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December 16, 2006
Officially, England have yet to surrender the Ashes. On a pitch that's improved with every session, there is still a vain hope that their batsmen might take this Test the same way as last year's match at Perth, and secure the draw that keeps the series alive beyond Christmas.
A vain hope indeed. Nothing summed up the situation quite as emphatically as the WACA's giant replay screen at square leg which, as the teams trooped off at the close, flashed up the menu for tomorrow's play: "Australia win back the Ashes?" it gloated. Presumptuous? Hardly. Premature? Only just.
The terms of England's surrender were negotiated in this afternoon's manic session, when Adam Gilchrist - a man who had come to epitomise all the fears and uncertainties that had crept into an ageing Australian line-up - broke free from his bonds to leather one of the most gloriously cathartic centuries in Test history.
This was the Gilchrist that England once knew and so feared. His maiden Ashes innings, at Edgbaston in 2001, was a similar assassination - 152 from 148 balls, with 20 fours and five sixes - and from that rude awakening, a legend was spawned. Here was a man who transformed the role of the Test No. 7, and made all opponents, but especially the English, wish they had not had the temerity to take that fifth wicket.
The other Gilchrist was the man who went missing in the 2005 Ashes, and for large chunks of this series as well. Until his late gambol at Adelaide last week, he had not made fifty against England in 11 innings and almost four years. England had outthought him and Andrew Flintoff had gained mastery over him, with that simple but oh-so-effective ploy of bowling round the wicket. The demons that once consumed England's fearful cricketers had been turned quite emphatically on their foe.
And that was still very much the case when he was greeted at the crease by a string of five catchers from slip to point and Flintoff pounding in from around the wicket once again. He was on a pair for the second time in three Tests, and so nearly succumbed as well, when one of those typically fierce but foolish slashes just evaded gully and sped away for four. At 5 for 365, an English victory in this mini-contest was realistically their last chance of salvation.
But then it all went flat. Gilchrist carved a boundary an over to sap England's morale and all of a sudden he was on 49 and needed just a single to reach what for him, if no longer for his opponents, was a significant milestone. To aid him in his quest, he was presented with just one close fielder and a ring of men on the boundaries. It was the latest manifestation of Flintoff's short-circuiting captaincy, and within four balls, the full extent of the error had been displayed.
Six, six, four, six was the upshot. Monty Panesar was undeservingly deposited into the record-books with a 24-run over, and England's morale had been as scrambled as at any time in the past twenty years of Ashes hammerings. With Ashley Giles - a consummate team man if no longer a Test stalwart - already flying home to attend to a family illness, a spirit-sapping day had been transformed into a scrap for individual respectability.
Dropped catches are an affliction that daunt teams who are down on their luck, but Geraint Jones's latest aberration was desperate. As he hurtled across the turf to botch a chance that Kevin Pietersen at square leg would have swallowed, he betrayed the anxieties of a man who knows he is running out of chances to impress. As it happens, his actions reprieved Michael Hussey at the very moment he crossed to complete his fifth half-century of the series, but it was by no means as costly as the release of pressure that was offered to Gilchrist.
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