Dominant Australia take control
Australia 196 for 4 (Ponting 78, Watson 51) lead England 102 (Prior 37*, Siddle 5-21) by 94 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Ricky Ponting and Shane Watson compiled more in a single second-wicket stand of 119 than England's entire line-up managed in 33.5 overs of abject surrender, as Australia built on the efforts of their four-man seam attack to seize control of the crucial fourth Test at Headingley. Though England battled back in the final session by claiming three wickets in as many overs, including Ponting for 78, nothing could gloss over their humiliation in the opening exchanges of the day. A single pitiful session could well have cost them their chance to reclaim the Ashes.
Shorn of the services of Andrew Flintoff, whose damaged right knee failed to respond to treatment, and already lacking the aggression and presence that Kevin Pietersen brings to their middle-order, England went into a Test without either of their kingpin players for the first time since the tour of Bangladesh in October 2003, and duly played in a manner befitting their opponents of six years ago. They had been handed a late fitness scare when Matt Prior suffered a pre-toss back spasm, which required the toss to be delayed by ten minutes as England finalised their starting XI, and the bewilderment in their ranks was as plain as it had been at 5 o'clock that morning, when a fire alarm at the team hotel had left them shivering in the Leeds drizzle during a mass evacuation.
For most of the summer, Australia have been the team seemingly lacking in direction, but with a sniff of uncertainty in their opponents' ranks, they at last had a bowling attack to exploit the situation. The decision to recall Stuart Clark for his first Test of the summer, in place of the spinner Nathan Hauritz, was a gamble that paid rich dividends. He marked his comeback with a pre-lunch spell of 3 for 7 in 6.5 overs, while Peter Siddle followed up after the break with 4 for 3 in 14 balls, to finish with the stand-out figures of 5 for 21. Each of the four bowlers claimed at least one wicket, with Ben Hilfenhaus desperately unlucky not to have pinned Andrew Strauss lbw with the very first ball of the match.
As it turned out, Strauss survived a mere 17 balls before squirting a fat edge off Siddle to Marcus North at third slip, whose stunning one-handed reflex catch was the catalyst for the performance that followed. Strauss had spent the final minutes before the start fretting over the fitness of Prior, who injured his back while playing football in the warm-ups, leaving Jonathan Trott on the verge of a debut and Paul Collingwood pencilled in for the wicketkeeping duties, and his mind was evidently some way from the action in the middle. The confirmation of Flintoff's lack of fitness ended up being the very least of his worries.
In the event, the only England batsman to show any spine was none other than Prior, who was out in the middle at least two sessions sooner than he might have anticipated, but gritted his way to 37 not out from 43 balls before running out of partners. One other batsman managed double figures - Alastair Cook, who was the mainstay of a flimsy top order with 30 from 65 balls - while the middle-order triumvirate of Ravi Bopara, Ian Bell and Collingwood showed worrying shortcomings in temperament and technique respectively.
Hilfenhaus accounted for Bopara, earning due reward for his line, length and consistent swing when Michael Hussey collected a loose back-foot punch in the gully, and at 16 for 2, the stage was hardly set for the fragile Bell to make his mark. Mitchell Johnson responded to his arrival with his best and most hostile spell of the series. Threatening to bend the ball back into the right-hander at will, and finding a superb line to complement his subtle changes of length, Johnson tormented Bell's outside edge before slipping in a wicked bouncer that was gloved through to Brad Haddin.
Next in the procession was Collingwood, whose returns have faded alarmingly since his match-saving performance at Cardiff in the first Test. He couldn't negotiate Clark's sharp outswing, which he prodded limply to Ponting at second slip for a fifth-ball duck, and Clark claimed his second scalp in the space of 11 balls when Cook's resistance ended with a low edge to Michael Clarke at first slip.
Prior did his best to rally the innings in his standard counter-punching style, but Stuart Broad found the going extremely tough in his over-promoted position of No. 7, and was extracted on the stroke of lunch when Katich at short leg scooped Clark's third of the innings. Then it was over to Siddle to make mincemeat of a tail that had wagged regularly in the series so far, but was unable to make any headway at all with the momentum all in the bowlers' favour. Graeme Swann laboured to a 15-ball duck which ended with a snick to first slip, while Harmison - back in the side at Flintoff's expense - edged to the keeper to notch the 20th duck of his career, an England record he now shares with Mike Atherton.
James Anderson did at least manage to extend his duckless run to 53 innings, but the scampered single that preserved his world record culminated in a leg injury that visibly reduced his subsequent effectiveness with the ball. He and Graham Onions were bounced from the crease in consecutive Siddle deliveries, whereupon Shane Watson clattered Anderson's first two deliveries of the reply through point for a brace of fours in a style reminiscent of Michael Slater. Though Harmison responded by extracting Katich at leg gully with the fourth ball of his comeback, Ponting emerged to put his personal seal on the day with a smouldering and initiative-seizing cameo.
Once again, Ponting came to the crease to a chorus of boos, but true to form, he turned the animosity to his advantage. Latching onto the slightest error in length, he pulled Onions' first ball through midwicket for six, in an over that eventually went for 17 runs, as Australia's fifty was brought up in just 39 deliveries. Ponting's only let-off en route to his 63-ball half-century came on 32, when Bell missed a shy from the covers that would have run him out by five yards.
For as long as he and Watson were in tandem, Australia's dominance was absolute. Watson, revelling in his new opener's role, cracked his third half-century in as many innings, and battered Harmison for four fours in nine balls as England's bowlers completely forgot about the virtues of line and length. But then, almost without warning, they finally remembered to pitch the ball up, and with a hint of movement around that habitual 30-over mark, they succeeded in stemming the tide.
First to strike was Onions, who pinned Watson lbw for 51 as he whipped across the line, whereupon Broad - for the first time this summer - opted to follow suit. Twice in four balls he angled the ball in from a full length, first to end Ponting's stay on 78, and then to remove Hussey before he could get going. England created opportunities as the shadows lengthened, not least when Harmison, in a furious final spell, cracked Michael Clarke on the helmet and the glove from consecutive deliveries. But by the close, Australia's hold on the Ashes was looking as sprightly as it has done since Cardiff.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo