The tables are turned Down Under
Australia praying for rain and the English media heralding a bright new dawn? Something strange has come to pass at Old Trafford over the past three days. For all the faux-excitement in the British tabloids about the start of the football season, one needed only peel a couple of pages beneath the surface to discover the story that's really got tongues wagging this summer.
"Make no mistake: England are on top in the Ashes now, and we LOVE it," bellowed Mike Walters in The Mirror, under a banner headline that paid due reference to England's star turn of the second day. "We're Giles ahead!" cackled the paper, after our Ashley had produced his own imitation of Shane Warne's ball of the century to bowl Damien Martyn for 20.
"Spinball Wizard," agreed The Sun. "Same place, same spin and the same devastating result," elaborated their correspondent, John Etheridge. "The King of Spain's incredible fizzer landed on a leg-stump line before turning so wickedly it clipped the top of the off pole." The Sun even diverted their chief sports writer, Steven Howard, away from his football duties to pass comment on the proceedings. "Suddenly it's all gone quiet over there," he intoned. "The Poms were giving their boys one hell of a beating."
Such incendiary comments really got the Aussies' goat during the one-day series, with The Australian newspaper suffering a back-page sense of humour failure following The Sun's depiction of their fast bowlers as "Sheilas". Today, however, they were meekly resigned to their fate.
"If any slim doubts remained as to the uphill battle Australia faces to retain the Ashes, they were duly erased by England's further domination," stated Andrew Ramsey in The Australian. "The poise and self-belief displayed by the home team's middle-order was in marked contrast to another slipshod effort by Australia's bowlers and fielders, who are showing frailty under sustained pressure."
"Australia were battling for survival in the third Test on Friday evening," agreed Chloe Saltau in The Sydney Morning Herald, after enduring "one of their worst days in the field" on Thursday, and losing Justin Langer to "a stroke of brilliance before tea". These are words that could have summed up any given England performance of the last 20 years. When they are applied to Australia it is confusing in the extreme.
And hot on the heels of the poor performances ... come the recriminations. Michael Slater, currently a commentator for Channel 4, decided that, following a spate of costly dropped catches, the object of his ire would be Australia's coach, John Buchanan.
"It makes me question their practice regimes at the moment, which is the coach's responsibility," he told The Courier Mail. "Are they practising with enough intensity, because if you don't you won't be able to take it on to the field. The big moments are taking those catches and Australia have prided themselves on taking even half-chances. It surprises me how many let-offs Australia are giving England."
Slater's co-commentator, Geoffrey Boycott, pinned the blame on Jason Gillespie, the undoubted weak link in a hitherto invincible bowling attack. "Gillespie was ineffective and hardly moved the ball all day," he wrote in The Daily Telegraph. "At this level of Test cricket you have to be able to swing or seam the ball or do something with it. It's all right saying that Gillespie has a good reputation (but) all players have to live on facts and figures and Gillespie's are not very good at this moment."
"Any decision to axe Gillespie would be taken with a heavy heart," said Ramsay, because he is "one of Australia's most respected and best-loved players for his willingness to bowl his heart out in any conditions or circumstances," but Peter Roebuck, in The Sydney Morning Herald, believed his form brooked no argument. "Jason Gillespie has looked a spent force and can no longer command a regular place in the side. Nor is it surprising. Not even the greatest sportsman can stop the clock."
"It is way, way too early to gloat," Matt Price, in The Australian, warned England's fans. But it wasn't too early for the vitriol to start spouting. "Adam Gilchrist seems to have morphed into Geraint Jones, spilling everything and appearing to have seven thumbs jammed into each margarine-coated glove. Perhaps the transformation has been mutual, so by the time you read this Jones will have knocked up 150 in a session to steer England to 700 and beyond."
But the real target of Price's wrath was the most convenient scapegoat of all, Billy Bowden. "Bowden is a pain in the neck," he raged. "I've never been the slightest bit enchanted by the New Zealand umpire's contrived antics, leaping about and waving his arms like some kind of unco-ordinated, computer-generated tai chi exponent.
"Officials should be permitted their quirks," he conceded, "The Bucknor pause, the Shepherd hop. But Bowden oversteps the line between idiosyncratic and idiotic. Umpires, like children and John Howard's backbenchers, should be seen and rarely heard."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo