Australia get their challenge but fail to rise
Australia have consistently requested more challenges during their long reign and finally got their wish. Perhaps after this Test they will change their minds. England have questioned, pestered and hurt their tormentors and are two wickets from levelling an already classic series.
Shaken awake by a deficit of 124, Ricky Ponting's men turned up today wanting to show that like Pink Floyd, it's never too late for a comeback. Despite a swift bowling recovery led by Shane Warne and Brett Lee, the batting set couldn't maintain the tempo. As England invoked an extra 30 minutes for a severe psychological punch, there were already whispers that a full-time return to greatness was out of the question for an aging side belting out the same classic tunes.
Of course, it is only one Test and follows an England thrashing at Lord's. But Australia's submission to their opponents' pace, body blows, and tightly-worked plans has officially become a pattern. The most attacking, dominating and best-researched Test side has spotted a clone and is unsure how to react. It is far too soon to call it the end, but they must find a way to counter the impressive doppelganger. These are not the same old whipping boys.
Over the past 16 years England have spent so much energy trying to catch up that they have struggled with the concept of controlling Australia. The affliction struck today until Andrew Flintoff arrived with a lump of wood, and then swept along his team-mates with the ball. Then they all started to enjoy it.
In Australia's rooms there were looks of despair and fingers glued to mouths. Set 282, they are looking at only their fourth loss with the series alive since time ticked 2000. All three were against India's spin; none came under Ponting's captaincy. This chase ranked between their Bellerive Oval success against Pakistan in 1999-2000 and the Port Elizabeth pursuit in 1996-97. Neither of those fightbacks came against a bowling unit as hostile and stringent as the one that shut down a batting order used to calling - and playing - the shots.
Waiting for a saviour, the rescuers kept failing their auditions. Plenty of starts looked smooth, but England's pace quartet, backed up again by Ashley Giles, allowed no substance. Flintoff knocked back Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting in his first over; Simon Jones went for two fours before tricking Matthew Hayden; and Matthew Hoggard struck Damien Martyn with his first ball of his second spell. Giles performed how England expect him to - and how Australia considered unlikely - while Steve Harmison spectacularly out-thought Michael Clarke in the final over of the day.
Four-man pace attacks have worried Australia before, but West Indies troubled everyone until the signs of slowing limbs were overlooked in the hope they would swiftly return to the top. England's combination is not as brutal, although the damage to a team searching so long for worthy challengers must not be underestimated.
By stumps Australia were asking for a batting miracle from Warne after requesting a similar bowling performance at the start of the day. Warne delivered on cue with the ball and is now perched on 599 wickets. He is also 20 not out with another 107 runs required. What wasn't expected was the sudden shake-up provided by Lee the demon rather than the short and full version of the previous two days.
The pair helped Australia repair their bulletproofing until they were swamped by Flintoff during a 10th wicket stand of 51, a point from where he didn't let them go. Flintoff's smoking ended with Warne's ninth ten-wicket haul as the two billboards displayed what makes them great.
Warne took his time, patting the skin-toned zinc on his nose and bottom lip as he prepared for more smearing of England. Bowling unchanged through two sessions, he gave up two runs an over, carried the attack like a spearhead and sent shudders through a country he is currently calling home.
But it wasn't until Flintoff and Jones posted the day's highest stand that the Australians' heart-rate accelerated. With most fielders posted on the boundary - a tactic yet to work for Ponting over three series - Flintoff fiercely cleared the ropes and cannoned 20 and 18 from Michael Kasprowicz and Lee overs.
The contribution held extreme value and was the difference between an achievable target and one that soon became out-of-reach. Such a challenge was unthinkable for Australia three days ago. Today it was unmanageable.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo