James Anderson, and when he was eventually entrusted with the ball - with ironic cheers ringing out from the crowd - he opened up with yet another wide, and remained in that vein - short, wide and largely untouchable - throughout.
It was Hoggard who led England's mini-revival, grabbing two wickets in four balls in the first hour of the afternoon session as Australia's behemoth of an innings stuttered for the very first time. Finding some shape and assistance from the wicket, and having settled into the sort of rhythm that had eluded everyone bar Flintoff, Hoggard removed Ponting and Adam Gilchrist for a third-ball duck, both to lbw decisions from Steve Bucknor.
Three balls later, and the stands were alive to the sound of jubilant Englishmen, for arguably the first time in the match. Switching instantly to around the wicket for the incoming Gilchrist, Hoggard tailed one in from outside off stump and again won the decision from Bucknor. It was another Ashes failure for Gilchrist who last week admitted that his problems from around the wicket were as much mental as technical. It may be too late to mean anything for this match, but it was a significant morale victory for England nonetheless.
Michael Clarke contributed a fine half-century that included a full-frontal assault on Ashley Giles, who barely figured in the day's play, but when he edged to slip on the stroke of tea, Australia began to scent quick runs and an evening declaration. And so the opportunity arose for some cheap wickets and none was more welcome to England's fans than Harmison's first of the innings. After another insipid spell in the morning, which began with another wide and scarcely improved after that, Harmison found some extra kick off the wicket to strangle Warne down the leg side for 17. He was touching 90mph for the first time in the match, and an otherwise subdued Barmy Army had something to cheer at last.
But Clark and Brett Lee administered one final insult to England's beleaguered bowlers, rattling up a high-octane 50-run stand for the ninth wicket in just 7.4 overs. It was runaround stuff for England's bowlers - Clark slapped Anderson for consecutive sixes over cow corner before Cook dropped him at square leg, although the extended innings did have one benefit for England. It allowed Harmison a chance to get stuck into his first lengthy spell of the tour, and by the end of it, he was looking like a world-class fast bowler once again as he gave Lee especially the hurry-up. But for this particular innings, and this particular match, it was all a little too late.
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