Weather denies declaration of intent
As dusk began to fall and the evening clouds closed around the pavilion, Andrew Strauss cut an animated figure on the balcony. With a lead of 521, his team's advantage was formidable to say the least, but having made one massive captaincy call in the morning by declining to enforce the follow-on, Strauss seemed set to trump it with a cunningly timed declaration. His plan was to unleash a half-hour new-ball burst in intensely atmospheric conditions, and see how a demoralised Australia responded. Having themselves floundered to 20 for 2 in seven overs before tea on the fourth day at Cardiff last week, England knew only too well the pressures that can follow a long hot day in the field.
In the end his best-laid plans were undermined by rain, but nevertheless, Strauss's intent was a welcome indication of ruthlessness, for if there is one area in which he has struggled since assuming the captaincy at the start of the year, it has involved that thorny question of the fourth innings. Twice in three Tests on their recent tour of the Caribbean, England came agonisingly close to bowling out West Indies and squaring a series that they eventually lost 1-0 - first in Antigua, where a solitary wicket remained unclaimed after a day-and-a-half of hard graft, and then at the last ditch in Trinidad, when they picked up eight wickets in 62.4 overs to leave the region on tenterhooks, but could not achieve two more breakthroughs in the last 20 balls of the series.
"With declarations it's just as much about the opportunity for putting pressure on," said England's wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, whose sparky 61 had given his captain the confidence to contemplate such a move. "Six overs at the end of the day is a great opportunity for putting pressure on, because no opening bat wants to walk out after fielding all day and having to put his pads on. I think that comes into it as much as a [specific] score a lot of the time."
The Saturday of the Lord's Test, usually an event in itself, was a peculiarly stage-setting affair. Everything about the approach of both sides revolved around the fourth-innings tussle that lies ahead, and the speed and certainty with which England motored through that final session, having been held in check during a cat-and-mouse afternoon, indicated that, mentally, Australia were already steeling themselves for the rearguard, having briefly believed, at 147 for 3 with a becalmed Kevin Pietersen at the crease, that they could still somehow keep themselves in contention.
"Famous last words," countered Prior when asked if England were in a no-lose situation, which reflected the odd times into which Test cricket has moved. In December last year, in the space of a week, both England and Australia were involved in spectacular fourth-innings heists, and both ended up on the wrong end of historic beatings. At Chennai, in a match that Strauss had graced with centuries in each innings, Sachin Tendulkar sashayed in to produce arguably the finest of his 42 Test centuries, an unbeaten 103 as India romped past a target of 387. And then in Perth six days later, AB de Villiers built on Graeme Smith's agenda-setting century, as South Africa shocked the Aussies by chasing 414.
"This is a funny game, and everyone's seen and played enough cricket to know that [certain victory] is never the case," said Prior. "However, we are in a very, very good position. We've played great cricket for three days and deserve to be in the position we are in, and we are certainly going to be putting a lot of pressure on the Aussies for the next two days. You talk about putting your foot on someone's throat and not letting go, and we've done that very well. They threw punches like any Australian team does, but we managed to cushion those blows and come back even harder, and that's a credit to the England dressing-room."
Everyone, however, will be casting a glance to the heavens over the next six sessions, and perhaps uniquely among the world's 100 Test venues, it will be England, not Australia, who find themselves praying for rain. The drainage at Lord's is of such spectacular quality that even the heaviest deluges, as occurred against India in 2007, are slurped away so quickly that play can resume after minutes, but more importantly, the ball only talks when the clouds are closed around the ground.
As James Anderson put it after his four-wicket haul on Friday, England's intention to enforce the follow-on depended on whether the sun was "cracking the flags" or not, and as the last wicket fell with Australia 210 runs adrift, Strauss dashed back into the pavilion, but his opening partner, Alastair Cook, did not. "There was a huge amount of discussion tonight and this morning," said Prior, "but I think the decision was only made about three seconds before it was announced.
"I think it was the right decision as it happened, because today was a great day for batting," added Prior. "The sun shone most of the day, the wicket played well and we put ourselves in a good position. At Lord's, the overheads, they all come into play, and we wanted to leave the decision open this morning. There was nothing set in stone."
Equally, there may be nothing set in stone tomorrow. If the sun is shining brightly when the five-minute bell is rung, England would be within their rights to carry on batting, keep Australia guessing, and wait for the heavens to roll into place. If that seems unnecessarily cautious, then a quick glance at the recent record at Lord's would be prudent. Aside from a supine victory over a West Indies side that didn't want to be here, England have not forced a positive result since the visit of Bangladesh in 2005. Six consecutive draws have been racked up in the interim, including the most recent, and the most traumatic, against South Africa in 2008 when Smith, Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla patted their way through 167 of the most placid conditions imaginable.
"I wasn't involved in that match against South Africa, but by all accounts they played brilliantly and teams are allowed to do that," said Prior. "If the Aussies play brilliantly and bat for two days, then hats off [to them]. All we can control is how we perform and feel as a unit, but it's an Ashes series, and things are slightly different. When you're 500 runs behind, there's a lot of scoreboard pressure involved which makes things tricky as well."
"But the worst thing we can do is be complacent," he added. "I think there's no place for that in international sport, let alone in an Ashes series. We've seen funnier things have happened and that's something we will guard against, but in the first innings we bowled them out for 215, it's the same wicket, and we're very confident we can do it again. We're in a great position, and though it's what you do with it those positions that count, we've certainly got the firepower and the skill in the changing-room to make it count."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo