Cook pushes hosts to melting point
You know that something tumultuous is afoot when Kevin Pietersen's long-awaited return to form comes as a footnote on a day of batting conquests. You know that the world is in the process of turning on its head when England's most charismatic batsman produces his most fluent innings for the best part of two years - at a pivotal juncture of an Ashes series, no less - and yet he hardly merits a mention in a wider tale of sporting dominance.
That was the extraordinary situation at the close of the second day in Adelaide - a day that ended, as has been the case on each of the last five days of Ashes combat, with Alastair Cook marching back to the pavilion with his wicket intact and his focus unyielding. The opener whom Australia assumed was their window of opportunity has not offered a crack of an opening for 17 unbeaten hours, and in that time their prospects of regaining the Ashes have melted almost to vanishing point.
Last week at the Gabba, Cook surpassed one of Don Bradman's innumerable records when he posted 235 not out, the highest Test score by any batsman at the ground. Today he drew level with the Don on another front, by racking up his 15th Test century before the age of 26, a tally that only Sachin Tendulkar (with 19) has surpassed. His back-to-back Ashes hundreds mean he's emulated Ken Barrington in 1965, while his tally of 371 runs without dismissal surpasses Wally Hammond. With every new minute that he endures, Australia's spirit sags exponentially.
As he paused for his latest intake of breath at the close of play, Cook's eyes looked exhausted but his body and mind were alert. He had arrived back in the dressing-room still wearing the same pair of batting gloves with which he had set out in the morning, and as Hot Spot's thermal-imaging camera confirmed in a split-screen that showed Pietersen's shirt drenched in sweat but Cook's still as crisp as a iceberg lettuce, had barely broken sweat despite the heat of an Ashes battle that had been exacerbated by 37-degree temperatures.
"It was physically quite hard after what happened last week, but it's better mentally than when you're not scoring runs," he said. "At tea I was quite tired, because 37 degrees is up there with one of the hottest days I've played in, but as Goochie said, you've got to cash in when you're in this sort of form. He said don't give it away, and so there was no chance of doing that.
"I'm quite lucky," he added, by way of explanation. "I'm kind of built in a way that I don't get too hot, I don't really sweat, so that was alright." It wasn't intended as a metaphor for England's dominance, but it might as well have been, for Australia's perspiration dripped from every facet of their game - the sweaty palms that dropped their eighth and ninth catches of the series, the beaten brows that telegraphed a troupe of cricketers whom Brad Haddin later described as "not at our perky best". Nothing and no-one could stand in England's way, certainly not once the threat of the new ball had been negated, and the energy levels of three of the most enthusiastic but least subtle pacemen ever to play in the same team had been drained.
Doug Bollinger, Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris deserved better, and should have had it when Jonathan Trott offered up two early lives in addition to Andrew Strauss's latest first-over aberration. But passion was the only weapon they could offer on a pitch as flat and true as anything that England have encountered in 12 months, and as soon as their morale wavered so much as a notch, Cook and Trott were ready to punish by stealth. Brutal, merciless, uncompromising accumulation was the upshot. Trott lifted his average up past 60, and briefly became No.2 to Bradman in terms of batsmen who've made more than 1000 Test runs, but even his formidable powers of concentration have been put in the shade by his colleague.
Cook has now been at the crease for more than 1000 minutes without being removed - Shivnarine Chanderpaul has managed the feat on four occasions and Nasser Hussain did it once on England's tour of South Africa in 1999-2000 - which is an extraordinary feat not only for Australians to digest, seeing as he had only twice passed fifty in his first ten Ashes contests, but also for anyone who watched his trials and tribulations in the English summer just gone, when he made 100 runs in seven innings against Bangladesh and Pakistan, and was ripe for the chop until a supremely gutsy hundred at The Oval.
"I can't put my finger on it," was Cook's first reaction when asked to explain his transformation, although by the time he'd finished speaking he'd summarised the reasons for the change. In short, England's batsmen have not had it this good for months. The combination of perfect flat pitches and uncomplicated opponents is a world away from the scything swing and seam that the 2010 batch of Dukes balls offered up to Pakistan's seamers in the summer, and even during the preceding tour of Bangladesh, on which Cook's iron will delivered him twin centuries in his one-off series as captain, the exhaustingly sluggish decks made run-scoring a chore rather than the pleasure it has evidently been since Brisbane.
And in Cook's estimation, nothing he's had to do in the past 22 hours has been anything like the personal challenge he was forced to surmount at The Oval back in August, when his second-innings 110 rescued his immediate career. "If you ever need a reminder of how quickly cricket changes, you only need to look at me last summer," he said. "It's always disappointing when you get criticised, but to be fair I deserved it, I scored 100 runs in seven knocks.
"That's part and parcel of playing professional sport, but how I dealt with it, by responding at The Oval has given me a lot of confidence," he added. "That when I really needed it most, I could deliver it, and coming to Australia when the side needed it most, I've managed to deliver so far. The art of batting is concentrating for long periods of time and not making a mistake, and you've got to constantly keep reminding yourself of that, and you do that almost every ball. But that knock at The Oval has given me a lot of confidence when the situation gets tough.
"I don't think I'm doing things differently, but sometimes you get your rewards when you put in the hard yards," he added. "You do have dark thoughts sometimes, but having Goochie on side, he knows what happens. The opening bowler is paid to get you out and some days he does get you out, and you have to stay very level to appreciate that. There are some excellent bowlers around the world and they are quite right to get you out. But when you get the conditions in your favour, it's important to cash in."
The net result has been extraordinary to behold. Aside from a chaotic first day, during which England's passions were running too high even for their unparalleled preparation to temper, the inner sanctum of their batting has barely been breached. Pietersen's desperation to get stuck in manifested itself in his ill-advised outburst at the groundstaff, but today translated into a pitch-perfect acceleration in the final session, while Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell - the pre-series dark horse for leading run-scorer - haven't since been required to reach for their pads in anger.
There are caveats aplenty - the Cardiff escape and last week's Brisbane turnaround to name but two - but right at this moment, no Australian team has looked as vulnerable in a quarter of a century of Ashes cricket. Nor has there been a day as jaw-droppingly one-sided as this since Allan Border's Aussies began stretching out their legs in the summer of 1989. There have been greater humiliations in the interim, of course - from the Warne-inflicted pandemonium of 1993 to his whitewash swansong on the last trip four years ago - but in each of those campaigns Australian dominance was pre-ordained, and even when England won in 2005 and 2009, they were rarely in less than a scrap. This, on the other hand, feels like an epoch on the turn.
Never mind what happened on this ground four years ago. If Australia regroup from here, it really will be a miracle.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo