Australia v England, 5th Test, Sydney, 3rd day January 4, 2007

England's messiness hastens the whitewash

Australia's tight fielding has particularly affected Kevin Pietersen © Getty Images
The tape is being replayed and the Australians are closing in on an England side that has proved flexible only in its ability to unravel. In the field they were a disinterested disaster and during the second innings they struggled to wipe away Australia's fortunate advantage while losing five wickets by stumps. Three players' careers could be ending a day early.

Australia have work to do to seal a 5-0 triumph but they have again been assisted by their opponents' failure to attend to essential details. The tourists' support staff almost matches the number of players, but whereas Australia's backroom is tinkering with plans and programs after analysing hours of video footage, England have continued in the same wonky direction.

The overall attitude is particularly noticeable in the field and the visitors were at their shabbiest on day three. A team's mood can be gauged by their group work and the distance between the sides is as severe as the overall result.

For Australia misfields and spilt catches are embarrassing. Diving is not considered an inconvenience and they try to field in pairs, directing the ball towards a team-mate if they can't secure a clean take. James Anderson and Paul Collingwood tried the tactic on a trip to the boundary this morning, with Collingwood's clever flick running into Anderson's left foot and bouncing back towards the rope for four. It was not meant to be part of the comedy.

The home team's tight fielding has been one of the key reasons why England's batsmen have found it so difficult to rotate the strike. With help from his analysts, Ricky Ponting has placed men less than 20 metres from the bat and they have patrolled with the efficiency of over-zealous stadium security guards. These settings can give batsmen confidence to go for the gaps, but Australia's panthers have usually sealed the perimeter.

The zone has particularly affected Kevin Pietersen, whose frustration has grown the harder he hits to the fielders. He struck the ball well enough this afternoon to have earned another half-century, but Australia shut down his options again. The pressure builds and he did well to remain composed and not out.

England have not been able to catch up to their opponents and, worryingly, their fielding has not improved as the tour has worn on. They work on throwing before play and seem to forget about it when the game resumes. The Australians know Anderson's arm is the only one to worry about, which makes it strange that they continue running to him, and the rest carry an octopus tentacle.

The hosts began the day 103 runs behind and were able to turn the deficit into a lead of 102 with help from England's sloppiness. Shane Warne's partnership of 68 with Stuart Clark came in a frenetic 72 balls as the Australians swung comfortably and the fielders wasted chances. England have wished for contributions as large as that when the innings winds down and many times during the series would have settled with it as the total collection of the last five partnerships.

When England's wicketkeepers have arrived at the crease, Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden have been able to start considering their innings. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook have had to wait for Glenn McGrath to lope out and the fielding efforts have contributed to England's slow kills.

At least four run-out opportunities were missed today, preventing England from achieving something close to first-innings parity. Sajid Mahmood was badly out of position for a strong Anderson throw from the boundary that almost caught Warne short. Kevin Pietersen, Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff also scattered their attempts at direct hits during the stand of Clark and Warne. The partnership was bright and the play was grippingly entertaining, but it was frustrating to watch England's failures knowing what would happen when the Australians came out.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo