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August 21, 2009
In theory, Australia are far from beaten in this Test match. They are Australia, after all, the many-headed hydra of international sport, the team that produces new heroes as old ones fall by the wayside, and whose infectious self-belief has kept England in thrall to their superiority for the best part of two decades. But if the demeanour of Simon Katich was anything to go by at the close, there's no point in holding out for any miracles. Australia believe they are beaten in this Test match, and some time in the next three days, they expect to hand over the Ashes.
In theory, Australia's renaissance began in the closing overs of the second day, when they hauled themselves back into contention with three cheap English wickets in the space of 30 balls. But when this notion was put to Katich, he patted it back with more insouciance than he had managed throughout his battling first-innings half-century.
"We've still got a fair bit of work to do, but obviously we've got to keep fighting hard," said Katich, with far less feeling than might appear on paper. "Today didn't go to plan, but cricket's a funny game. We've just got to make sure we hang in there, and try to restrict England to as little as possible so that, second-time around, we can hopefully make amends for today."
It was clear that Katich was speaking more in hope than expectation, for Australia's day had been as deflating as anything they have suffered on a chaotically up-and-down tour. The evisceration of their batting - for the third first innings out of five in this series - has left them with no place to hide on a bone-dry surface that, in Katich's estimation, is already playing like a fourth-day wicket. With the weather set fair and England 230 runs to the good with seven second-innings wickets in hand, Australia realistically face negotiating days six and seven if they are to emerge with the result that saves their series.
On the evidence of the second day, that promises to be a tough task indeed. Having neglected to include their specialist spinner in Nathan Hauritz, the turn, bounce and potential of Katich's own part-time wrist-spin merely intensified his growing sense of foreboding. "I thought we were spinning the ball a fair bit, Northy [Marcus North] and I," he said. "We were getting our wrist position just right and it was spinning a bit. I think you expect the wickets over here to turn, because I know in the last series they spun from day one."
Unfortunately for Australia, Graeme Swann is lurking and licking his lips after his second telling four-wicket haul of the series, and to judge by the spitting turn he has so far extracted, he has the stage from which to boss the closing stages of this contest. "We know it's going to be tough work," said Katich. "Whenever you bat last in a Test match you understand that. You can always assume the wicket will get worse, but who knows what's around the corner?"
Swann has endured a puzzling summer - his personal confidence has not visibly diminished in the slightest, although up until today, he had claimed a mere six wickets in four Tests - four of them in support of Andrew Flintoff at Lord's, and one of them arguably the finest ball he will ever bowl, to gate Ricky Ponting in the second innings at Edgbaston. For the remaining 87.5 overs of his series, however, he has been as close to anonymous as any bowler on either side - one other wicket at a cost of 322 runs.
But when Stuart Broad referred to Swann as a "world-class spinner" it was both in acknowledgement of what he is capable of when he gets his pace and flight spot-on, and also in expectation of what he can pull off when his turn to bowl comes again. He was, after all, exceptional in his 14 overs today. Every ball was a hand-grenade, and some of the deliveries that spat past the left-handers' edges made Shane Warne in the Sky commentary box purse his lips in recognition (and, no doubt, envy).
It is somewhat ironic that England's Ashes hopes are once again invested in the superiority of their spin attack, because - with due acknowledgement to Monty Panesar's rearguard in Cardiff - as an outfit they were soundly duped ahead of the first Test, when they picked both their spinners on a pitch that was predicted to be a Bunsen, and watched them amass a match total of one wicket for 246 runs. Hauritz, Australia's forgotten stalwart, managed six times that number in fewer overs.
But as the final furlong approaches, it's the slow lane that could be the fast track to success, as Broad pointed out while looking on the bright side of England's three late dismissals. "The way those wickets fell, Cooky got a ball that really turned and bounced, so it gives us encouragement as a bowling unit as well. We've got to take the positives of being 200 ahead, because tomorrow is the biggest day in this Test match and we can really set up this series."
"We know it's going to be hard work but that's the beauty of Test cricket," said Katich. "You don't expect it any other way and there's an Ashes up for grabs. It's easy to mope around and feel sorry for yourselves but hopefully we can pull off something special. Three wickets is better than none and we'll all go again in the morning, and restrict England as little as possible."
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