KP and Bopara lose their strut
A peculiar thing happened on the way to England's declaration. With a lead of 210 and a licence to turn on the style, England's cockiest cricketers instead went into their shell. Barely a month ago, Ravi Bopara and Kevin Pietersen were England's gun batsmen in an unexpectedly spirited Twenty20 campaign. Today, they were the notable slowcoaches as England moved into their most dominant Ashes position for eight matches.
Pietersen's contribution was a dogged 44 from 101 balls, an adjective that has rarely been used to describe any of his previous 96 Test innings. Not since he made 42 from 131 balls at Hamilton on England's tour of New Zealand in March 2008 has he batted at such a stodgy tempo over an extended period in Test cricket, and that innings came when he personally, and the team in general, were at an exceptionally low ebb. Right now, the converse is true - Australia, the foe that Pietersen loves to test himself against like no other, is on its knees, and England, in Matt Prior's words, have their foot on its throat. It's not like KP to duck the limelight in this manner.
There seems little doubt that his achilles problem is bugging him. The suspicions about his fitness have been nagging all summer, and even on the eve of the Lord's Test, there were reports bandying around that he was only "50-50" to take the field. Today he hobbled between the wickets, and struggled to plant his feet with the balance and certainty of old - when Pietersen's most productive stroke transfers from the switch hit to the chinese cut, you know there's something that ails him.
"You guys know the form with KP," said Prior. "There is something there, and it is being managed day-by-day. There's no more that can be done about it." Up until now, it has been easy to be cynical about concerns that he has been raising, not least because the fitness issues have coincided with the shortest of England's shortcomings. After England's excruciating defeat against Netherlands on this very ground at the start of the World Twenty20, for instance, he claimed that he "had been unable to get down the stairs" on the morning of the match - a somewhat melodramatic excuse, you might say.
Today, however, as Australia stifled England's four-and-a-half run-an-over momentum and turned the afternoon session into a war of attrition, Pietersen was unable even to come down the track to the spin of Nathan Hauritz - and quite possibly unwilling as well, given how castigated he had been for his soft dismissal in the first Test at Cardiff. Though he said at the time, as he always says at the time, that he plays the way he plays and nothing is going to change that, the combination of an aching achilles and a throbbing ego have undermined his game to an extent that no bowler has ever managed.
"KP and Ravi played through a very tough spell of bowling," said Prior, whose emergence in the afternoon was the moment that England really reclaimed control. "The Aussies bowled very well and they only scored at 1.7 an over in that session, but there was a certain amount of sitting in to be done, and they had to play through those overs. Once they had done that the groundwork had been set, and there was an opportunity to push on from there."
All the same, you might have expected both KP and Bopara to lay their groundwork and capitalise on it - that is, after all, what batsmen of their class can do. Instead, between them the pair faced 158 dot-balls, more than 26 overs-worth, but the jitters with which they began their stay had not been remotely calmed by the time they took their leave. And for Bopara in particular, a third unconvincing performance in a row has invited untimely questions about his readiness to fill such a vital berth for such a massively significant series.
Shane Warne was the first to suggest he's too much style, not enough substance, and sure enough, his Test record is beginning to look alarmingly skew-whiff. Three ducks in a row against Muttiah Muralitharan and Sri Lanka, three centuries in a row against West Indies, and now three indeterminate scores of 35, 18 and 27 against Australia.
"You know Ravi, he's a very confident lad and a hugely talented cricketer," said Prior. "Everyone can see that, in cricket, sometimes, you feel in good nick, but it just doesn't happen for you. I'm sure there's a big score just around the corner. He's a fine cricketer, and he's not necessarily in a bad place at the moment. There's nothing really anyone needs to do, and I wouldn't be surprised if Rav gets a big score soon."
For now England's batting is the least of their concerns. Their runs are on the board and their eyes are on their bowlers, with a nod to the weather for good measure. But in terms of fine-tuning for the remainder of the series, there's a bit of a splutter going on in England's engine-room.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo