If England believed that their downward spiral of Ashes misery had bottomed out with their 5-0 thumping in Australia three winters ago, they might just have to reassess that situation before the series decider at The Oval in a fortnight's time. Barring a late rally that seemed inconceivable in the fading light on Saturday evening, England are hurtling towards their heaviest home defeat
in the history of Ashes cricket, and if they fail to scrape an extra 36 runs tomorrow, they will have surpassed the innings-and-226-run trouncing that West Indies inflicted on them at Lord's in 1973, the single biggest home defeat in England's entire Test history.
Somehow it wasn't meant to be like this, but much the same was being said 20 years ago to the week at Trent Bridge, when Mark Taylor and Geoff Marsh batted straight through the first day of the fifth Test en route to a cripplingly comprehensive innings-and-180-run victory
. Then as now, an unfancied and under-estimated Australian team of rookies had sprung a horrible surprise on their complacent English opponents, seizing the Ashes from a position in which they were apparently at their lowest ebb.
Australia's dominance in the summer of 1989 was reflected in every respect - they took the six-Test series 4-0, and might have won by a tennis score had it not been for rain. This time, however, they are piling all of their pre-eminence into one ultra-effective performance. Marcus North's century was Australia's seventh of the summer; England have only Andrew Strauss's 161 at Lord's to boast about. Five of their batsmen currently average over 50
(Strauss again is England's only half-centurion). And they can also lay claim to all three of the leading series wicket-takers
, as well as the only three bowlers to average below 30.
"Statistics can be a funny thing," said Marcus North, whose second hundred of the series laid the platform for Australia's dominance. "The way we look at it is winning the critical moments in Tests. There was a critical day on the last day of the first Test [at Cardiff] and we didn't win that, and so England walked away with a draw. We saw England win critical moments in the second Test [at Lord's] and outplay us completely, and I think it was probably even at Edgbaston, but we're winning the critical moments here. The most important thing for us as a team is winning session by session, and especially the important ones."
Such has been the speed with which Australia have seized control of this match, England haven't had time to find their bearings at any stage. Minuscule flickers of competitiveness - Steve Harmison's early strikes with both new balls, for instance - have been swamped by the magnitude of the events that have followed, and Stuart Broad's career-best figures of 6 for 91 barely even register in the overall scheme of the contest. The loss of five wickets in the closing overs of the day meant his best day's work of the series came across as a very pyrrhic victory.
"We're disappointed with the way we've made the same mistakes with the bat there towards the end of the day as we did in the first innings," said Broad. "We lost wickets in clumps. We had a really solid start there with Strauss and Cooky, and to lose 5 for 23 is really disappointing. I think the Australians bowled fantastically well, but it was a shame we made the same mistakes we did in the first innings."
The ease and certainty with which England's rizla-thin middle-order has been smoked by Australia's seamers in this contest does not bode well in the slightest. For the first time in 121 years, England's Nos. 3, 4 and 5 were all dismissed in single figures in both innings of a Test
The debacle leaves England on the verge of their first Test defeat since a performance of equally stunning ineptitude at Sabina Park
in February, when - with some bitter irony - Broad once again excelled with his previous best figures of 5 for 85. "We've had two average days of Test cricket but we've had four or five months of really good Test cricket," he said. "It's not something you lose overnight. We're still a very confident bunch of players. We're obviously disappointed with how we've performed in this game, but confidence is not something you lose over night. We just need to make sure we come out and play positively tomorrow and move forward to The Oval."
That may, however, be easier said than done. The ease and certainty with which England's rizla-thin middle-order has been smoked by Australia's seamers in this contest does not bode well in the slightest. For the first time in 121 years, England's Nos. 3, 4 and 5 were all dismissed in single figures in both innings of a Test
, and with Kevin Pietersen laid low for the rest of the summer, and Andrew Flintoff increasingly likely to require further surgery on his damaged knee, there seems little obvious way to paper over such frailties. Broad bridled when it was suggested that Flintoff's absence has been the decisive factor for England, but the evidence on display is hard to controvert.
"You're obviously going to miss Fred because he's a world-class cricketer but it's something the side has dealt with in the past two years and is going to have to deal with for the foreseeable future because he's retiring from the game," said Broad. "It's hard to pinpoint what we've lacked in this Test match. They're a very talented side, and they've got something about them. We're just focussing on what we've done badly in this game, because we've not learned from our mistakes."
Broad recalled England's series defeat against South Africa last summer, in particular their ten-wicket humiliation on this very ground at Headingley
, when Darren Pattinson's controversial selection was taken as evidence of the overall malaise in the camp. "We were batting and were bowled out by tea, again pushing at the ball," he said. "We did similar things here in the first innings. We've got many hundreds led by Andrew Strauss and that's the sort of thing we should focus on."
Avoiding a three-day defeat is surely beyond England's remotest expectations, but Broad defended his own selection at No. 7 as a positive move, and set out to justify his promotion with morale-salving runs on Sunday. "It's obviously important," he said. "We have to remember there are Test match runs and Test match hundreds out there for some batsmen tomorrow. We just need to look to play positively and enjoy it tomorrow. It's going to be tricky obviously being five-down for not very many, but there's an opportunity there to score some Test match runs which everyone wants to do."
Australia, however, have wanted those runs more in this series, something that North was very proud to relate. "Our disciplines have shown that," he said. "We've clicked and done that over a long period of time, with the bat and ball, and put a lot of pressure on England. It's no coincidence we're in the position we are at the moment.
"It's obviously up to England to assess," he said. "The game's not in the bag just yet, we've still got five wickets to get so we've got to create a few more opportunities, but if we apply ourselves and play as we have in the first two days, the series should be level at one-all."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo