McGrath denies rift, but not the battle ahead
The defining image of the fourth day at Old Trafford came after tea. Shane Warne took a long gaze at the sky, in something between frustration and resignation, tossed the battered ball up again and steeled himself for more pain.
"It got to the stage where all you could do was smile," said Glenn McGrath afterwards. "We haven't had our best game to date." At times Australia's widely spread fielders resembled missionaries in a foreign and hostile land.
Their raggedness in the field intensified the rumour in today's Mail on Sunday of a "stand-up row" between Warne and Ricky Ponting in the Edgbaston dressing room.
"I think it's quite funny," said McGrath, not obviously laughing. "I've been around the changing rooms the whole time and I haven't heard or seen anything like that. It's disappointing that it's in the papers when it never happened."
McGrath has a column with the Mail on Sunday and said he was "keen to have a chat" with the writer of the story, Peter Hayter. "The biggest disappointing thing is that it's not the first time something's been in the papers over here that actually didn't happen ... It's a blatant lie."
At times during a hard morning Ponting squatted down on his haunches like a Red Indian trying to follow a particularly difficult trail. It was certainly unfamiliar territory. Australia have lost one Test series in more than five years. They are psychologically unused to being bullied.
"You're almost just waiting for the declaration to come in that situation," admitted Andrew Strauss. "It's pretty hard to keep your intensity up. The Australian team hasn't been in that sort of situation too often."
At the close, they needed 399 runs to complete a world-record run-chase or to survive 98 overs to draw. "It's nearly 100 overs so if we can go along at four runs an over I think we'll get there," deadpanned McGrath with faultless logic. "We're not going to blow them away," countered Strauss. "[But] there are ten wickets out there. There's going to be enough balls misbehaving for us to do it."
Strauss himself hit a century, his first against Australia. On one, he edged a ball that bisected Warne and Ponting in a colander of a slip cordon. Shortly before that he was clattered on the left ear by a Brett Lee bouncer -- his grille was bent and blood wiped from the inside of the helmet. "It's not doing much for my street cred," he admitted.
Last week England bounded over what Strauss called a mental hurdle at Edgbaston. They hope to clear the next one tomorrow, using reverse swing, which McGrath saw as crucial on a flattish pitch. They have just the man in Simon Jones. Today he ended with 6 for 53, the best for England at Old Trafford since Laker's match in 1956. It was one of the few occasions anyone has zoomed forward by finding reverse.
Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer