England v Australia, 4th Test, Trent Bridge, 3rd day August 27, 2005

The slowly turning tide

Ricky Ponting trudges off after a brilliant run out © Getty Images

Over by over, inch by inch, England are clawing the rug from under Australia's feet. Nothing and no-one can be discounted just yet, especially now that Simon Jones, England's best bowler of the last two Tests, has been placed in a surgical boot after suffering a worrying ankle injury. But the momentum of the series has taken a further shift to the north, and as Ricky Ponting audibly demonstrated as he thundered back to the pavilion, Australia's resolve is threatening to splinter with anger and recrimination.

The flashpoint of this series has been a long time coming. One of the glorious features of the 2005 Ashes has been the camaraderie and goodwill between the two teams, best exemplified by Andrew Flintoff's consoling of Brett Lee after the two-run win at Edgbaston, and Shane Warne's generous reaction to Flintoff's match-turning innings 24 hours earlier.

But this is no ordinary Ashes series. For the first time since the sepia era of the 1950s, the best two teams in the world are slugging it out for supremacy - and sooner or later the laughter was going to have to stop. A decade on from Australia's annexing of West Indies' crown in the Caribbean, the abiding memory is still shared between Steve Waugh's double-century in Jamaica, and his earlier eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Curtly Ambrose in Trinidad on the same tour. Proud warriors do not lay down their arms without a struggle.

Ponting's peevish reaction to his run-out was entirely understandable given the massive significance of the moment. It was he who single-handedly saved the Old Trafford Test with the rearguard innings of his life, and all the while that he remained today, England had cause to fear for the wisdom of enforcing the follow-on. But in a blur of judgment and a swoop from the covers, Gary Pratt, the substitute fielder, produced the moment of brilliance that had eluded Stephen Peters, his predecessor in the role, in the closing moments at Old Trafford.

Substitute fielders have a habit of making an impact at Trent Bridge. In the opening match of the 1930 Ashes, Sydney Copley - a member of the Nottinghamshire groundstaff with one first-class match to his name - produced a stunning tumbling catch off Stan McCabe to turn the Test in England's favour. For all the resilience of Simon Katich and Michael Clarke, and the lurking menace of Adam Gilchrist (whose flicker of form in today's first innings was cut short by a second slip catch worthy of Mark Waugh), Pratt's intervention could well prove to be the tipping-point of Australia's challenge in this Test.

It has been a valiant challenge as well. The decision to enforce the follow-on, Australia's first since Ian Healy's debut at Karachi in September 1988, was an undoubted risk. Such decisions used to be no-brainers, a reward for dominant teams in an era when run-rates of two-and-a-half an over were the norm, and Tests would be hard-pressed to finish within the five-day limit. Ever since Mark Taylor broke with the norm at Brisbane in 1994-95, however, the preference has been for a hasty accumulation in the third innings, and final use of a now-crumbling pitch.

Given the agony of their missed opportunity at Old Trafford, and the need for haste in the event of bad weather, England had little choice but to stick Australia back in, for all the risk it entailed. Four years ago in Calcutta, Australia's last series defeat was precipitated by one of the greatest turnarounds in history, as VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted them into oblivion from the point of no-return.

Now, in a neat reprisal of the situation, it will take Australia's own version of Calcutta to save this match. The fury of a squandered first-innings and the benefits of a day in the dressing-room have so far been focussing their responses. Now it is a question of whether the resentment that is simmering overnight can be channelled into action, or be allowed to eat further into their resolve.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo