England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 1st day September 8, 2005

England stumble as destiny looms

Shane Warne: revelling in his winning mentality © Getty Images
The closing moments of the past three Tests have captured the public imagination and sent cricket soaring into the stratosphere, but it has been the opening exchanges of all four games that have established the parameters for battle. Those 17 wickets on that crazy day at Lord's warned us all that this would be no ordinary series. England's 407 on the first day at Edgbaston was a signal that, in the absence of Glenn McGrath, no quarter was to be given to a stricken opposition; their 229 for 4 at a rain-hit Trent Bridge was a teasing taster of the tussle that lay in store.

Today's offering of 319 for 7, however - a total that was neither here-nor-there in the grander scheme of the series - was the sort of performance that will already have sent England's paranoid fans scurrying for the back of the sofa. For the last first-day of the series, the team's jitters have been telegraphed at the very earliest opportunity, largely because for the first time in the series, they are fully aware of the cold hand of destiny resting on their shoulders. Some dealt better than others with the exponential expectations, but four more agonising days lie ahead before we know what the fates have in store.

There was a moment, midway through the final day at Trent Bridge, when Australia and England reassumed the mindsets that we have become familiar with for the past decade. It was around about the moment that Adam Gilchrist fell to Matthew Hoggard and the last vestiges of hope evaporated, that Australia abandoned the pussyfooting that had carried them to the brink of disaster. Instead they were imbued once again with a certainty of purpose - the very same feeling that once carried them to 16 Test victories in a row and today channelled their anxieties towards a common cause.

Under Steve Waugh's leadership, victory was the only emotion that most of these players knew, and on today's evidence, they revelled in the knowledge that the winner takes all. Matthew Hayden, under fire throughout the summer, plucked a sharper catch at slip that the ones he has been dropping at gully; McGrath bowled as if trying to live up to his pre-match insistence that he would keep going until "his arm fell off". Even Shaun Tait, supposedly the rookie of the party, decided that, in the notable absence of Simon Jones, it was time to promote himself as the leading purveyor of reverse-swing.

But one man, as ever, stood head and shoulders above all the competition. It was Shane Warne who triggered Australia's resurgence at Trent Bridge, and today he continued in precisely the same vein. For the first time in his 128-Test career, Warne bagged all of the first four wickets to fall, a statistic that backs up the feeling that he has been fighting a lone battle for Australia all series. But the wickets he took today were like the wickets he took in 2001 - handed over meekly by an opposition who feared his reputation and, in doing so, failed to spot the lack of assistance he was receiving from the flattest of wickets. England's mindset was defensive today, and it cost them at vital moments.

Andrew Strauss: not a man accustomed to losing © Getty Images

Two men, however, stood aloof from the trepidation. Andrew Strauss is one of a clutch of Englishmen who could teach his opponents a thing or two about a winning mentality. He didn't taste so much as a draw until his ninth Test, at Durban, and today he made light of his supposed weaknesses against spin to record his seventh Test century in only his 19th match. That is a conversion-rate that matches Viv Richards, no less, and only Don Bradman (12), George Headley (10) and Arthur Morris (9) have bettered it.

A long, long time ago, when the hype surrounding this series outstripped the action, Warne declared in his newspaper column that Strauss was his nominated bunny for the summer. "If he's still in after five or six overs," Warne announced, "I might be thrown the ball earlier than usual." Today, Strauss wasn't dislodged until the 80th over, and even though it was the fifth time he had fallen to Warne in the series, there was no disgrace in his departure.

This was a classy innings adorned with lessons learned against both spin and pace. McGrath and Brett Lee, such tyrants during the one-day series, were unable to rattle his cage during an 82-run stand for the first wicket, and both were dispatched behind square with the sort of withering cuts and pulls that were such a feature of his tour de force in South Africa last winter. Warne, meanwhile, was met with a straight bat and thrusting pad, rather than the loose cuts that once made Strauss such a target for the big ripping delivery. Never mind his hundred at Old Trafford, which was made in the context of a match that England (theoretically) could not lose. This was his finest innings since his matchwinning 147 at Johannesburg.

It could not have been achieved alone, however, and so, for the umpteenth time in a magical coming-of-age, it was Freddie Flintoff who rumbled to the middle with England in some disarray at 131 for 4. Flintoff and The Oval already have a cosy history. It was here in 2003 that he hammered his career-changing 95, and with his timing and power, and the pace of this outfield, he reprised his Trent Bridge tempo in an innings that made even the big hits - such as his straight six off Warne - look measured.

Flintoff, like Warne, has shown an enviable ability to command a stage by reputation alone. But as he trudged back to the pavilion for 72, he wore an unfamiliar and concerned look on his face. He knows England's current total is by no means enough, and he also knows, that with Jones indisposed and just three frontline bowlers to support him, he must conjure up four more days of magic before this series is out.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo