Ashes back in the balance
Perth, Western Australia
Sometimes statistics don't make sense.
A bowler who returns figures of 0-170 in his last match takes four wickets in nine balls in his next. A batting unit that scores 1,215 runs for their last six wickets loses five top-order men for 20 and then five more for 58. A team that was 69-5 on day one goes into day four with an enormous lead and only tail-enders between them and crushing victory.
At other times, they cannot lie. England have never successfully chased anything like 391 to win a Test match. They have only ever passed 300 on the way to a win three times in history. In 11 Ashes matches here at the Waca they've come out on top in just one.
With 310 needed, just five wickets in hand and two days of unbroken sunshine heading this way, they won't be coming out on top in this one either. Even for the most optimistic of cricket calculations can't conjure a way out of this mathematical mess.
When the Waca clocks showed just over an hour to go to the close, there was still optimism alive in the massed ranks of England supporters spread out on the grassy banks beyond the mid-wicket fence and clustered around the bars beneath the Prindiville Stand.
While Alastair Cook had departed on unlucky 13, the pitch was behaving respectably and the shine fading from the new ball. Get through to stumps with Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott still standing firm, said two former England skippers watching from the Lillee Marsh Stand, and this match might yet produce a glorious conclusion.
Then, as shadows stretched across the verdant outfield and the faint outline of the moon popped up on the Perth skyline, the madness descended.
First Strauss, neither forward nor back, poked Mitchell Johnson to an exultant Ponting at second slip.
Kevin Pietersen, striding to the crease with boozy boos ringing around the concrete stands, survived his pair and then began to loosen up in the limelight. With Trott digging his trench at the other end, he signalled to the England balcony for a new bat and sent the old piece of willow back to the dressing-room.
If he'd only waited a moment longer he could have carried it there himself. His waft at Ben Hilfenhaus's wide one was needless, the edge straight down Shane Watson's throat - 227 brilliant runs a fortnight ago, a total of four in two innings to follow.
England's hopes faded when Ben Hilfenhaus removed Kevin Pietersen cheaply - photo: Getty
When Trott went the same way in the penultimate over the ignominy seemed complete, but never underestimate an England collapse. With the travelling hordes still lobbing plastic pint pots down in dismay and disgust, Paul Collingwood lunged at the final ball of the day and gave the slip cordon another reason to laugh themselves to sleep.
Collingwood booted the crease. Johnson screamed abuse at nightwatchman Jimmy Anderson's crestfallen face. Thousands of Melbourne residents picked up their phones and dug out the MCG box office number.
From the stellar heights of that innings victory in Adelaide, England have come back down to Perth with a bump.
Pretty much everything went to plan in South Australia. Most players performed at their peak. Out here in the west, only new man Chris Tremlett has done close to the same.
This has not suddenly become a great Australian side. There are flaws everywhere you look, from Phil Hughes at the top of the order to Steve Smith batting at six to skipper Ponting's dreadful run of scores and vice-captain Clarke's similar lack of form. The selectors are still unsure of their best side, still alienating good players with their strange rotations and picks.
Despite all that, they have been able to build a platform for victory thanks almost entirely to the efforts of two men. On Friday afternoon, Johnson's contribution came as a surprise. On Saturday, Mike Hussey's did not.
That first-ball edge off Steve Finn on the second day in Brisbane, the one that fell two inches short of Graeme Swann at second slip, feels a long, long time ago. His 116 here means that since that career-saving escape he has scored over 500 runs at an average of 103, the first man in Ashes history to post six successive scores of 50 or more.
"I've known him since he was 18 years old, and I've never seen him batting this well," says Justin Langer, former Western Australia team-mate of Hussey and now Australia's batting coach.
On a ground he knows better than any other in the world, 10 miles or so from the Mullaloo backyard where he first held a cricket bat and took guard, Hussey took the game away from England and celebrated like the homecoming hero he had become.
England's tactics against him were curious at best. On a wicket that suits purveyors of shots played with a horizontal bat, they fed him the short stuff and then watched puzzled as he pulled with untroubled success.
On 17 occasions he attempted the pull shot in his innings, and on each and every one he connected, picking up 40 carefree runs in the process.
In able support, Watson looked just as untroubled for most of his spell at the crease. Then he looked up at the scoreboard to find himself on 95, and the troubles came back with late revenge.
Most batsman have experienced the 'Nervous Nineties'. For Watson it's more like the 'No No Not Again Nineties'. When Tremlett trapped him lbw with a century once again a single shot away, it was the six time he'd reached 90 in his Test career and the fourth he'd failed to push on to the ton. His happy ending would come later, standing in the slips.
England are not suddenly in crisis - 1-1 with two Tests to play is the sort of scoreline that most touring parties would have grabbed with both hands. But they do have issues to resolve.
Collingwood, a wonderful fielder and model team man, is in horrible form. Over the last 12 months he has averaged 33 in Test cricket; in this series just 15. Ian Bell, in the form of his life, is coming in at six and running out of time and partners before his boots can be filled. Steve Finn has looked tired in Perth and gone at a run a ball.
Whatever happens, the series will be alive come Sydney in the New Year. With the surfaces in Melbourne and at the SCG still a matter of conjecture, that guarantees drama and ding-dong to come. And, after the twists and turns in the story so far, there is very little that anyone who has been watching could possibly rule out.