England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 3rd day August 22, 2009

Pitch hasn't changed - North

Fifteen wickets drop one day and The Oval is the worst Test wicket in the world before only six fall the next and the Australians try to convince themselves they can shatter a world record. The surface appears to have reached its trickiest and the batsmen are playing smarter, making the tourists' surely impossible pursuit of 546 - 128 more than anyone else has managed - a touch easier.

Given their position they are seeking any reason to look on the bright side, and were boosted when the openers added an unbeaten 80 to their disastrous 160 in the first innings. "I don't think the characteristics of the pitch changed at all," Marcus North, the part-time spinner, said after leading the bowling with 4 for 98. "Credit to Stuart Broad and England, they bowled very well yesterday and we didn't apply ourselves with the bat. I don't see the wicket has got any worse or any better."

However, North was surprised by how little moisture the surface carried and deflected questions over the make-up of the XI. Despite the team management discussing how bare the surface was in the lead-up, the selectors relied on four fast bowlers instead of calling on Nathan Hauritz's offspin.

"There's no hiding that it's very dry, a lot dryer than anyone thought," North said. "In hindsight, looking at the wicket, England might have played two spinners rather than one. It comes down to trying to get the best judgment call on the day. You don't know how the wicket is going to play until you play it."

It has turned significantly from the opening day and Graeme Swann, the England offspinner, raced to four wickets on the second. North's collection, the best of his seven-Test career, came in 30 overs and the fact he was the greatest threat compounded the error of Australia's selection.

One ball from North pitched outside off and hit Jonathan Trott, the debutant centurion, on the shoulder while others bounced in awkward ways. The faster bowlers also watched many of their deliveries fall short of the wicketkeeper while others rose menacingly as they shattered the surface. Despite the variations, nobody on the third day blamed the pitch for their dismissals.

England gained focus through Trott and Andrew Strauss in the morning as they escaped from 39 for 3 to declare at 373 for 9 with an hour to go. Trott said the new ball came on to the bat better and then the situation became more difficult.

"It will definitely get a lot harder with the ball being softer and stopping in the wicket, especially with the spinner at one end and our seamers," he said. "Hopefully we can get it to reverse a bit and put them under big pressure like we did in the first innings and do well."

Australia's openers moved confidently, just as they had in the first innings, and passed their first obstacle by reaching stumps. Bigger ones will come over the next two days and not just from the pitch.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo