The Ashes series is on a knife’s edge and the players know it better than anyone, feel it more than anybody. On a long, hot, tense day at the WACA Ground, Australia and England traded blows like the old enemies that they are.
But it is Australia which is closest to triumph as the third day beckons. Still 205 runs behind with six wickets in hand, England appears to be merely clinging on, reacting rather than making the play.
Ian Bell (9no) and Ben Stokes (14no) are at the crease with the tourists on 4-180 at stumps.
With the pitch baking under 40-degree sun – and another one is forecast for tomorrow – the cracks are opening up and England has to bat last. This could get very ugly for Alastair Cook’s team, which cannot afford to lose another Test match lest it surrenders the Ashes.
England started well, dismissing Australia for 385 and then Cook and Michael Carberry put on 85 for the first wicket at a healthy clip. But in the afternoon the Australians went to another level, initially closing down England’s scoring rate, then striking.
It was a day for prising and teasing and coaxing and winkling, and for once, it was not Mitchell Johnson who was required to deliver the wickets. Peter Siddle gets a gold star for his performance; yet again he has stood up and competed when a game was on the line. Shane Watson, Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon also contributed and Johnson was fast and furious, as ever, and England at one stage went through 10 overs scoring just nine runs.
Siddle put England in a vice and turned the handle ever so slowly. As the famous Fremantle Doctor finally blew in late in the day he began a pivotal spell from the city end in which he began swinging the ball away from the right-handers. Cook had to toil for more than three hours in the sweltering heat to reach 50, and ultimately it was probably sheer fatigue that led the captain, in his 100th Test, to slice a lame cut at Nathan Lyon to be caught at point.
Then Siddle’s dismissal of the dangerous, enigmatic Kevin Pietersen in the final session, the 10th time he has removed England’s most decorated player, turned the match heavily in Australia’s favour. Pietersen had been subdued by his standards, taking 15 balls to score his first run, seemingly battling with his own instincts. Then he launched an awful front-foot pull at Siddle and was caught high up at mid-on by Johnson.
Pietersen has tortured Australia before but in this series he has just the one half-century and is averaging 24. Siddle’s apparent mastery of him is surely significant, and his wild-eyed screaming let everyone know how important the wicket was.
One final point on the decision review system, which came under scrutiny when Joe Root was adjudged to be caught behind by umpire Marais Erasmus after pushing forward to Shane Watson’s lovely leg-cutter. Root immediately asked for a review, and his body language suggested he was convinced he had not feathered it.
But the third umpire, Tony Hill, could not find compelling evidence of an error and declined to overturn Erasmus’ decision. There was no hotspot mark on Root’s bat, and the ‘snicko’ registered a noise just after the ball passed the bat, but not at the exact moment.
We could debate it forever. Social media buzzed with sympathy for Root. In my mind, Hill was right to let the decision stand. The on-field umpire’s decision should stay unless there is an obvious howler or there is some clear evidence that he was wrong.
Nothing is perfect, not even technology.