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July 19, 2009
An old England favourite made an unexpected reappearance today. The team huddle, such a notable feature of Michael Vaughan's unparalleled era of captaincy, had been put into mothballs by Kevin Pietersen last summer, as part of an attempt to freshen up the team's onfield mindset. Eleven months on, Andrew Strauss brought it back into use in an impromptu time-out, but the message his urgent exhortations gave off weren't exactly reassuring to those out of earshot.
The situation for England was beginning to feel critical. The new ball was due and the light was beginning to fade, but Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin had batted with such ease and obduracy in a 159-run stand that a target of 522 was looking as puny as England's performance at Cardiff last week, where the same two batsmen both made substantial scores to carry Australia to a vast total of 674 for 6 declared.
Suddenly a wave of anxiety began to sweep through another packed house at Lord's. Surely there could not be a twist in the tale of a performance in which England had dominated since day one. "I wasn't on the field at that time," said Graeme Swann, who had been cleaning some mud off his spinning finger - apparently. "I can understand how some people may view it as a negative thing, but I can only assume it was a bit of a rallying cry - we've got the new ball and let's make it count."
Whatever it was, it did not have the desired effect. By the close, six new-ball overs had conceded 26 runs for no breakthroughs, and the final-day equation was starting to take on eerily familiar proportions. Hard as one tries to avoid harking back to 2005, the intensity of this series, and the inexorable progress that Australia have made through adversity, brings to mind those seismic events on the fourth and final day at Edgbaston four years ago.
Not for everyone, mind you, because while English cricketers and supporters can't help but veer towards pessimism at each and every nail-shredding moment, Australia's only motivation is the creation of another notch of history. "'05 is well and truly gone," said their coach, Tim Nielsen. "It's the history of the Australian cricket team that helps us. We have only spoken about winning the game and once you get into the position you're in now, or even when you're 520, the players make the decisions down on the ground about the best way to go about it.
"Ricky [Ponting] mentioned it at the start," said Nielsen. "There's nowhere he'd rather be than here, with people not believing we could win, with us having this opportunity. Once again we've shown that when our backs are against the wall, good players will stand up and we feel we are good players under pressure."
Australia's indomitable spirit has refused to be crushed in the absence of so many of the men who made them great over the past decade. "It's the great thing about playing Test cricket," said Nielsen. "The guys are excited about playing against the best, and at the moment it's a great contest. There's a feeling of opportunity, and sometimes you can come to a Test match and you don't need a scoreboard like we have tonight to be excited."
England's excitement, however, manifests itself rather differently, as Swann candidly admitted. "We're English, we get nervous about anything," he said. "Your football team could be 4-0 up at half-time and you daren't watch the second half. But I wouldn't say it's panic. I don't think you panic until it gets like that Edgbaston Test a few years ago, when you're counting the balls down, they need ten to win, and you're bowling full tosses. There wasn't panic out there, but there was obviously frustration, because it was a very good partnership."
With 209 runs still required, five wickets still in hand, and the weather set fair for an entire day's batting, the chances are that this match will head closer to the wire than anyone could have anticipated when Australia set off in pursuit of a total that is 104 runs higher than any successful chase in history. For the moment, however, Swann is determined to savour the contest, rather than get bogged down in the anxieties that come with such finely balanced positions.
"It's going to be a great day's cricket," he said, just as the final day at Cardiff proved to be last week. England feared the worst on that occasion as well, but ended up getting the best they could hope for.
"It wouldn't be the Ashes if it wasn't like that," he said. "But I'm just glad that these first two Test matches are living up to the 2005 billing. The worst thing for me would be to play in my first Ashes, and for it to be a pile of ****."
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