On a pitch made for batting, England had no answers to Johnson’s extreme pace and new-found accuracy after a couple of early mistakes gave him an opening. Joe Root and Michael Carberry had seen off Johnson with some authority through 19 overs the previous evening, and continued when they resumed today, content to play out maidens early before finding a boundary apiece from the danger-man.
After 45 solid minutes, though, Root’s brain suddenly wandered off. Facing his first ball from Nathan Lyon, in the offspinner’s second over, Root sensed the chance for release, aiming a mighty slog-sweep that looked out before the ball had even reached him. Too short and too far outside off stump for the stroke, he only edged it high to deep backward square where Chris Rogers claimed the catch.
But the most culpable dismissal went to Kevin Pietersen. In Brisbane he’d flicked a ball on middle stump straight to George Bailey at midwicket. Today, with two catching midwickets in place, he played the same stroke. The philosophy of ‘That’s just the way I play’ is well and good, but refusing to adjust your shots to the field is beyond arrogance. Pietersen’s was an utter inability to comprehend the world around him, like a bullock tangled in a broken fence, strangling itself the harder it thrashes against its enemy.
Ian Bell, conversely, came out in flawless form. Deciding he had to disrupt Lyon, Bell hit him out of the attack with sixes in consecutive overs, as well as some gorgeous cover drives off Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle. Carberry raised his fifty, a fighting effort from 115 balls, and began to find the fence himself.
But a few overs later, the withdrawal of Lyon had unwanted consequences. At 111 for 3, with Shane Watson having taken over, a short ball sat up for Carberry. He weltered it, rolling his wrists so the ball dipped toward the turf. But Warner was stationed a touch closer than usual at square leg, and he stuck out his left hand to pull in a miracle catch with the ball almost behind him. Carberry was born unlucky, according to my colleague Phil Walker. After England’s many missed chances in the field, this catch gave the sense of something pre-ordained.
If that was so, destiny arrived after lunch as unstoppably as in any Greek tragedy. After a maiden to open the session, Johnson ripped a ball into the pads of Ben Stokes, the debutant, in front of leg stump. Marais Erasmus, the umpire, gave it not out, his suspicion of an inside edge made clear when a run-out attempt ran away to the boundary to be signalled as four overthrows. But Stokes lost those lucky runs and his reprieve when Australia reviewed the decision, with the ball clearly hitting pad first.
It was a huge moment, and one that underscores the importance of the DRS in our modern game. Matt Prior was in next, his woeful recent form creating a siege feel even before Johnson sent bouncers thudding into his chest and singing over his left shoulder. The next ball was angled across, and the set-up worked perfectly, Prior edging behind for another nought in his recent pattern of scoring in binary. Only Stuart Broad’s complaint about the sight screen kept him out in the middle for a few minutes, with an attempt to step across to the off side first ball only costing him his leg stump. Johnson had bowled a triple-wicket maiden, and England was 117 for 7.
The hat-trick ball was denied by a Graeme Swann shovel for three runs, and Bell reminded us of his presence with a gorgeous uppercut over slip using Johnson’s pace for four, then an equally attractive cover drive off Lyon. But the next over Johnson was at it again, first getting a Swann drive edged high to Clarke at slip, then ripping one in to the left-handed James Anderson to knock his middle stump out of the ground. The hat-trick was barely denied the next over as Bell lofted just short of cover, but after another of those uppercuts, Johnson was given a rest.
In his absence, Bell and Monty Panesar were able to assemble a 37-run partnership, Panesar showing the virtue of playing straight from behind the ball, and facing more deliveries than seven of his team-mates. Bell, meanwhile, continued the sparkling touch that only made you wonder what might have been had he received the slightest support. Every attacking stroke was perfect, nothing bar the hat-trick ball had been even slightly miscued. One Harris over went for 18, though having conceded 13 runs from 13 overs to that point, it hardly damaged the bowler’s figures.
After 13 overs Johnson was recalled, taking just two balls to rattle another set of stumps and earn the second-best figures of his career. Tea was called with Bell stranded on 72 and Australia electing to bat on. Rogers and Watson were both dismissed with the score on 4, but at over 400 ahead, Australia was barely fussed. Clarke and Warner moved on to 65 before the captain was bowled by a ripper from Panesar, but Warner kept displaying his new blend of reasoned attack, and was within 17 runs of a second Ashes century by the close.
The ramifications for the series are immense. 2-0 here would mean England must win at Perth. 2-2 will retain the Ashes, but the WACA doesn’t do draws, meaning one must be salvaged from Adelaide. Perhaps there’s inspiration across the Tasman, where West Indies just produced an extraordinary rearguard to deny New Zealand, but it had all the benefit of dropped chances, timely rain and playing New Zealand. England faces an even bigger challenge, and at this stage, it only looks like having one man who’s up for it.