Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus claimed five England wickets for 20 runs in the space of 44 balls in a thrilling final hour of the second day at Headingley, as Australia built on the batting efforts of Marcus North to surge towards a stunningly comprehensive Ashes-squaring victory. North’s 110 from 206 balls, coupled with 93 from Michael Clarke and some spirited thwacking from the tail, converted Australia’s overnight lead of 94 into a formidable first-innings advantage of 343 which paved the way for the dramas that followed – and had North himself held onto a sharp chance at third slip from the final ball of the day, Ricky Ponting would have had a case to claim the extra half-hour and push for an incredible two-day winInstead, Australia will have to settle for a three-day finish, in a match that is proving as abjectly one-sided as any of England’s Ashes humiliations of the past 20 years. The only remote challenge to Australia’s dominance came while Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss were repelling the new ball in a first-wicket stand of 58 that spanned 22.4 overs. Hilfenhaus, however, zipped one back off the seam to slam into Strauss’s back pad to expose England’s flimsy middle-order, and sure enough, Australia surged through the opening.
Ravi Bopara’s torrid series continued when he was late coming forward to his very first delivery, and adjudged lbw by Asad Rauf despite a sizeable inside-edge, and though Ian Bell survived the hat-trick ball by a whisker, Johnson didn’t allow him to savour the moment. For the second time in the match, he was cowed into submission by Johnson, pushed back by a fizzing bouncer, then drawn forward to poke a limp catch to Ponting at second slip for 3.Next to go was Paul Collingwood, his form now in freefall after his match-saving 74 at Cardiff. Following on from his first-innings duck, Collingwood played all round a full swinging delivery from Johnson, and was plumb lbw for 4. Still England’s humiliation was not complete, however. For the second innings running, Cook had attempted to stand firm while all around him wavered, but having ground his way to 30 from 84 balls, he hung out his bat to a Johnson outswinger, and snicked a low edge through to Brad Haddin. And Johnson should have claimed his fourth in the space of 20 balls, when Matt Prior edged him straight through North’s hands.
With three days remaining and the weather set fair, it is inconceivable that Australia will not wrap up a hugely deserved victory with several sessions to spare, and stride on to The Oval in a fortnight’s time with the Ashes once again in a vice-like grip. But for all the drama of England’s batting capitulation, the man to whom the day’s credit belonged was North, who followed on from his 96 at Edgbaston last week with yet another performance that put England’s flappable temperaments to shame. His 110 from 206 balls was Australia’s seventh century of the summer, compared to Strauss’s solitary offering at Lord’s last month, and their dominance of the series statistics will at last be rewarded on the field.Resuming on 196 for 4, Australia’s middle- and lower-order had all the time in the world to accentuate England’s humiliation after they had been rolled over for 102 in the first 33.5 overs of the match, but in the end they needed only two sessions to capture a formidable advantage. North added exactly 150 for the fifth wicket with Clarke, who fell seven runs short of his third century in consecutive matches, and then sat back in the final overs before tea while the tail ran amok around him, not least Stuart Clark, who smacked three of the biggest sixes imaginable in a 22-ball 32, including one tee-shot back over Graeme Swann’s head that landed in the media toilets.
Not for the first time in the match, England had absolutely no say in the flow of events. Stuart Broad kept the ball pitched up (more often than not) to finish with figures of 6 for 91, his best in Tests, but it was hardly an achievement he felt worthy of celebrating. The brief flicker of momentum that England had generated through Steve Harmison’s hostile performance on the first evening had effectively vanished inside the first half-hour of the day.James Anderson, who entered the day amid concerns about the hamstring he tweaked while stretching for a quick single on the first afternoon, looked semi-fit at best as he started with a diet of half-volleys and finished with throwback figures of 18-3-89-0, while Harmison’s first three-over spell was short, wide and clobbered for 23 agenda-setting runs, including a brutal first-ball pull for four from Clarke, who once again set the tempo for Australia’s performance.
Clarke’s fourth half-century of the series was brought up from 78 balls with a tuck off the hips from Harmison, and thereafter he went into overdrive, particularly against the labouring Anderson, whom he belted on the up, through the covers, twice in four balls, before working him sublimely through the leg-side from consecutive deliveries. In between whiles, North greeted Broad by clipping a first-ball half-volley through midwicket for four, as the pair brought up their hundred partnership from 152 balls – their third in six innings this series.Clarke has now emerged as the outstanding batsman of the summer, and looked a dead-cert for his third century in as many Tests. But not for the first time, the nervous nineties undermined his previously serene progress. On 92, he attempted to work Onions through midwicket, but instead looped a leading edge into no-man’s land in the covers, but he was unable to make his good luck count. He had not added to the single he had run from that let-off when Onions found a full and inswinging length, to pin him lbw on his bootlaces.
Despite the loss of his domineering partner, North was perfectly content to sit in and bide his time. With three scores in excess of 96 and five below 12 in his five previous Tests, he is a player who knows how to make his starts count. Harmison struck with his second delivery with the new ball, as Brad Haddin spooned a miscued pull to short backward square, but North rode the extra bounce with typical insouciance, joined in a 70-run stand for the seventh wicket with Johnson, who continued his consistent form with the bat with 27 from 53 balls.Johnson’s innings finally came to an end when he pulled a Broad long-hop to Bopara on the midwicket boundary, and in the same over, Peter Siddle was too slow on a full and straight delivery that took out his off stump first-ball. But Clark, who has enjoyed himself in this match so far, climbed into two further Broad short balls to deposit him over the leg-side ropes, before under-edging another attacking stroke into his stumps.
With his partners starting to run out, North decided to chance his arm, and his century-securing six off Swann was just about the only liberty he permitted himself in a studious and vital match-seizing performance. He holed out to midwicket soon afterwards to bring the innings to a close on the stroke of tea, whereupon England’s openers, for a misleadingly serene hour-and-a-half, set about chiselling away at the deficit. Hilfenhaus and Johnson, however, were lurking. And the momentum of the series has lurched violently out of England’s grasp.