England now within sight of Ashes glory
Throughout most of yesterday, England could almost smell the Ashes. And touch them, see them, hear them, taste them as well. The sixth sense was saying what it has all along: this is England's series to lose.
They bowled out Australia for 98 on the first day of the fourth Test, thus ruining a grand Boxing Day occasion for thousands of Australians.
Long before the end as England passed the total without loss, the MCG was shedding spectators quicker than the home side had lost wickets, which meant they were stampeding for the exits.
The ground had never been quite full, to the consternation of ground authorities who had been confident in expecting a record crowd.
They were let down by members who, with a compelling series level at 1-1, may never have greater cause to attend. Perhaps they suspected there was something fishy about Australia's batting
Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook were still together at the close, having shared their tenth opening partnership of three figures for England. Strauss reached his third score above 50 in the series, Cook his fourth.
There were no alarms, save for Cook wrongly being given out lbw, a decision quickly overturned on review because he had nicked the ball on to his pads.
According to local wisdom and parlance, England were under the pump coming into this match after Australia had levelled the series in Perth a week earlier. Yet, with one bound, as they used to say in the Saturday morning serials, they were free.
Strauss won a toss thought to be decent and was later to be viewed, especially by Australia, as vital. Before lunch four wickets had gone. Crucially, they included that of Mike Hussey, whose shoulders must have been shot after carrying the batting for the entire series. Without Hussey to effect a recovery, as he had in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, there was no recovery. The last six wickets fell in 17.2 overs for another 44 runs.
All ten wickets fell to catches behind the wicket, two to gully, one to first slip, one to second slip and six to the wicketkeeper, Matt Prior.
This said much both for the proprieties observed by England's bowlers and the cavalier approach to their work displayed by Australia's batsmen.
It made for a potent combination and in such a contest there could be only one winner. The tourists, led by Jimmy Anderson who took his craft of accurate swing bowling to new heights, were a pleasure to watch, the home side, so uplifted by their victory in Perth, were hopeless.
The miserable total was Australia's lowest against England at Melbourne, their lowest first innings score at the ground against any team and perhaps most pertinently of all the lowest against England anywhere for 42 years.
Never before had they been bowled out for a double figure score by the Poms at the MCG — their closest effort being the second innings 104 to which they tumbled in the first Test match of all in 1877 — and presumably the old place has had its reasonable share of greenish tops under cloudy skies in the past 133 years, Boxing Day or not.
If bowling was a straightforward decision for Strauss as he
looked up at the skies and down at the pitch, it was still placing abundant faith in a seam trio, two of whose members had not made the first choice XI at the start of the series. It was wholly rewarded.
Chris Tremlett, who had replaced the injured Stuart Broad in Perth, was again menacing with movement and awkward bounce off the pitch. Tim Bresnan, preferred to Steve Finn, could hardly have asked for more: he is a typical English seamer and he had typical English conditions in which to
operate. He did not miss his opportunity. Not many England pace bowlers can have been dropped in Australia as the series' leading wicket taker — and the historians present could think of none - but it was the correct decision and Finn probably recognised it.
Anderson gave a splendid exhibition of swing bowling, both in and out. On occasions like this he could probably make it go up and down as well.
Swing bowling ain't what it used to be but Anderson has enviable control and batsmen can never be sure what the old prestidigitator might do next.
It all went wrong for Australia's batsmen as quickly as it had done in the rest of the series. They have failed to fire in first innings throughout, never yet reaching 160 before their fifth wicket has fallen. For England, it all started
going right in the fourth over when Tremlett found a brute of a ball for Shane Watson which reared off a length and took a glove before looping to gully. Poor Watson, but he had already been dropped twice.
It was a grotesque litany thereafter. Philip Hughes, always skittish, propelled Bresnan's seventh ball in an Ashes series, also to gully. Then came the early departure, yet again, of Ricky Ponting. It was his misfortune to receive a humdinger of a ball from Tremlett which demanded a stroke and left him late for Graeme Swann to take a catch to match the ball at second slip.
While Hussey was still there, things could get better as his 517 runs in the series testified. They got worse. Anderson produced one which moved diabolically late with Mr Cricket already committed to the shot.
That was that. Steve Smith, who looks over-promoted and out of his depth, was too naive to deal with Anderson. Michael Clarke, the vice-captain, is vying with the captain for wretchedness of form and was also undone by Anderson, a mercy killing in cricket terms.
Between innings the cloud dissipated, the pitch grew brown. Or it seemed that those things happened. Australia's bowling attack — pacemen all, since they declined for the second time to give left-arm spinner Michael Beer his first cap — looked as unthreatening as England's had been menacing. It was not all in the skies, it might have been in the stars