Crushed by the stuff of folklore
At Brisbane, they were remorseless. At Adelaide, they were first dogged, then ruthless. Today, the Australians were first determined, then majestic. England’s management have made many blunders in this series, but today wasn’t about the losing side. It was about the winners. This is the way Test matches should be won.
When Adam Gilchrist came in, at 365 for five, the game was virtually up. England were hardly going to make 400 to win the Test, or bat two days to draw it, so they were already praying for a monsoon in the midst of a drought. Gilchrist’s innings was the icing on the cake. But what icing.
Andrew Flintoff nearly got him early on, squirting to gully, and what followed underlined just how much Flintoff had achieved in keeping the greatest number seven in history quiet through a whole series. Once Flintoff took himself off, Gilchrist played Twenty20: two runs per ball, a couple of fours per over off the quicks, and a string of sixes that were so massive, they should really have been eights. It was magical stuff. This series hasn’t delivered the knife-edge excitement of 2005, but here was something to go into Ashes folklore.
The game had been shaped by four other batsmen: Matt Hayden, raging against the dying of the light: Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey, maintaining their double run-machine act; and Michael Clarke, easing to another unnoticed hundred. England didn’t hold their half-chances, and didn’t bowl enough yorkers at Gilchrist. The heat of Perth may have got to them, but it could equally have been the heat of the Ashes kitchen, which has been too much for them at most of the critical moments in the past month.
Australia had learnt from their mistake at Perth last year, when the scores in the first three innings were very similar, but their 500 came at a stodgy rate. South Africa were left needing to bat four sessions, rather than six and a bit. One slow, battling hundred – from Jacques Rudolph – was enough to save them. England need three, and the man best equipped to provide one, Andrew Strauss, has once again been rudely Koertzened.
England are back where they were after three days in Brisbane, playing only for pride. And they don’t have enough batsmen: the decision to stick with five bowlers has backfired, with Flintoff seeming unsure how to use Saj Mahmood. Collectively, they need to push the game into the fifth day.
Individually, most of them have points to prove. Alastair Cook has to get past 50, Ian Bell past 60, and Paul Collingwood has to show he can cope with steep bounce. Flintoff himself needs to find his feet and his form, after losing his way as a batsman and now finishing wicketless for the first time in 42 Tests, since Edgbaston 2003. Geraint Jones, poised somewhere between the last-chance saloon and the stocks, needs runs more than anyone. Only Kevin Pietersen has nothing to prove, and the prospect of another duel with Shane Warne always gets his juices flowing. So there should be plenty of interest in the last rites. Then again, it could be all over by lunch.