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Miracles don't happen twice

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Tom Fordyce | 18:42 UK time, Saturday, 8 August 2009

At the north end of Headingley, draped across two storeys of the half-built new pavilion, is a huge yellow banner that reads 'ROAR FOR ENGLAND'.

By the close of play on Saturday, with Australia trampling the home side joyously into the Yorkshire dirt, England supporters could have been forgiven for dragging it to the ground and burning it like some dreadful effigy.

If ever there was a performance when Leeds felt less like roaring for England, this was it. Roaring at England, certainly, as well as weeping, gnashing teeth and removing own hair with force - but by the end even that felt like too much effort for the resigned hordes stumbling out of the ground.

These days were meant to be over. This Australian team is not the fearsome beast of old. It contains no Tugga, no Tubby, no Thommo. Warne and Hayden are confined to the commentary box. Half this team could walk unrecognised down Kirkstall Lane.

Despite all that, this has been as one-sided a Test as any of thrashings dished out down the years by that classy coterie.

That England were the team one up in the series seemed incomprehensible. This has been a steamrollering, a hammering, and old-fashioned spanking all rolled into one. Was it really only two days ago that there was talk of sealing the Ashes with one Test to go?

Anderson's bowling was wayward and he was struggling with a hamstring injury too
It was hard to identify the most humiliating moment - Stuart Clark, a man with a Test average of 13, hoisting Graeme Swann out of the ground for a massive six and outscoring nine England players in the process; Stuart Broad bowling a metre wide of off-stump, just to stop the batsmen scoring any runs; Ravi Bopara spending more time getting to the crease than staying there.

When Broad dismissed centurion Marcus North to take his sixth wicket and finally bring the tourists' innings to a close, he celebrated with all the glee of a man punched repeatedly in the face. Maybe he knew what was coming next.

The most galling aspect was that the crowd came to Headingley prepared to cheer the roof off, had there been the slightest encouragement. Tickets for the first Ashes Saturday here for eight years have been like gold dust. Fancy dress had been hired, expectations raised, hip-flasks smuggled in.

England couldn't bowl as abjectly as they had on Friday, went the turnstile talk. Why, if Harmison steamed in and James Anderson and Graham Onions found some swing, Australia might be rattled out for no more than 260 - a lead of just 150-ish. England could then bat with the sun on their backs, set a target of 200... and we all know what happens when Australia chase low totals at Headingley...

Staggeringly, England actually played worse. The bowlers alone produced more toxic waste than a Russian power station.

93 runs came off the first 22 overs of the day. Harmison bowled as if the pitch was half the length and the wickets twice the height, repeatedly plopping the ball down in the wrong place like a broken crane. James Anderson sent outswingers out wide and inswingers into the sweet spots on North and Michael Clarke's bats.

All around, old pros chuntered and fumed at the long hops and half-volleys. Ian Botham, the hero of 1981, strode about the pavilion with smoke billowing from his ears. Mike Brearley, his captain in that astonishing comeback, watched on grimly from the press box.

28 years ago, the Aussies famously had a first innings lead of 224. Here it was over a hundred runs more.

On that occasion, England also had an all-rounder capable of demolishing teams and a fast bowler who could run through the opposition. This time the inspirational all-rounder is at home with ice wrapped round his knee, and the fast bowler going for five an over.

Australia batted with a freedom and finesse that made a mockery of England's first innings travails.

Clarke, splendid all series, looked certain for his third century of the summer until being surprisingly trapped in front just before lunch. North, less celebrated but equally effective, went to his own ton with a six swung mightily over midwicket. Not for the first time, thoughts went to the missing Kevin Pietersen.

Pretty much everyone joined in the fun. Mitchell Johnson carved away happily. Clark batted as if his surname had an 'e' at the end. North smashed the ball to all four corners of the compass.

Even when Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook batted untroubled through the first hour of the second innings, the stench of inevitability hung in the air.

If most inside the ground felt sorry for Strauss, let down as he was by his bowlers, there were only phlegmatic sighs when Ben Hilfenhaus caught him bang in front. And if Bopara was unlucky that Asad Rauf failed to spot the big inside edge he got to his lbw shout, England can hardly argue that decisions in previous matches haven't gone their way.

Out they came, and back they went. Bell fenced, Collingwood missed, Cook poked. 44 balls, five top-order wickets. Even in the annals of England's most humiliating capitulations, this was something of fresh horror.

To hope for a second Miracle of Headingley is to believe in fairies and fire-breathing dragons.

To even dream that the game might go beyond three days, or that an innings defeat could be avoided, is to invite hollow laughs from those who have witnessed the first two days here.

Going to the decider at The Oval, Australia have the momentum and the form. England can still win back the Ashes, but they have a mountain to climb - and where crampons are required, they are currently wearing rollerskates.

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