KP angers Australians prior to last day showdown
Tensions between the England and Australia camps boiled over on Sunday morning, with Kevin Pietersen and Mitchell Johnson involved in a heated confrontation during the warm-ups. As both teams prepared for the final day's play, Pietersen, the not out batsman, struck a pull-shot in the direction of the Australians, provoking an irascible response from the tourists.
Johnson, Australia's pace spearhead, kicked the ball away and marched across to the England batsman with several of his countrymen in tow. Pietersen, also accompanied by team-mates, responded by advancing on the Australians, but a serious confrontation was averted when Johnson was ushered away by Stuart Clark, the Australian 12th man. Australia would later win the battle, however, dismissing Pietersen for 8 shouldering arms to a straight Ben Hilfenhaus delivery.
The verbal exchange highlighted the tension between the two sides as the first Ashes Test drew to a close. England's desperation to save the match was summed up by Paul Collingwood's call to arms on Saturday evening, imploring his team-mates to shake off the fatigue of 181 overs in the field and turn in one final act of batting defiance to save the match.
The task was never going to be easy. Johnson's removal of Alastair Cook, trapped lbw playing around his front pad, and Ben Hilfenhaus' fortuitous dismissal of Ravi Bopara, adjudged lbw to a ball that would have comfortably cleared the stumps, left England reeling at 20 for 2 and still trailing by 219 on Saturday. Not even heavy showers, which washed out the final session, could deny Australia's charge on a day in which the tourists extended their first innings total to 674 for 6 across 181 chastening overs for England and three new balls.
Light rain was predicted for Cardiff on Sunday, but the Australians nonetheless fancied their chances of claiming the required eight wickets on a wearing fifth-day Sophia Gardens track. The tourists were further motivated by the prospect of taking a 1-0 lead into the second Test at Lord's; a venue at which they haven't tasted defeat since 1934.
Collingwood, cognisant of England's precarious position in the match, acknowledged the danger of allowing a young Australian side the confidence boost of a 1-0 series lead heading to London. "Soul-destroying is a little over the top, but it's been a tough day," Collingwood said. "A few decisions, a couple of things went against us, but you have to be tough as a cricketer. You do feel as though nothing's going right for you. You have to get them out of the system, and get the brain into gear for what we have to do tomorrow.
"I think the batsmen have got to take responsibility. We've got three sessions to bat tomorrow, and got to see them through as an individual and not leave it to anyone else. In the first innings we all got starts and didn't go on. Tomorrow is about putting the hand up and being the man to see the three sessions through.
"We want to go into the next Test level. Hopefully the ball won't swing - we didn't get any which was obviously disappointing - so hopefully that continues. And we've got to combat the spin of [Nathan] Hauritz. We've got to bat well but we believe we've got the players in the shed to see the day through."
The Australians, meanwhile, were buoyant at the prospect of scything through the England batting card by capitalising on the hosts' weariness from seven sessions in the field. Nathan Hauritz was handed the opportunity to spin Australia to victory on a deteriorating Cardiff surface, and cement his place in the starting XI for the remainder of the series.
Marcus North, who completed a brilliant unbeaten 125 on Saturday, expressed supreme confidence that Australia's bowlers would claim the final eight wickets and seal a famous innings victory. "At the moment there's probably only one winner, so hopefully the weather stays away and we've got a full day of play tomorrow," North said. "We've got a healthy lead on a wicket that's wearing.
"To be fair, they stuck at it pretty well. I don't think I've ever seen a cricket team that can be in the field for that long and have great body language. It does take its toll ... (but) it wasn't like they gave up. The conditions were pretty tough, and when you take the third new ball and the bowlers are quite stiff and sore it can be hard work. Batting in that situation, we have the freedom; we had no pressure on us. Hopefully now that we've ground them in there in the field for a couple of days, they can have some heavy legs tomorrow when they come out and bat.
"There was a lot of talk about England's spin causing us a lot of problems. To combat that with what we've achieved over the last couple of days is pretty pleasing. To wrap that off tomorrow with a win - to be 1-0 up at a venue which at the start of the series everyone fancied England's chances - would be a great confidence boost especially leading into Lord's and the success the Australian cricket team has there. The first step is tomorrow."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo