Australia totter at full-frontal assault

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There is a familiar smell emanating from one of the teams in the Old Trafford Test: the whiff of failure, crisis and panic associated with the England cricket team for more than a generation.

But it was not England who were suffering on Friday – it was Australia. And this extraordinary Ashes series moved into new territory as England took command of the third Test and thus, potentially, of the series. They began to contemplate the possibility of another victory – which would be their most sensational for, ooh, almost a week.

In reply to England’s 444, Australia finished the second day on 210-7, still 35 short of the follow-on target, Simon Jones and Ashley Giles having taken three wickets each.

All the recognised batsmen have gone, which in itself would not prevent Australia turning the game round, as they proved last Sunday. Nonetheless, the follow-on is a humiliation they have not been forced to endure for 17 years, in which time Australia have played 190 Test matches. Even contemplating it constitutes something revolutionary.

Much now depends on the weather. Today is meant to be wet. But if it is merely a bit damp, England might just be able to build their advantage into a 2-1 lead. Australia are by no means beaten yet, but they are bemused and bewildered.

So often in recent Ashes series the two sides have appeared to bat on different surfaces. The ball that kicked and reared and turned and spat when Australia were bowling would do nothing when England had their turn. Suddenly the roles were reversed. The much derided Giles bowled a long and testing spell from one end that troubled all the batsmen; from the other, Andrew Flintoff and Jones out-bowled the opposition.

Australia are in crisis on every front. Their batsmen are out of form, their attempted selection coup of playing Glenn McGrath, the hero of Lord’s, who was thought to be hobbling for another week at least, blew up spectacularly when McGrath finished the first innings with 0-86, his worst figures in all his 111 Tests.

McGrath’s opening partner, Jason Gillespie, looks so far from his best as to be beyond redemption. Matthew Hayden, the holder of the world Test batting record until Brian Lara superseded him last year, seems a busted flush.

And everywhere the strategy of captain Ricky Ponting is under attack. His dire decision to bowl first at Edgbaston has left him open to a torrent of criticism for every bowling change, every move of a fielder – or more often, lack of change, since he’s held to lack Michael Vaughan’s imagination. Australia have not sacked a captain, saving the odd circumstances of the schism caused by Kerry Packer in the late 70s, since Bill Lawry in 1971. Ponting might soon come under threat.

But in most years since then a donkey could have lead Australia to victory over England. Now a genius might find it difficult.

Yet the home side could hardly be pleased with their early work on Friday. A score of 333-3 dwindled to 444, almost as euphonious but nowhere near as formidable. England’s four middle order batsmen all got out to ill-judged aggression, though three did make chunky contributions, the last being Flintoff, who was showing signs of moving into heroic mode when he tried to hit Shane Warne over the top.

When Australia batted, the game moved into a quiet patch, as the openers put on 58. Things seemed to settle into the routine that used to be known as Test cricket. Remember? The matches would last five days and sometimes never had a result even then. The cricket required patience from both spectators and players.

The crowds were still lingering in the bars after tea when this nostalgic mood was snapped by the fall of Ponting, fending to gully. The cream of Australia’s batting following, most spectacularly Simon Katich – the man most often mentioned as Ponting’s successor – who disdained to play a stroke at Flintoff and saw his off stump cartwheeling.

Adam Gilchrist and Warne fought back from 129-5, but it didn’t last. And poor injured Michael Clarke had to be brought to the ground by taxi to trudge out with a runner, and trudge back again when Flintoff caught him at mid-off.

Warne, the top scorer, was left to shepherd the tail this morning. When team-mates perpetrated a series of misfields off his bowling early on Friday, he wore a “what on earth’s going on?” expression, as if he sensed the known universe collapsing.

Before the close, the trumpeter on the railway side, who had been concentrating on northern TV themes like Coronation Street and Last of the Summer Wine, broke into Rule Britannia and the New World Symphony. Well, it is a whole new world. Maybe.

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