Australia facing their defining moment
Missing their most spectacular victory by three measly runs, Australia's previously unbreakables now face moments that will define the length of their reign. Like a new heir to the throne, this was a result heard around the world - or at least those with Commonwealth links - and Ricky Ponting is a leader with more than the national interest at stake.
Three short, Australia have as many days for post-mortems and plotting of the recovery that starts at Old Trafford on Thursday. Despite nearly pulling off a miraculous theft from the extraordinary batting of Warne, Lee and Kasprowicz, the hierarchy must quickly rectify errors that allowed England to run over them from day one. One-all after two Tests was never a thought in any baggy green cap.
With quality speed bowling coming from all angles, the batsmen's approach on returning fire after being muted in three of the four innings should be the main priority alongside quiet prayers for a hasty healing from Glenn McGrath. The top order must accept the responsibility for leaving the last three with 107 runs for victory, and remember last year's fine play in Sri Lanka and India. They have a three-Test ultimatum to sweat over runs instead of slap at them, and respect a five-man bowling attack that has provided more bruises than Justin Langer's boxing training.
After watching a fascinating final-swing end in agony, Ponting was largely unrepentant about his side's play or his decision to bowl first and concede 407 in less than a day. "The tail-enders did sensationally and it shows the character of the side," he said. "We'll be taking a lot from this game." His lofty position has not been earned by nagging self-doubts, but Australia's unshakeable belief may have become a tactical weakness. Any turnaround will require slight changes in their outlook, which is a difficult process when things almost always work sensationally well.
For 15 years Australians have dismissed England's Ashes chances as easily as Warne has their batsmen, and Ponting's post-match summary showed the glaring message from New England is still slow getting through. Allan Border, who started the series-winning streak in 1989, delivered sage advice from his Fox Sports commentary seat that more grit was required than gusto. "It's the way they've been playing the last five to ten years, but against quality bowling you've got to give it respect," he said. "They might have to grind out a hundred rather than get one in 120 balls."
At the start of the tour Ponting smirked when asked whether he'd be the man to forfeit the urn. There will be no scoffing now, even though England will probably have to reproduce similar-scaled heroics in two more Tests. "Is this side going to be the one to lose the Ashes," an Australian emailer asked before play. "They want to start to pull their finger out."
Shane Warne and Brett Lee, the bowlers who roared Australia back in touch on day three, had all digits working spectacularly again as the Nos. 9 and 10 top-scored on the way to a denouement eerily similar to Australia's narrowest loss, a one-run defeat to West Indies at Adelaide in 1992-93. On that afternoon it was Craig McDermott looking as disconsolate - did Courtney Walsh's delivery brush glove or grille on the way to Junior Murray? - as poor Michael Kasprowicz. Sharing a 59-run stand with Lee that took Australia from hypothetical to hopeful to realistic to almost certain, Kasprowicz's defensive action against Steve Harmison will be replayed for decades, with much pointing or ignoring of his hand's distance from the bat handle.
"Having been in that situation it never leaves you," Border, who watched from the other end as Jeff Thomson edged four runs short against England in 1982-83, said. "The pain will dull over the years, but you keep asking yourself questions." Lee was the non-striker this time and will also have physical pain to deal with after an innings filled with calmness, bravery and bruises caused mainly by Andrew Flintoff.
It is a method the top-order could mirror. Total body makeovers are unnecessary and their individual greatness is not in question. But collective tinkering to the dominate-at-all-costs approach is required so Ponting can avoid being a worn-out answer to English pub trivia nights and instead join a brilliant succession of nine series victories. The kings aren't dead, but they have a case of the sniffles that must be blown away carefully and strategically. Reputations, gloating rights and the Ashes rest on it.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo