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August 22, 2009
It's happening again. That nagging, gnawing, pit-of-the-stomach doubt that only the most gripping Test series can serve up. Six sessions remain in which the destination of the Ashes will be decided, and England - with every single historical precedent weighted in their favour, including one from their most recent victory at Lord's - must surely believe, deep down, that the litany of surprises that have been strung out across this summer have finally run their course.
But where there is uncertainty, English pessimism is sure to take root, and having watched their own lower-order tee off to contemptuous effect on a pitch supposedly prepared by Doctor Faustus, the sight of Australia's openers following suit to the tune of 80 runs in 20 overs was all too much for the umbrella-chewing fraternity of English sports-fans.
The 2009 Ashes has lacked the class, the 24-7 tension, and, yes, the unfettered jingoism that made the 2005 summer so unforgettable, but the peaks and troughs on display have, if anything, been all the more marked. Which is all the more reason to wonder if a world-record chase - another 466 required in a minimum of 180 overs - could somehow prove attainable.
They thought it was possible back in July after all, when Australia were set a hefty 522 to extend their 75-year hegemony at Lord's, and thanks to a battling partnership from Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin, reached 313 for 5 at the close of the fourth day before Andrew Flintoff stormed in on the fifth to up-end them 115 runs short. But Flintoff has not been the same force since - his only subsequent wicket in nearly 50 overs was the No. 11, Ben Hilfenhaus, in Australia's first innings on Friday - and 233 runs per day is not a big ask in any version of international cricket.
Jonathan Trott has done an astounding job at dispelling the doubters this week - nobody in their wildest imaginations could have predicted he would exactly maintain his season's average of 80 in his maiden Test performance - but when he was asked if an England victory was in the bag, all of his soothing powers had clearly been expended at the crease.
"Until you've taken the tenth wicket in the second innings it's always a game of the unknown," he said. "There are so many variables in the game of cricket, it's never a foregone conclusion at all. We want to do as well as we can, break it down, and have a good first hour tomorrow to set the game up from there."
To be fair, England as a unit were not especially downcast as they left the field on Saturday evening. Seeing as Steve Harmison had bowled a grand total of four overs in the first innings, the shiny hard new ball was never likely to be their most incisive weapon, especially when Stuart Broad beat, and then found, the edge with a brace of offcutters in his first over. Australia survived all the same, but as Marcus North - the unlikely star of their bowling performance - admitted, they had seen little to suggest that they've got the measure of the conditions.
"History is against us," said North. "It's too early to look that far ahead, because there's a lot of cricket to be played. What you'll see tomorrow is 11 guys who have got a lot of character to show, and they are going to give everything for every contest for every over. Hopefully that can lay the foundation to give us a chance.
"The first objective was to get through tonight unscathed and Simon and Watto did that superbly," he said. "To walk off at 0 for 80, it's the position we needed to be in, if we can start well tomorrow, get to lunch, and reassess things from there. It's a massive target to get, but the best thing we can do is not look too far ahead. We've given ourselves the opportunity to have that target in sight at some stage."
As for Lord's, that performance will doubtless weigh on the minds of England's fans on a packed fourth day at The Oval, but can Australia go one better than that heroic endeavour? "We can take a lot out of all our innings through the series," said North. "We batted well at Lord's with some big partnerships, and laid some foundations to give us some opportunity to chase that target down.
"But this is a different Test, different conditions, and again we'll have to show some character," he said. "Clarke and Haddin did that in that Test, and we'll have to show some of the same courage and determination tomorrow. Everyone has got the same attitude that I've got. The guys are as positive as they can be. It's a huge task ahead. It's small steps at a time."
But if omens are what Australia seek - and frankly, in the circumstances, why on earth wouldn't they - then they can turn for inspiration to two first-class fixtures of contrasting fortunes. In the former, in February 1992, Australia's current chairman of selectors, Andrew Hilditch, hit a century, and their coach, Tim Nielsen, shared in the winning stand, as South Australia chased 506 to beat Queensland in the Sheffield Shield. And then, 12 years later in Gurgaon, England A failed to defend 501 against South Zone in the Duleep Trophy. Kevin Pietersen was a member of that beaten team, as was England's current wicketkeeper, Matt Prior. It's all stacked up, but is it ready to topple?
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