Well that was a rude awakening for England fans on a blustery morning – but what a scintillating performance by Australia. In Steve Waugh's time, the Aussies used to say that it should take something special to beat them. As England lick their wounds, they can at least tell themselves that the same applied: it took something very special to beat them.
They were defeated today by their own timidity, but also by three phenomenal players, two of them bang in form, one returning to it. Shane Warne, who had been at his worst over the weekend, ricocheted back to his best. Outrageous fortune supplied his first wicket as Andrew Strauss was given out caught off his pad. Outrageous willpower did the rest, with help from some skilled reverse-swing from a revitalised Brett Lee. Pride, which had come before Warne’s fall, came swiftly after it too: he may even have been fired up by the stick he took in the press. His wickets in this series have come at a most uncharacteristic cost – an average of 40, and a strike rate of 85 – yet he has still produced two vital four-fors.
The two men in form were Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey. On a day when everybody else either got out or scratched around, they made a hundred between them off only 124 balls, and added a nerve-settling, gate-closing, match-deciding 83 off 16 overs. Ponting’s 49 was almost a failure by his current Elysian standards, but it was just what was needed. Hussey has batted three times in this series, and every time he has built a crucial partnership with Ponting. Today he showed his extraordinary flexibility by abandoning his Test-match grafting and slipping into one-day finisher mode. He was Allan Border in the first innings and Michael Bevan in the second.
Meanwhile England had frozen. Their aggression, so calculated under Michael Vaughan, has gone badly awry. Today they scored only 70 runs off 54 overs. Even allowing for the pitch, that sort of progress was just dreadful. There were plenty of gaps in the field, but they couldn’t find them. After defying gravity for two innings, they finally suffered for their unbalanced batting order – four grafters followed by two big-hitters. Kevin Pietersen, majestic in the first innings, was humbled today. Rob Smyth, over on the Guardian site, spotted that he had said in his book, “I see no way Shane can bowl me round my legs”. Hubris and Nemesis again.
Paul Collingwood, after the euphoria of the first innings, was thrust back into his role of two months ago in the Champions Trophy – the last man standing, scraping an unbeaten 20, the housemate who always clears up the mess. Except that this was too big a mess for one person to clear up. His Steve Waugh-like tendencies do not yet extend to being able to take the tail by the scruff of the neck.
In extreme situations, home truths emerge. It was telling that Hussey was promoted above Damien Martyn. And it was telling that Steve Harmison and James Anderson were virtual spectators. So much comes down to selection. If Australia had been ruthless with their middle order in 2005 and sent for Hussey, they would surely have clung on to the Ashes. Having him now has put them in charge this time.
If England had played a full bowling attack in these two Tests … well, it surely wouldn’t have been this bad. Harmison, Anderson and Giles have taken six for 853 in the series. No team can afford that. The price they have paid for dropping two young bowlers who were doing well, in Panesar and Mahmood, has been an awfully high one.
But it would be wrong to write about England's mistakes without acknowledging my own. Yesterday I wrote as if the game had already been drawn, which was a howler. To those who have written in gleefully pointing this out, I can only say: it's a fair gloat. If I had Photoshop on my computer, you'd see some egg on that picture in the top right-hand corner.