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Hitting the spot: How this image sums up England's fate

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What will be the image that captures this summer of wonders? A blue helmet whiplashing to dodge a Mitchell Johnson fireball? Brad Haddin's edgeless blade slapping another drive over mid-off? The arms of Michael Clarke in the quarter-to-three position, arranging fielders into blind spots that will, within an over, conjure a catch?

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Australia dominate day two of the Ashes Test in Sydney, closing with a 311 run lead over the visitors on Saturday.

For me, the story is told by the stumps left behind by Ben Stokes after his sterling 47 at the SCG. Stokes has raised his bat to the 101st ball he faced, bowled by Peter Siddle. The off bail has been excised, as if by keyhole surgery. The wicket is otherwise barely disturbed: a still life of joy and misery.

Fast bowling is a simple business, as Glenn McGrath has observed. Thinking 'top of off' every ball will send hundreds, thousands, of batsmen moping to the sheds. Having the years of training to perfect that control, the patience and self-belief to find that spot when batsmen are attacking, the fitness to keep at it through pain and heat, and the nerve to do it on the big occasion: that's the hard part.

Australia's bowling at the SCG was a festival celebrating what they have done, better and better, as the past year has gone on. Johnson's bouncer attack was electric on Friday evening, and terrifying at times on Saturday. Siddle and Ryan Harris were barely less intimidating with the throat ball. But the wickets came through the pitched-up incisions of the off stump.

Harris's opening blitz, a first over of the day that brought one wicket that could have been three, provided another demonstration of the wonderful bowler he is. You would have thought Alastair Cook had learnt by now, but here was the Harris-level Sudoku he just can't figure out. Cook has built a career upon leaving the ball early in his innings. Harris, along with Johnson and Siddle, have honeycombed Cook's confidence with masked balls that look like invitations he can safely ignore. Having started employing that plan in England, Harris has brought it to a pitch of perfection in Perth and Sydney. Johnson removed Cook with equally good off-stump balls in Adelaide and Melbourne. And just when Cook has survived them, looking set for big scores in Brisbane and Perth, he has got out to Nathan Lyon. England have been amputated at the neck.


After him, the deluge. Ian Bell should have been out first ball, edging another Harris beauty that was headed for the off stump. James Anderson undertook his nightwatchman duties with great pluck against Johnson's barrage, but was no match for conventional line and length. Kevin Pietersen was a waste of the space that should have been Joe Root's.

Bell studied his forward defence, a batsman with three centuries in the winter but now reduced to rebuilding his game from the foundations, for a painful hour before Siddle joined the fun. England had lost four wickets by drinks, a half-session that had everything except runs. All of the wickets fell to top-of-off deliveries, batsmen so heavily planted on their heels by short balls and the nightmare of the past six weeks that they were incapable of orthodox defence to orthodox balls.

It's the bounce that has been the difference, but not just the bounce that necessitates new helmets, such as that which Gary Ballance needed before lunch. Australia's key has been finding the very length, on wickets that have been radically different from each other, that will clip the bails. England's seamers have often found that length too, which is why the series has been dominated by the ball. Australia have won because their front-line bowlers have mastered the geographic diversity of the conditions quicker than England's.

Harris and Johnson have outshone Anderson and Stuart Broad, but the back-up of Siddle, Shane Watson and Lyon have offered no respite. Since Brisbane, England have had no third seamer or spinner to match them.

Stokes again showed why he offers England hope for the future, and Ballance also batted with the benefit of a clear head. Rather than get over-excited by the early collapse and frustrated by the young pair's resistance, Australia settled into their proven containment plan. Lyon extracted enough spin to promise an interesting fourth innings. England's middle order was not blown away but worn down.

How much this Australian bowling success is owed to Craig McDermott is a matter for conjecture. Certainly the plans were beginning to work in England. When McDermott returned to the fold, he brought the psychological nous that he gave the bowlers two seasons ago when, against India, they also looked like the best attack in world cricket. There is no doubting that McDermott, like Darren Lehmann, is a figure as reassuring as he is substantial as he patrols the boundary. You would like to have him on your side.

Bowler-dominated cricket is action-packed, and this wicket has challenged batsmen in a completely different way from those in the previous Test matches. Thoughts are turning to how the Australian order will score enough runs in South African conditions. What is enough? More than the opponent. If Australia's bowlers keep flicking that off bail, their batsmen will be chasing molehills, not mountains.