England's heads stuck in the clouds
Psychologically, England have been left with nowhere to hide after a fourth day in Cardiff that, aside from a timely downpour on the stroke of tea, could hardly have been more horrendous for their series prospects. It wasn't merely that Australia took control of the match - that in itself is hardly a new development in Ashes series - it was the point-scoring dedication with which they bossed each and every microcosmic aspect of the contest.
Two particular contrasts stand above and beyond all others. The first and most obvious was the dedication of their batsmen, not least Brad Haddin and Marcus North, two men making their Ashes debuts. Not content with ridiculing England's inability to turn any one of ten double-figured scores into centuries, Australia responded with four of their own, the first time they had ever achieved such a feat in Ashes history.
"You lot think about it a lot more than me," was the gist of Kevin Pietersen's response to the media after his own contemptible dismissal on the first day, but on the evidence of Australia's scorching first innings, nobody thought about Pietersen's performance more than his opponents. Doubtless he was reminded of this during each and every one of the nine deliveries he faced in the gloaming this evening.
"Regardless of where you play and whatever the conditions, if you get in, make sure you go on and get a hundred, and if you get a hundred, try to get a big hundred," said North, with the sagacity of an instant veteran. "We saw Ricky [Ponting] do that and we saw how determined he was to do that. I guess looking back at England's innings, that's something they might have looked at and thought, 'Gee, we might have let ourselves down a bit.'"
Of arguably greater significance, however, was the performance of Australia's bowlers in their seven-over onslaught before the rains closed in. In prising out two vital wickets, Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus were everything that England's own attack had failed to be for three long days in the field. If they were caught stealing a glance at the heavens as the light began to fade, it was only as an incentive to make the most of that 30-minute window. England, on the other hand, were content to trundle with their heads, quite literally, in the clouds.
"It's difficult to pick up wickets when the ball does literally nothing for the seamers," said Paul Collingwood, who was not proud to be the pick of a toiling attack. "You can say you've got to use other methods, cutters and things, but when the pitch is so slow it's very difficult. Batsmen these days have got good techniques and combat the straight ball, no matter how fast it is. It's all about hopefully getting that ball reversing, or swinging conventionally."
Except it is not, as Johnson and Hilfenhaus proved with their tenacity late in the day. Their bustle at the crease was totally at odds with the flaccid impact that England's own new-ball pairing of James Anderson and Stuart Broad had made during their eight-over burst before tea on the second day, a critical passage of play that has since been buried beneath the sheer weight of Australia's runs.
England, remember, had enjoyed a morning of rare levity with the bat, smiting 99 runs in 16.5 overs to post a total that, at the time, seemed competitive. By lunch, however, Australia had hurtled to 60 for 0, with Phillip Hughes - a man on the rack after his travails at Worcester - allowed to spring onto the offensive with the initiative-seizing élan of a latter-day Michael Slater.
Already the selectors are steeling themselves for an uncomfortable squad announcement on Monday afternoon. The gamble of playing two spinners has failed spectacularly, with Graeme Swann's cocky confidence fading with every over, while the three frontline seamers who looked such a neat fit on paper have discovered that their roles are so confused that they are like keeper and slip cordon who each look to the other as the chance sails clean between the gap.
Quite simply, there is no leader to the attack. Andrew Flintoff is England's go-to man, because he's the most imposing presence and has the acknowledged respect of the Australians. But he does not take the new ball - partly out of fears for his fitness, but also out of respect to Anderson, who often says he wants to be seen as the frontman, but then fronts up as pitifully as he did in the end-of-day press conference on Wednesday, when his promise that England would "keep fighting" was delivered with the ferocity of a moist sponge.
And then there's Stuart Broad, whose role in the side is perhaps the least clear of all. There's hardly a pundit in the game who does not believe he is destined for great things, but right at this moment he is neither one thing nor the other. He has the capacity to bowl with spite and aggression, as Ramnaresh Sarwan discovered at Durham in May, and he's also capable of holding up an end. But in this match, he's fallen badly between two mindsets, never more so than when he came over the wicket to present Hughes with three deliciously wide long-hops to resuscitate Australia's momentum.
For a man credited by Michael Vaughan as one of the most intelligent bowlers he has captained, it was a peculiarly vacant way for Broad to start his biggest campaign yet, especially given the success that Steve Harmison - and later Flintoff - had against Hughes from round the wicket.
"Broady's got some great skills," was Collingwood's damningly faint praise at the close of the fourth day, though he didn't seem willing or able to pinpoint exactly what they are. He has now taken 47 wickets at 39.89 in 18 Tests, which are unflattering, no matter how much promise he may hold. In the opinion of Ian Chappell, Broad needs to focus on being the straight man in the attack, but with Anderson swingless and Flintoff incapable of finding the edge with his back-of-a-length approach, another holding bowler is the last thing England need.
And so, yes, all eyes turn to that man. No matter how many final straws he may have loaded onto the backs of the England management, it's becoming increasingly hard to ignore Harmison's claims for a recall. England need a spearhead worthy of the name, and another five wickets for Durham today are indisputable proof of his form.
"Of course he's going to be in the mix, but this attack has done well for us in the past few months and I'm sure we'll be sticking with it," said Collingwood, but on this evidence nobody else seems so convinced. For some perverse reason, Harmison still has a hold on Australia that no other England bowler can match, not even Flintoff, whose method of bettering them in the past has been more of the arm-wrestle variety.
At Lord's in 2005, Harmison left a duelling scar on Ponting's cheek that is still visible to this day. He alone has the shock factor that commands the respect from Australia that has been so patently lacking in this match. On this evidence, it's going to be nigh on impossible to resist affording him one final, final shot at redemption. It really is looking that desperate right now.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo