England need to land the telling blows
In the nine days that have elapsed since the end of the Old Trafford Test match, something significant has changed in the tempo of this series. In heavyweight boxing parlance, Australia have morphed from being George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle era to something more akin to Mike Tyson in his second coming. They have lost their swagger, they have abdicated the sheer glowering authority that once had opponents beaten before they stepped into the ring, but they still retain their crown and as the rounds are counted down, they have the wherewithal to cling onto it.
The only reason that Australia are still favourites to retain the Ashes is that England require a knockout to steal them. There is no other explanation for a day which began with a patched-up Australian attack winging down 18 no-balls in the morning session alone, but ended with a scoreline of 229 for 4 and honours more or less even. Ricky Ponting's frugal six-over spell in the closing overs of the day, every ball a yard outside off stump or more, was an apt metaphor for the remaining exchanges of this series. "The Ashes are over here, boys!" he seemed to be taunting. "Come and get them if you dare." Michael Vaughan dared, and toppled into the abyss in his over-eagerness.
It is a cagey and unfamiliar game that Australia has adopted, and it will require nerves of steel if they are to pull it off, especially if Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen get into the swing of things in tomorrow's crucial resumption. But on today's evidence, guile is the only thing their bowlers have left to fall back. Their no-ball tally was an embarrassment, and no sooner had they tightened that up, than the catches started to go down. Michael Kasprowicz then produced a geriatric slip on the boundary's edge to allow the 200 to pass through his legs, and had it not been for Shaun Tait's vigorous two-wicket burst after lunch, the damage could have been a lot, lot worse.
Australia looked old today. After their near-disastrous double-header, they went away for a much-needed break and lapped up the opportunity to recharge the batteries, but upon the resumption they have looked stiff-limbed and ponderous. McGrath never even made it out of the dressing-room while Warne, though hampered by wet conditions that would have made the ball hard to grip, had bowled just five overs by the time Ponting entered the attack. Rumours of a back problem were dismissed by the management, but the hour of need had come and gone by the time Warne belatedly re-entered the fray in the evening sun.
During the lengthy rain delays, the crowd was treated to highlights of the NatWest Series, that midsummer cuckoo that caused the Test series to be pushed all the way back to the margins of the season. What a long, long time ago it all seemed. There was Brett Lee straining every sinew to pummel his way back into the team, there was McGrath putting the wind up England's openers time and again. And each match was being fought with the intensity of a Test match.
Australia scoffed at England's vigorous attitude, and tacitly we all laughed with them. Come the real event, all that multi-coloured nonsense would count for nothing, and the verve and knowhow of the Australian champions would prove too much for England's Test team. On the very first day of the tour, in fact, Ponting had declared the schedule to be his team's biggest ally.
But like Mohammad Ali with his rope-a-dope tactics against Foreman, England might just have drawn the sting of the Australians in those expendable opening rounds. The sheer effort of living up to their champion status, both mental and physical, is clearly beginning to tell. Jason Gillespie has fallen, McGrath is falling, Matthew Hayden - whose drop it was in the gully today - is the most vulnerable batsman on either team. Even the great Adam Gilchrist was the second-best wicketkeeper-batsman on display at Old Trafford.
England will not win the Ashes without redoubling their efforts in these suffocatingly significant final rounds, and on today's evidence the prize could yet elude them. But only one side seems capable of producing that final thrust to the finish. And, lo and behold, it isn't the Ashes holders.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo