England v Australia, 3rd Test, Old Trafford, 1st day August 11, 2005

Australia's fear of the unthinkable

Michael Vaughan thrives on the most Australian wicket of the summer © Getty Images

The first ordinary day of Test cricket in this series proved to be the most extraordinary of them all. No ebbing, no flowing, no cataclysmic collapses or resounding resurgences. Just your average Ashes scenario: remorseless accumulation on the one hand, and desperate self-destruction on the other. With one obvious, yet incredible, difference.

Until the second new ball was taken, a quick glance at the scoreboard might have transported you back to Brisbane in 2002-03 or 1994-95, or Trent Bridge 1989, or Headingley 1993 - days in which Australia batted first and battered England into submission, against a backdrop of missed chances and the sort of self-perpetuating bad luck that stalks a team when it is down.

But this time it was England making all the running. Australia, buoyed at the start by the return of not one, but both of their injured fast bowlers, were treated as a troup of trundlers for the second first-innings in succession, and not even those three late but vital strikes will placate them this evening. Theirs was a fielding performance to rival any of England's most desperate days of the past decade, as five clear-cut catches were grassed and perhaps the single most important batsman on either side - Michael Vaughan - was allowed to produce the single most important innings of his life.

Has there ever been a more important no-ball in the history of Test cricket? For the time being, that must remain a question for hindsight, but for Glenn McGrath the agony of that crucial overstep will be ingrained on his mind for evermore, if Vaughan's glorious 166 proves to be the difference between the sides by the end of this match.

For one magical moment, as Vaughan's off stump went cartwheeling for the fourth time in five innings this series, it seemed that Australia's faith in McGrath's powers of recovery had been well and truly justified. But Steve Bucknor's outstretched arm truncated the celebrations for the second time in two balls, and Vaughan knuckled down to produce an innings the like of which has not been seen since his glory-days Down Under in 2002-03.

Forget his early-series struggles, this was Vaughan's fourth century in eight Tests against Australia, a truly world-class return by anyone's standards. And it is no coincidence that he returned to form on the most Australian wicket he will encounter this summer. Rock-hard and bouncy wickets are what Vaughan loves the most, as exemplified by the withering pull with which he marked Jason Gillespie's return to the attack. That makes the irony of his no-ball let-off all the more acute - it was one of the few deliveries all day that could actually have rattled his stumps.

The most costly no-ball of all time? Watch this space © Getty Images

By the close, it was hard to know which had been the greater miracle - McGrath's Lazarus-like recovery from his torn ankle ligament, or the fact that he went wicketless in 19 metronomic overs. Had this been the first Test and not the third, he would surely have five wickets to his name this evening, but such is the momentum shift that has occurred in the past fortnight that there is no such thing as an easy chance for Australia. Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden spurned two apiece, and heads that could have been lifted by the sight of Shane Warne's 600th Test scalp were instead allowed to drop to their bootlaces.

Australia will back themselves to bounce back, as they always have done. Indeed, as recently as March of this year, New Zealand rattled past 300 for the lost of just three first-innings wickets - and ended up losing by nine. But a change of mindset has occurred since the loss of the second Test. The assumptions that Australia carried over from the facile win at Lord's were allowed, cruelly, to be aired once again as England began to choke on that unforgettable Sunday morning. The series win wafted under their noses, but now it is the stench of the unthinkable that is threatening to overpower them.

England, however, must guard against over-confidence, and worryingly for their own prospects, that is precisely what Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen both failed to do. Vaughan's innings became an accident waiting to happen, as he hurtled past 150 with virtually a shot a ball. If only the devoutly watchful Ian Bell had been senior enough to have a quiet word in his ear. For all the magnificence of Vaughan's innings, this was the eighth time he has passed 140 in Tests, and not once has he converted to 200.

Admittedly that is the sort of conversion-rate issue that most batsmen would kill for, but ever since he got himself out handled the ball in Bangalore, Vaughan has had a penchant for the daft dismissal. To hole out to a part-timer, five overs before the new ball was due, was a lapse that would be forgivable if it hadn't been so telegraphed. Pietersen's lapse was rather more understandable - he was never likely to wind his neck in and play for the close. Even so, he has now been caught on the midwicket boundary in three first innings out of three - some food for thought, when the red mist has lifted.

All of which leaves a huge responsibility on the youngest shoulders in the team. Bell's 59 was arguably the first genuine Test innings that England has produced all summer. Watchful, patient and learning with every delivery, he first survived against Warne and McGrath and later thrived as well, and provided vital ballast to an England innings that was threatening to spin off its own axis much as it had done at Edgbaston. More of the same tomorrow, with a certain Freddie Flintoff feeding off his resolve, and England could be in business. But anything less than 500, and Australia will still believe they have the winning of this game.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo