England beaten as Australia retain the Ashes
Australia have retained the Ashes, beating England by an innings and 48 runs at the WACA in Perth to go three-nil up in the series. There were moments of resistance on the third day when Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart were together, but an early collapse and the brilliance of the Australians meant that there could only be one result.
The Australians were at the very top of their game from the outset of the day. England resumed at 33 for one but failed to advance the total as the bowlers offered absolutely no relief. Every ball had to be played and every one treated with respect.
Richard Dawson had played sensibly when coming in on the second evening as nightwatchman. He set his stool out to continue in similar vein but was unable to withstand the pressure. Two balls from Jason Gillespie kept a little low, the next was up to invite the drive and Dawson was undone by extra bounce as it flew to Steve Waugh's right in the gully and the Australian captain held a sharp catch.
Two more maidens followed before, off the fifth ball of the fourth over of the morning, England managed to record the first run of the session, but at what cost. Michael Vaughan played the ball into a gap in the covers and took the single. Seeing Brett Lee slightly misfield, Mark Butcher and Vaughan embarked on a second run but Lee recovered quickly and as his return was on its way to Adam Gilchrist, Butcher sent Vaughan back. Perhaps incapacitated by his injured knee, Vaughan took an age to turn and before he could regain his ground Gilchrist had the ball back to the bowler McGrath and Vaughan was run out.
Next ball, an unsettled Butcher allowed his head to fall across his stumps and when rapped on the pads there was only one decision that the umpire could give. As Butcher departed lbw he took a disappointed swish at the stumps to book himself a meeting with the match referee.
At 34 for four, England's hopes were foundering. It could and should have been 34 for five, for Hussain edged his first ball from Gillespie to Shane Warne at slip and the usually reliable Warne allowed the ball to go to ground. Had the chance been held it is questionable whether the match would have lasted until lunch, but Hussain and Robert Key began the resistance with some long awaited spirit.
After ten overs of the morning's play, England had scored five runs and lost three wickets. Another ten overs passed, Warne and Lee replaced the admirable McGrath and Gillespie and eventually, off the fifth ball of the 32nd over, Key lifted Warne over the covers for the first boundary of the innings.
Hussain added two more fours before lunch which was taken with the England score on 78 for four and still trailing by 193 runs.
The England captain was being bruised and battered but was unmoved and stood up defiantly. Key was offering him stout support and it was not until deep into the afternoon session that he fell lbw to McGrath for 23 runs chiselled out of the 106 balls that he faced. For once, however, the fall of one wicket did not herald a collapse.
It might have done, because Alec Stewart got off the mark first ball with an elegant on drive off Warne, but when he had six he lofted the same bowler perilously close to Lee at mid-off but the fielder was unable to grasp it as it fell just behind him.
Stewart and Hussain began to widen their repertoire of shots as they moved towards the tea interval and, while they were fully tested by whatever attacking options Waugh arrayed against them, they were growing in confidence and stature. Was this going to be another chapter written in the annals of heroic rearguard actions?
The answer to that question came in the fourth over after tea. Hussain was dropped by Damien Martyn at slip of Warne, but next ball he played forward and the appeal for caught behind was upheld. Hussain was obviously of the opinion that the sound was not of an edge but his bat hitting the ground, but umpire Rudi Koertzen thought otherwise and the batsman was out for 61.
Craig White has been successful with the ball since joining the Ashes party but had hardly enhanced his billing as an all-rounder. However, he was helping Stewart to maintain the momentum when he tried to take one liberty too many with Warne. He advanced down the pitch and went for a lofted sweep to a ball pitching outside leg stump. He missed and despite an effort to swing the bat round and over to regain his ground, Gilchrist had the bails off in the blink of an eye and White was out stumped for 15.
The end was not long coming after that. Alex Tudor had happy memories of Perth when he made his Test debut four years ago. He will not have fond recollections of this visit - if he can remember it at all. Lee produced a quick lifter to him from only just short of a length and Tudor was struck a sickening blow to the side of the head as he tried to get out of the way. Tudor's nickname is `Bambi' but he spun away like a shot rabbit before collapsing in a heap clutching his head.
He needed stitches and was described as feeling groggy, which was better than at first feared. There was genuine concern as the players clustered around the fallen batsman before he retired hurt, carried from the field on a stretcher.
Steve Harmison had the unenviable task of replacing Tudor. Lee let him know that he could expect no favours when he dropped one in very short to fly way over the 6'4" Harmison's head. He then produced a quick full toss that the batsman missed and it shattered the wicket. The injured Chris Silverwood wisely decided against batting and the match was over.
It is difficult to see what comfort England can take from a third successive defeat by an innings in a series that has seen play on only 11 of the scheduled 15 days. That is a measure of the efficiency of the Australian side. No other team in the world can match the one led with such sureness by Waugh. All the others can try to emulate them but are always found wanting. They can only look on with wonder and awe at one of the best cricket teams - quite possibly THE best team - cricket has ever produced.