Late, late shows are coming just too late
Australia's final-day bravery has again gone unrewarded. In the first three innings England flames were fought with watering cans, but when the pressure was at its most severe they almost flushed out another miracle.
The reality was that England should have skipped to victory. Instead Shane Warne's brilliance created another throbbing contest that beat until Ashley Giles scampered the final runs. Brett Lee was also exhausted after more at-the-death heroics; he must wonder if he'll ever win a tight contest again.
Both men deserved better, but as a unit Australia have let themselves down. England have earned a 2-1 lead and Ricky Ponting must somehow raise a victory from his dramatically under-performing bunch at The Oval. "We've got a lot of work to do before then," he said. "The first innings, with ball and bat, is something we have to improve."
"You never know" became the catchphrase for Australia in the field, and it will be relevant for the next two weeks. There are still smiles from the side, but the intense glare and the threat of ending a 16-year streak has caused some of them to behave badly. The first explosion came from Ricky Ponting on his run out yesterday while Simon Katich, who suffered an awful lbw decision after a courageous half-century, also left the field yelling today.
When leaders act as poorly as Ponting - he questioned the umpire, the England huddle and their dressing room - something is seriously wrong. The cause is obvious. Ponting is one average Test - perhaps even a good Test considering England's form - from dropping rank as the unofficial holder of the country's second-most important post to the man who lost the Ashes.
Over the past 30 years Greg Chappell and Allan Border have given up the urn, but none released it from such a seat of lasting power. On the '77 tour news of World Series Cricket broke and there were similar internal struggles in '85 over the South Africa rebels. This time the problems have been on the field and an empire has been slowly been dismantled.
Warne's stores of sticky tape that have held the team together must be running out. Apart from Warne and Lee, who bowled brilliantly and made telling batting contributions, the main threat to England in their chase of 129 was inexperience. It was a flaw in both the previous Tests, when they worked out how to get on top but weren't sure how to stay there.
Australia's overall concern is that since Lord's they have only approached their usual standard when the situation seemed lost. The side performed well following on to set a modest target and Warne turned a flicker of hope into a push for an Ashes-claiming victory.
Post-mortems will include crucial umpiring errors and the trivial fuss of excessive England fielding replacements. Of more significance are the batsmen's record of one hundred and nine half-centuries in four Tests, injuries to Glenn McGrath, rashes of missed catches and no-balls, and mundane back-up bowling compared to England's swinging bullets.
Ponting was proud of his team's fightback and he should be. However, Australia need more pride in their opening performances to end the series with a fierce bang instead of whinging whimpers. They have played well when behind throughout the series so perhaps it's fortunate that they will start that way at The Oval. You never know.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo