Aussie decline stirs up mixed emotions
Perth, Western Australia
There was a moment just after lunch here at the Waca when some England supporters briefly experienced the strangest and most unusual of emotions.
The catalyst was the fall of Australia's fifth wicket. There were just 69 runs on the board. The emotion? Sympathy.
It didn't linger long. Half-centuries from Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin, and less predictably Mitchell Johnson, allowed them to recover from total ignominy to mere significant distress at 268 all out, with England's openers closing the gap to 239 by the close.
While it lasted, however, it felt both enjoyable and slightly improper, like flirting with your best mate's attractive new girlfriend or reading a work colleague's copy of Heat magazine.
Many things are supposed to happen before England cricket fans feel sorry for Australian batsmen, including the sun reversing round the moon and Geoff Boycott admitting he's got something wrong.
That it happened at all, on a ground where England have won just one of the last 11 Ashes Tests, is an indication of how completely the traditional Ashes balance of power seems to have shifted.
Almost nothing Australia have tried in this series has worked out. Almost everything England touch turns to gold.
The hosts brought in Phil Hughes and Steve Smith to bolster their struggling batting. They scored a total of nine runs between them. England brought Chris Tremlett in for the injured Stuart Broad, and he bowled with pace, fire and pin-perfect accuracy to blow away three of the opposition's top six.
Every tiny nick or edge from an Australian bat this summer has been pouched, often with remarkable skill, by an English fielder. On a normal day, Graeme Swann's two-handed take above his head at second slip to see off Haddin would have been catch of the day, but so spectacularly splendid was Paul Collingwood's one-handed effort at third slip to bad Ricky Ponting that someone would have had to take one between their teeth to top it.
Paul Collingwood's slip catch to dismiss Ricky Ponting was a breathtaking moment - photo: Getty
For those lilly-livered tourists who still felt benevolent towards Australia at the end, there were former England internationals, long-suffering and still carrying the scars, to put them right.
"I played in seven Ashes series and lost all seven, and that's why I don't feel sorry for them in the slightest," 133-Test veteran Alec Stewart told me.
"As an England player, or an England supporter, I'm loving it. Everyone should be. If and when we start to dominate, cash in.
"I know what they're going through, but don't anyone feel sorry for Australia. Why would you want to feel sorry for the opposition, whether it's Australia or anyone else? Never feel sorry for the opposition. Never take your foot off their throat.
"When you've got a side down, keep them down. Yes you want to see a contest, but it still will be a contest, because Australia are a proud nation. But when you've got them on the ropes, keep them there. Have no sympathy for them at all."
What saved Australia from being knocked out, just as in the first two Tests, was the batting of Hussey and Haddin.
Hussey has been responsible for almost a third of his team's runs in the series so far, and is averaging almost bang on 100. Add in Haddin's 257 runs at 64 and the pair have scored roughly half Australia's overall run total.
This was Hussey's fifth consecutive score of fifty or more against England, only the second time in Test history that an Australian has done that. The other bloke? Some chap called Mike Hussey.
What will disappoint both the stalwarts was that, this time at least, they did not push on to the big score that might have dragged their side to safety. Hussey's dismissal on 61 came from a fine drifting, turning ball from Swann, but Haddin gave his wicket away with a wild adrenalized drive when both he and his partner Mitchell Johnson looked well set.
For all Australia's hopeful bluster in the build-up to this Test, theirs felt like a team picked on optimism rather than logic. Hughes has been in poor form in domestic cricket this season and averages 20 in first-class cricket at the Waca. Smith averages 17 on this ground.
"I've been told that I've got to come into the side and be fun," Smith said a few days ago. This was a performance more whoopee-cushion than beaming smiles. But the established stars above him in the order were arguably more culpable.
Hussey has been by far and away Australia's best batsman in the series so far - photo: Getty
"The shots that Ponting and Clarke got out to were just poor shots," says Stewart, here in Perth as an expert summariser for BBC Radio 5 live. "They are both experienced players, but they're in bad form.
"That just wasn't a Ponting shot. On another pitch, you could play that. But this was a classic Waca dismissal - the sort of shot that you expect from a visiting player who only bats on it every four years.
"It's hitting only a fourth or fifth stump, so he's tried to hit it off the back foot through cover. But because of the extra bounce, instead of hitting it off the middle of the bat, it's hit higher on the bat and taken the outside edge.
"Clarke's shot was worse. It was awful. He wasn't even trying to score off it. To me that is a man in bad form, and I think he has been all series.
"He's wary of the bouncing ball - he's made it known that he's been working on it in the nets, and that means he's looking more for the short ball than anything else. He's thinking, 'Is it short, no...' and by the time he's thought, 'Ah, no, shouldn't have played it', he's nicked it.
"We talking about bowling at a fourth stump, but the ball from James Anderson that got him out was only just hitting the seventh stump. He wasn't doing anything with it - he just hung his bat out there.
"All of a sudden you're four wickets down, and you very rarely recover from there. Hussey's played well, Haddin and Johnson have played well. But the big guns, the ones you'd expect to be making centuries, have gone, and they've exposed the rest of the batting while the ball still has its shine and the wicket is still fresh."
How bad a score was the Australian total on this pitch? The Waca does not traditionally produce big first innings totals. The average here in the last 10 Tests is 304. Australia also produced a worse return four years ago, when they were dismissed for 244.
What happened next? They won that one by 206 runs to recapture the Ashes inside 11 days of cricket. Hussey was the first innings top scorer in that game too.
History, however, is unlikely to repeat itself. There is no Adam Gilchrist this time to lay waste to England's bowlers in the second innings; Clarke, who made 135 in partnership with him, was on a very different trot then.
England's batsman on this tour have been in unprecedented run-making form. The pitch, green at the start, was playing beautifully at stumps. Australia picked an attack based on winning the toss and bowling, not chasing the game on days two and three when batting conditions should be at their best.
No side has ever won an Ashes Test at Perth having been behind on first innings. Should England's batsmen once again make the most of the opportunity created by their bowlers, it would be a brave man who bet against that record remaining in place.