England v Australia, 3rd Test, Old Trafford, 4th day August 14, 2005

England's jigsaw begins to take shape

Andrew Strauss: feeding off a confident England dressing-room © Getty Images
Rarely can an Australian side have left the field looking so frazzled and disorientated as they did this evening, after Michael Vaughan's declaration had left them needing an improbable 423 to win, or more realistically, three-and-a-half sessions to save the game. Shane Warne, back in the headlines for a supposed tete-a-tete with his captain, had just gone wicketless in conditions tailor-made for his genius, while Glenn McGrath, Australia's other go-to bowler, was shaking his head ruefully after perhaps the worst five-wicket haul of his illustrious career. Though Australia survived a tricky session in the gloom, and may yet bat to safety tomorrow, defeat was already etched on the faces that stalked back to the pavilion.

England's disposition, meanwhile, could not have been sunnier, after a day in which the values of team spirit - or to use the Aussie vernacular, "mateship" - were as upfront and personal as Jason Gillespie's bowling figures. This was a day when the bit-parters came to the party, and for that reason above all others, it was quite possibly England's best day yet of an already incredible series.

Win or draw tomorrow, it somehow matters less than the manner in which England have arrived at this juncture. The bookies wavered yesterday when rain caused them to change their minds about England being favourites for the Ashes, but England themselves have not blinked once, not even when the Lord's debacle turned the rest of the nation to prayer. This is a young, united team, vibrant after 18 months of unparalleled success and revelling in one another's successes. The Australians are right to be looking concerned.

In a summer of turning points, today's was especially significant. So far, the series has been a clash of the totems, with Warne and Andrew Flintoff trading runs, wickets and backslaps aplenty. And "fair dinkum" might have been the Aussie reaction to all that, particularly after Edgbaston, for so long as these two giants cancelled each other out, Australia would back their greater know-how to smother the remainder.

But suddenly, it is Warne, and not Flintoff, who is looking around wondering where his support act has got to. After three Tests, Australia's series averages are looking like the seating plan of a London bus, with the driver and conductor, Warne and McGrath, earning their keep, but the rest little more than passengers.

That criticism, however, can no longer be levelled at England anymore. If Flintoff and Steve Harmison are rapidly becoming the world-class pillars that every great team needs, then Simon Jones and Andrew Strauss epitomise the heights that the merely excellent can scale when placed in an environment that nurtures confidence and allows talent to flourish.

Not even his own mother would try to pretend that Strauss is an alltime great in the making, but just look how he has thrived since arriving in the England dressing-room. Six hundreds in 17 Tests is a return that his opposite number and former Middlesex team-mate, Justin Langer, would be proud of.

Like Langer, Strauss has learnt, first and foremost, to bat within his limitations, and hit outside of them only when the time is right. But his innings today was particularly impressive given that he is a player whose touch from 2004 had undoubtedly deserted him. That he came through another torrid start - and another shattering blow to the helmet - is a tribute to the confidence surging through the veins of the England dressing-room.

Geraint Jones's perky performance was another major pointer for the series. Here is a man whose glovework is so under the microscope that he can feel the lens prodding him in the palms. And yet, his response was to heave McGrath for two vast sixes, then pluck a leg-side take so astonishing that he instinctively rolled over to salute his barrackers at backward square-leg. As Adam Gilchrist has amply demonstrated, confidence is everything - even for the very best in the business.

But the biggest single difference between England and Australia in this match has been the respective zest and lethargy of the support seamers. Simon Jones and Gillespie have much in common in spite of appearances - both have big hearts and both have returned from career-threatening injuries. But in terms of impact in this summer, there is no contest. Gillespie is finished, as his captain tacitly admitted by allowing him just four ineffectual overs this afternoon. Jones, on the other hand, is only just getting started.

For all that he has been a fixture in the side for 18 months, Jones has been the find of England's summer. His pace is perhaps not as extreme as it was before his grievous knee injury, but his mastery of reverse-swing is currently unrivalled. He has become a deadly impact bowler with a penchant for striking early in a spell, and his figures of 6 for 53 were the best in an Ashes Test at Old Trafford since the incomparable Jim Laker in 1956.

Throw in Ian Bell's second fifty of the match and another probing performance from Ashley Giles, and a picture of perfect good health can be painted of the England cricket team. There's something very strange in the water in Manchester.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo