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Peter English at Melbourne
December 28, 2006
During the tea break the on-ground entertainment has featured an obstacle race between England and Australian supporters. It has been run each day throughout the series and been more competitive than the Tests. At least the embarrassment of sprinting around a field dressed in full cricket kit while avoiding two huge inflatable balls with caricatures of David Boon and Ian Botham has been softened by some England victories.
Boon and Botham have been involved in a "Battle of the Tashes" contest in a look back at the 1980s when lip bristles were trendy. Outside the grounds the Barmy Army has been selling shirts with humourous ditties in opposition to the official merchandise and in the stands they have been battling to make more noise than the local supporters. When wickets haven't been falling they have succeeded.
There has been so much competition between the countries for the past four Tests, but the trait has gone missing on the field. Only one side has remembered how to compete. England were meant to be playing for pride in this Test and giving the thousands of tourists who gave up a home Christmas something to cheer. Instead they donated a game in three days and lost by an innings and 99. Melbourne's tourist spots will be crowded over the next 48 hours.
In each game England had a chance but the openings were closed by Australia and the disappointment at missing the opportunities left them without fight. After losing the crucial moments they have been unable to delay the hosts for long enough to salvage anything. The result is 4-0 and the threat of a whitewash - the first time since 1920-21 - is likely to be stopped only by Sydney rain. There cannot be much good feeling for any England player on this tour.
England started the third day 213 runs adrift and slipped further behind every hour. The openers made a solid start but once the partnership was broken any thought of Australia batting again disappeared. Kevin Pietersen was promoted to No. 4 once Ian Bell had departed and the pair fell to balls that nipped back. The pitch was two-paced and offered movement throughout, but neither batsman had prepared for the deviation.
Decisions going against struggling teams are magnified and England have reasons to complain. Rudi Koertzen has been particularly unhelpful in this game, but no player has risen above the failures to drag the team away from the external problems. Sportsmen repeat the "control the controllables" mantra daily yet this squad has been unable to follow the advice. They have followed each other to the gallows - no batsman passed Andrew Strauss' 31 in the second innings - and they wait for further mistreatment from home.
A year ago they were on the A-list and the drop has been sudden. Expectation has consumed them. Things were supposed to go well rather than be worked or fought for. The upshot has been a weak-minded team of hopefuls against a strong one ready to change the course of games. Instead of the closest Ashes series in Australia for decades it now threatens to be even worse than the poor tours over the past 16 years.
Australia's preparation for the series started the week after the Ashes were lost and has been so involved an A4 sheet of bowling plans would not cover the executive summary. The men in catching positions have been moved with the precision of grandmasters and the bowlers have followed their plans. England pinned theirs to the dressing room door and were still unable to remember them.
Paul Collingwood drove Brett Lee to short cover and Andrew Strauss was encouraged to flay at a wide full ball in the over after tea. The ground entertainment had barely been cleared away and England's most senior top-order batsman was falling to a costly mistake. Those in the visiting dressing room knew how he felt.
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