Fear is England's biggest foe
On the third day of this series, England's most dreaded Ashes opponents made an appearance that will, in all probability, decide the outcome of this first Test match. No, I am not talking about Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, although they have had their moments for sure. The opponents in question were fear and remorse. After a season spent flirting with two enticing impostors, bluster and bravado, England were forced to face up to a long-ignored inevitability.
England's remorse stemmed from yesterday's wasteful and match-turning afternoon, in which Kevin Pietersen dropped the most significant catch since Graham Thorpe's at Headingley in 1997, and Michael Clarke streamed through their breached confidence in the manner of his hero, Michael Slater. The fear, of course, stemmed from the inkling that it was about to happen all over again.
The upshot was a morning session lifted straight from the annals of Ashes misery 1989 to 2003. Australia were worried overnight, no question. Shane Warne admitted privately that their overnight lead of 314 was nowhere near enough, while England - after a late burst of bravado had brought four wickets in nine overs - were left rueing the new ICC regulations that sawed off the session at 6pm sharp and robbed them of 5.4 potentially fruitful overs.
That late momentum had dissipated by the resumption, however, and in its place came the dreadful tick-tick of an ever-mounting scoreboard. Simon Katich played beautifully, nudging and cutting and pulling with skill, much in the manner of England's late lamented lefthander whose retirement was confirmed yesterday afternoon (just as Australia began to turn the screw, in fact). On Katich's watch, a pursuable 314 became an improbable 350 became an in-your-dreams 420. And England, quite literally, took their eyes off the ball.
You know things are getting bad when Andrew Flintoff shells a chance at slip. By that stage, however, the damage had been done, with Geraint Jones - like a luckless umpire - making his first mistakes of the summer at the moment it mattered most. In the run-up to this series (like Brett Lee's, it is a run-up that stretches well into last year), the oft-repeated fear was that Jones, never the silkiest of glovemen, would drop Matthew Hayden on 0 and so change the course of the series. Given that dread alternative, a pair of reprieves for Australia's 10 and jack would appear to matter little. The reality, of course, is somewhat different.
Contrary to expectations, Jones has scarcely put a foot wrong all summer. His spunky batting secured a tie in the NatWest Series final, while his glovework has accounted for 37 catches and a stumping in 14 international innings. But confidence breeds confidence, both personal and collective, and in prolonging Jason Gillespie and Glenn McGrath's innings-turning stays, he ensured that the morale of the two sets of players went off in utterly opposite directions.
With the ball, Jason Gillespie is a busted flush, an ageing rocker who has found, mid-concert, that he can no longer do the splits while playing his guitar solo one-handed behind his head. His first delivery of England's run-chase was hoisted over midwicket in a premeditated assault from Andrew Strauss, who showed, happily for the prospects of this series, that England's bravado has not been entirely misplaced. But that shot merely highlighted what might have been achievable had England kept their target to manageable proportions. By the time it had been played, however, Gillespie had already won this contest with the bat.
McGrath's late flourish - which included the sweetest of square cuts in a fine 20 not out - was the insult of a man already spilling over with confidence. It was Gillespie who made the difference, putting body and soul on the line and deadbatting like a vampire slayer for 71 unflinching minutes. He took his blows and stayed in line, limiting himself to three nudged fours and a single off the hips. He may no longer be able to influence with the ball, but by hanging in there, he turned a possible England run-chase into a flight of fancy.
Shane Warne, by contrast, has little left to give with the bat, especially when Harmison is threatening his throat with every delivery. But, given one last chance to make his mark on the Lord's honours boards, he wrenched every sinew in a thrilling, teasing 15-over spell. Ripping his legbreaks as if he no longer cares whether his shoulder falls out of its socket, he changed the course of the game with a bamboozling array, feeding once again on the fear that England thought they had banished from their game.
Though Marcus Trescothick and Strauss banished the spectre of their first-innings failures, and Pietersen delayed the inevitable in a crowdpleasing counterattack, this particular cause is lost. England will be remorseful, no doubt. But the turning points of this game have been sharp and fully in focus, rather than the steady shipping of hope that has occurred in previous series. They must now suppress their mounting fears if a repeat performance is to be avoided.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo