Harris and Stokes

Aussies watch weather as tempers flare

Only Adelaide’s volatile early summer weather, and the far less threatening spectre of England’s lower-order batting, stands between Australia and a two-nil Commonwealth Bank Ashes series lead.

Overnight thunderstorms were forecast to give way to Monday morning rain, but it is not expected to delay proceedings long enough to help England, who finished day four 284 runs adrift with only four tailenders left to bat.

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Given that the tourists last five have managed to contribute an average of just 45 runs between them in each of the three innings of this series it would take a downpour of Biblical proportions to deny Australia a deserved win.

England’s batting showed considerably more mettle on a day that began with Australian skipper Michael Clarke declaring on his team’s overnight total, albeit just 10 minutes before the scheduled resumption of play.

But the fact the tourists topped 200 for the first time in the series paled alongside the ineptitude of their first innings when they surrendered a 398-run advantage and, in all likelihood in light of current form trends, the Ashes.

Symptomatic of the woes that England have suffered since the second day in Brisbane, their best-performed batsmen today were 22-year-old Joe Root, who contributed 87 in his new role at No.3, and Test debutant Ben Stokes who batted more than two hours for a dogged 28.

Stokes might be new to the contest but he hasn’t taken long to become embroiled in the hot tempered-feuds that continue to simmer between the teams.

After he was involved in a stoush with Brad Haddin on the second day, Stokes brushed shoulders with Johnson who stood in the Englishman’s path as he took off for a single which again prompted an umpire’s intervention as Johnson was ushered away.

Despite all the aggravation that spilled over on to the pitch in Brisbane, the sight of cricketers making physical contact and a match official being compelled to push the combatants apart was one that appeared as unedifying as it was unwelcome.

The bad blood surfaced again during the final over of the day when Clarke clashed with England vice-captain Matt Prior, and then Johnson and Stuart Broad became involved in an animated conversation as both teams headed off the field.

Sadly, the only recognised England batsman prepared to show any similar fight was Kevin Pietersen whose 53 was expansive at times, uncharacteristically sedate at others but ultimately a couple of hundred less than what was needed.

While Johnson was the most combative and hostile of Australia’s bowlers, the honours were shared as was the workload as the Australians kept in mind the proximity of the next Test that begins in Perth on Friday.

But the bowlers helped to substantially reduce their own level of toil by displaying some outstanding skills in the field, the third aspect of the game in which the home team has clearly outplayed the visitors to date.

The cost of the catches England turfed during Australia’s first innings was close to 300 runs – roughly what the final margin in the Test might end up being.

But it wasn’t only the fact that Australia’s fielders were able to capitalise on the opportunities that were presented.

The sight of three bowlers, notoriously the weak link in many a fielding outfit, clutching tough outfield chances as assuredly as a gloved baseballer pouching fly balls sent a surge of confidence and solidarity throughout the entire Australian camp.

The fielding tone was set in the day’s second over, and just three balls into the bowling spell of Johnson who must have begun to believe that he could have trundled down one of the inflatable beach balls that bounced among the throng on the hill and still bamboozled an England batsman or two.

Having blasted through Alastair Cook’s defence with an Exocet in the first innings, Johnson employed a cluster bomb aimed squarely at the under-siege England captain’s forehead and which induced a top-edged hook shot.

Stationed on the long leg boundary, Johnson’s new-ball partner Ryan Harris saw the incoming chance late but made ground quickly running towards it and clutched it safely at knee height as he tumbled forward.

Then for the second time in the match, Cook’s opening partner Michael Carberry fell to a pull shot and a freakish catch.

Having helped a short ball from Peter Siddle around the corner where Nathan Lyon, occupying the section of boundary previously patrolled by Harris, accepted an even tougher chance at around ankle level as he made ground to his right.

But the pick of these efforts came shortly after Siddle ended England’s most productive partnership of the series to date – 111 between Root and Pietersen – when Pietersen inside edged on to his off bail, the ninth time in 14 Tests that Siddle has captured his wicket.

Ian Bell – England’s best, some might argue only batsman in the first innings – then toe-ended a hefty on-drive off a full toss from Steve Smith that looked set to pitch agonisingly short of Johnson at mid-on.

Realising the significance of the chance, Johnson surged and dived forward to take the catch with fingers resting on the turf.

It was the moment that England’s hopes of saving the match departed their own grasp and was bequeathed to those forces in charge of the weather.