England crashed back to earth with a thoroughly disappointing performance at the WACA in Perth. Having taken a 1-0 lead in the series in Adelaide, fans had been hoping that the side could possibly retain the Ashes before Christmas, which would have been a fantastic achievement (England have never secured the urn before Christmas in their 133-year history of visits to Australia). There was little cause for celebration for the tourists in the third Test however, as Australia stepped up to the plate to level the series. The Perth wicket, infamous for the pace, bounce and carry it provides bowlers with, was the key for Australia in this Test. England went into the match having won only one of eleven Tests at the WACA, with that victory coming in the 1978-9 series when Australia had a depleted team due to the World Series set up by Kerry Packer. That became one win in twelve attempts as Australia, inspired by a brilliant Mike Hussey and a rejuvenated Mitchell Johnson, produced a strong display to see off a weak England showing.
A confident Strauss announced that Chris Tremlett would be replacing Stuart Broad, as was heavily predicted in the media, and following success at the toss, Strauss opted to bowl first to make use of the green-tinged wicket. Tremlett struck in his first over back into the side, clean bowling the recalled Philip Hughes with a fast delivery that swung in to the left-hander. Ponting’s poor run of form continued following an outstanding catch from Collingwood at third slip off the bowling of Anderson to end the Australian captain’s innings for just 12. Strauss’ decision to bowl appeared fully vindicated as England claimed the wickets of Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and Steve Smith to leave the hosts on 69-5. Classy half-centuries from Hussey, Haddin and Johnson however, along with some late-order hitting from Siddle and Hilfenhaus saw England dismiss the hosts for 268. At the time England were deemed strong favourites, especially after they closed the first day’s play on 29-0 hoping to push on the following day.
Cook and Strauss batted serenely, looking comfortable at 78-0 until the former hit a Johnson delivery to point which was well caught by Hussey. Then ensued the traditional English batting collapse. Trott (4), Pietersen (three ball duck), Strauss (52) and Collingwood (5) were all dismissed in quick succession as Johnson suddenly returned most dramatically to form, and Australia were back in the match at 98-5 after having being written off. Bell again produced a stylish innings, hitting a half-century before hitting out as he ran out of partners. Both Prior (12) and Swann (11) batted some time with Bell, but not long enough for England to claim a lead. The innings ended as Johnson dismissed his rival Anderson to finish with excellent figures of 6-38 and England 187 all out, 81 runs adrift.
Finn and Tremlett gave England a decent start in the Australian second innings dismissing Hughes (12), Ponting (1) and Clarke (20) to leave Australia at a potentially worrying 64-3. Watson (95) and Hussey (116) especially batted superbly however to blunt England’s attack and build a dominant position. The lower order were dismissed cheaply however as Australia slipped from 252-4 to 309 all out as Tremlett claimed his first Test five-wicket haul with 5-87 in an impressive display from the giant Surrey paceman. Mike Hussey has been the main thorn to the English bowlers so far this series, amassing 517 runs at an average of over 100, with two centuries and three fifties. In stark contrast, Ponting is averaging 16.6 and Clarke just 23 as questions continue to be asked of the Australian top order.
With England set a total of 391, some commentators remained quietly optimistic due to England’s previous batting exploits on this tour, and with the knowledge that the Perth wicket flattens out over the course of the game. It was never to be however, as England capitulated to an embarrassing total of 123, Harris claiming 6-47 and Johnson 3-44, one wicket shy of ten in the match in a fantastic return to the side. Trott was the only batsman to hit more than 20 runs as England produced their worst performance of the series so far. If winning in Australia for the first time in 24 years is to remain a realistic ambition, then such an inadequate performance will have to be vastly improved upon.
That said, there were some positives for England. Strauss hit a rare and welcome half-century in the first innings of a Test match, Ian Bell continued his sublime batting form to increased calls of a batting promotion and Chris Tremlett excelled on his return to the side taking 8 wickets to emphasise the strength in depth that England enjoy. England maintained their high standards of fielding as well as their hold over the Australian top order, most notably captain Ponting and his number two, Michael Clarke. Regardless, the upper-middle order showed signs of continuing frailty, Pietersen a lack of commitment, Collingwood a lack of form and Anderson a lack of fitness.
England coach Andy Flower has since announced that Steven Finn may be rested for the final two Tests, as he appeared exhausted at times and went for five runs an over throughout the course of Australia’s two innings. This means that either Tim Bresnan or Ajmal Shahzad will come into the side in Melbourne on Boxing Day, Bresnan providing extra batting cover and bowling control, Shahzad offering reverse swing and a threat to left-handers. The MCG, venue for the fourth Test is the largest stadium in Australia with a maximum capacity of over 100,000. With Graeme Swann largely ineffective on a Perth wicket that favoured the seam bowlers, it is expected that the Melbourne wicket will be prepared in similar fashion to nullify the off-spinner’s threat. Despite this disappointing performance England still have a fantastic opportunity to retain the urn with the series finely poised at one apiece with two to play. My initial prediction of 2-1 to England is still possible, fingers crossed!