Series in the balance after Australia's surge
In the build-up to this Test match, England referred back so often to Headingley and Johannesburg, the scenes of their capitulations in their last two marquee series against Australia and South Africa, that complacency could not have been further from their thoughts. But somehow they've let their ascendancy slip again. With five wickets tumbling on a raucous third evening at the WACA, they face the prospect of going to Melbourne on Boxing Day with the series locked at 1-1, and the destiny of the Ashes in the balance all over again.
On Friday, a display of individual brilliance from Mitchell Johnson hoisted Australia back into the contest, but Saturday's batting performance owed more to demoralisation than any particular brilliance on the part of the bowlers. This time, Johnson needed no prodigious swing to find the edge of Andrew Strauss's bat, while the last-ball dismissal of Paul Collingwood, whose score of 11 exactly matches his average in his last nine innings, summed up a match that is no longer in England's hands.
"It's just one of those things," said Chris Tremlett, who was England's outstanding performer on the day with 5 for 87. "We bowled pretty well today at the end of the day, we fought back after a tough morning session and we were pretty pleased to bowl them out for what we did . But credit to Australia, they bowled pretty well this evening. For the last few months, England have played pretty tough cricket, so it's just one of those things."
However, the dynamic of the series has been transformed with astonishing speed. On Friday morning, as England's openers moved effortlessly along to 78 for 0, the joke doing the rounds - with a serious undertone - was whether Australia's bowlers could manage as many as 20 wickets in the series, never mind the match. Their tally at that stage stood at 17 after two completed Tests, at a cost of 1475 runs. Since the dismissal of England's series mainstay, Alastair Cook, however, they've racked up 15 for 190.
"Teams are always going to bat well [sometimes]," said Peter Siddle. "You can't just think that they're going to be poor or be great all the time. To their credit they batted really well in those first few matches and we couldn't break it, but it was just a matter of being patient and bowling as a group - that's what's changed here. All four quicks have bowled with patience and consistency and in great partnerships together ... it's put the pressure right on them."
England's preparation and attitude throughout their Ashes campaign has been faultless, and Australia will remember full well what happened in England 18 months ago, when an innings victory at Headingley left England needing to bounce straight back in the final Test at The Oval to snatch the Ashes. They did just that, with Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss refusing to panic even while the press and public went into a tizzy on their behalf. The onus now will be to find the same level heads again.
"It's pretty obvious the guys are disappointed to get out because they've put in some pretty impressive performances in the other games," said Tremlett. "But we're not worried about momentum. They are going to take some momentum with a positive performance on their front, but we're going to concentrate on our game. We're still full of confidence, we're still 1-0 up in the series and there's always tomorrow and we still believe we can do it."
The second-innings collapse, when it came, was dramatic and unpreventable, with a succession of previously unruffled batsmen falling to strokes that they would not have played in other circumstances - particularly Kevin Pietersen, whose open-faced steer into the slip cordon almost caused him to thwack his bat on the plastic seating as he returned to the dressing-room.
Tremlett, however, insisted that a degree of decorum had been retained in spite of England's impending defeat. "It's about not panicking when those situations happen," he said. "Throughout the series the dressing room has been a pretty calm environment, even though we lost a few wickets we still remained pretty calm. It's a long shot but we still believe we can put a partnership together and still win this game."
Siddle, however, was already preparing for Australia's victory celebrations, with the prospect of a real tussle going into the festive season finale. "It does change things," he said. "There was obviously a lot of pressure on us in this match to get a result. Mike Hussey was outstanding, Shane Watson held it together. It's just a good team effort so far. There's still a lot of work to be done but it does make a big change for us.
"We just knew we had to change a little bit and work a little bit harder in the matches," he said. "We just knew that if we played our best cricket that would put them under a lot of pressure. That's what we've shown in this Test match, that we can play some good cricket.
We've shown everyone out here, batting and bowling, that we can fight and we can work hard. If we could be patient and work them over, instead of them playing on top of us, we knew we could get results."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.