Lost in the transition
Channel 4 can never have had it so good. There are two Aussie-based dramas gripping the nation at present, and both of them have been drawing in the punters in droves. One of them is a multi-million dollar, Hollywood-produced, 24-episode blockbuster set on a desert island, and featuring a cast of nauseatingly beautiful people being terrorised by mystery beasts, personal demons and implausible plot twists. The other is the Ashes, and there's no question which is the more compelling.
C4 assumed that its new ratings-winner, Lost, would be the most extraordinary thriller to hit the screens this summer, but they were wrong. If a Qantas jet broke in two in the skies over Old Trafford and a polar bear galumphed out of the palm trees at the Brian Statham End, as more or less happened during last night's pilot episode, then the crowd might actually let out a sigh that normality had been restored to their day. Because what they've witnessed in the past six sessions simply beggars belief.
If the final morning at Edgbaston can be described as a watershed - and hindsight is lending it greater significance with every passing hour - then today's performance at Old Trafford was an absolute cascade. It simply wasn't meant to be like this. On Thursday, Australia's bowling and fielding went to pieces; today it was the turn of the batting, as England clicked their fingers and the resistance crumbled.
By the close only Shane Warne was standing firm for Australia - it seems his off-pitch turmoil is so fervent that stressful Test cricket is the perfect release for his emotions. Unless Warne can conjure a turnaround of Headingley proportions, Australia are a beaten side in this match, and incredibly, for the first time in a generation, they seem to have accepted this eventuality.
One statistic above all others best describes the matchless hegemony that Australia has enjoyed for the past decade and more. It has been 17 years and 191 matches since they were last asked to follow on in a Test match, against Pakistan at Karachi in September 1988. They still need 35 more runs to avoid that prospect with just three wickets standing, and the end of a record that predates even their hold on the Ashes is a very real possibility.
Given the stunning ripper that Ashley Giles sent down to Damien Martyn, England might be loathe to take that option, seeing as that would mean exposing themselves to Warne on a fourth-day wicket. But England at present see no reason to take even a sideways step. They have a five-man attack that can cover all eventualities, and an opposition that does not know whether to run or hide. Australia's seepage of wickets this evening was a travesty in the conditions. Once again their runs came at nearly four an over, but seven wickets were extracted by England, almost at will.
Australia are not used to the Poms biting back, and their bewilderment is tangible. Today, their batsmen hurtled to their fate with the sort of lemming-like audacity that caused their last great derailment, against India in 2000-01. That series, like this one, began with a resounding Australian victory, but ended in a flurry of tangled limbs as a succession of batsmen tried to hit their way out of trouble.
Giles is no Harbhajan Singh, but a lack of respect can go a long way towards bridging the gap between the great and the merely good. He has now claimed each member of Australia's top eight once this series, and only a fundamental change of mindset from the Australians will prevent him from adding to that tally as the second innings unravels.
Australia managed to change that mindset against India last winter, when the batsmen knuckled down and accepted that batting for time was every bit as important as batting for runs, but that flexibility of thinking was four years in the planning, and against a side whom Australia had not beaten on their home patch for 35 years. This, on the other hand, is England. This is the Ashes. That biennial stroll in the park. To dally is to show weakness, surely?
Perhaps not. With Australia producing a performance as disorientated as their fellow rating-winners, it seems it is not just England who became set in their ways during the wilderness years of Ashes cricket.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo