Brisbane: Domineering hundreds by Michael Clarke and David Warner, a declaration with an impregnable position swiftly achieved and two England wickets in the final hour: things could not have gone much better for Australia as they pressed for the victory that would put them 1-0 up in the Ashes series.
Australia stacked up a lead of 560 before declaring with slightly more than an hour remaining on the third day and they made excellent use of the 15 overs they reserved for a bowl against a weary and demoralised England side as Michael Carberry and Jonathan Trott both perished.
That life could not be going more swimmingly for Australia was apparent when Carberry played on against Ryan Harris, his attempted block spinning off a thick inside edge between his legs. Trott’s difficulties against the pace of Mitchell Johnson also persisted: fortunate to survive on 7, when a miscued hook fell safely, he fell for 9 when he flicked Johnson off his hips straight to Nathan Lyon, stationed 20 yards in from the square leg boards. Against Johnson, he looks unbalanced both physically and mentally.
It could have been worse for England as Alastair Cook dived desperately for the crease to avoid being run out for nought as Kevin Pietersen undertook a characteristically chancy single to get off the mark.
Australia could not have envisaged such a dominant position when they were six down for 132 on the first day. No side has made more than 418 in the fourth innings to win a Test, a feat achieved by West Indies against Australia in Antigua in 2003. With two days remaining, they are perfectly placed to achieve the win to back up their confident pre-series chat.
To draw, England would have to bat for more overs than in any Test in their history, the Timeless Test in Durban in 1939 apart. To win, they would have to break records by a huge margin. There was a storm in Brisbane a few hours after play, but the daytime forecast on Sunday was just for an occasional heavy shower.
Their captain is also restored to full operational efficiency. Clarke fell for 113 from only 130 deliveries shortly before tea, his dismissal caused by perhaps his only ungainly moment as he came down the pitch to Graeme Swann and was bowled as he was drawn into an ugly leg-side slog.
His 25th Test hundred, and his fifth at the Gabba, was one of his most heartfelt, coming as it did in the wake of a first-innings dismissal which encouraged a debate over whether his back ailment was causing him problems against short-pitched bowling. He survived a none-too-torrid examination against the short ball before restating his quality with an innings of polished, unfettered strokeplay.
Warner’s 124 from 154 balls was equally brisk. He was just as assertive as Clarke, his footwork surely as crisp as it ever has been in his Test career as he attacked England’s limited attack with verve and selectivity. He brought up his hundred with runs off Joe Root, but unlike last summer, on this occasion he only punched the air.
His most dismissive moment – planting Stuart Broad straight for six – was followed in the same over by his downfall. His dismissal, caught at the wicket, had an element of one-day cricket about it but it was a rare blemish by Warner, who has rarely played a more measured Test innings.
England’s aggressive tactics against Clarke, not short of initial verbals, even extended to allowing Warner singles to get him back on strike – quite an insult for a world-class batsman with a Test average the top side of 50 and an excellent record at the Gabba. During his innings, he joined Ricky Ponting and Greg Chappell as the only batsmen to have made more than 1000 Test runs at the ground and his average there hovers around 100. Rarely has such an accomplished batsman been tactically manoeuvred on to strike in such a fashion.
Clarke had decided to take on the pull shot from the outset and he did so with equanimity. England soon abandoned the policy – only Broad looked capable of enforcing it anyway – and they were unable to make much of an impression on a pitch that remained in excellent order for batsmen.
Broad never quite revved up the short-ball challenge to maximum, James Anderson, whose approach in any case tends to be more cerebral, did not get much of a look at him, and Chris Tremlett, for all his impressive build, trundled along at barely 130kph. Australia’s markedly enterprising approach to Swann’s offspin, encouraged by their head coach, Darren Lehmann, has also put England’s four-strong attack under strain. Swann needs to find an answer – and on Australian pitches he will not find it easy.
England took two wickets in the morning session as Australia, 65 for 0 overnight, resumed with a lead of 224. Chris Rogers made a hash of Broad’s morning loosener, recognising the gift of a short and wide delivery but only managing to punt it to point where Carberry accepted a simple catch. Shane Watson also made little impact, making 6 in 27 balls before an attempted pull malfunctioned against Tremlett.
England’s desperation was evident in the last over before lunch when they reviewed Swann’s lbw appeal against Warner only for replays to confirm that he had played the ball with his bat and the review was little better than wishful thinking. A second review against Bailey late in the afternoon session failed marginally. There was further frustration for England when for the second time in the match they were timed out as they discussed whether to review. This tougher approach seems set for the series as the umpires, refreshingly, implement the regulations.
Clarke was the last of three Australia wickets to fall in an afternoon session which brought Australia 154 runs at a rate of nearly five runs an over. Steven Smith fell for 0 when Tremlett, finding bounce and away seam, summoned one of England’s best deliveries of the day. George Bailey, on Test debut, was dropped on 17 at short leg by Ian Bell, off the offspin of Joe Root, but he did not make best use of his reprieve as Swann floated a ball past his defensive push to strike off stump.
Australia hastened to a declaration after tea in freewheeling fashion, adding a further 102 at a run a ball as Brad Haddin and Johnson hit about them to the delight of a jubilant Brisbane crowd. Australia’s long unbeaten record at the Gabba looks set to continue in the most emphatic fashion.
England 136 and 2 for 24 (Cook 11*, Pietersen 3*) need another 537 runs to beat Australia 295 and 7 for 401 dec (Warner 124, Clarke 113, Haddin 53)