Bouyant Aussies chase Ashes lead


MELBOURNE, December 23 – Australia carry the momentum of their thumping Perth victory over faltering England into the fourth Melbourne Test on Sunday with the series finely balanced at a win each.A shroud of national gloom lifted as Ricky Ponting’s team hit back with a commanding 267-run win in the third Test at the WACA just as England looked poised for their first series triumph Down Under since 1986-87.

The tourists need only one more win from the remaining two Tests to hold on to the urn won back last year. But after Australia’s comprehensive victory, local bookmakers have installed them as favourites to go on and win the series.

Australia looked a different team in Perth with pacemen Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris taking 18 wickets between them as England slumped to sub-200 scores in both innings.

Ponting believes man-of-the-match Johnson’s spell of four wickets in just 27 balls in England’s first innings changed the complexion of the series after England’s crushing win by an innings in Adelaide.

"Mitch’s spell was unbelievable, probably one of the all-time great Ashes spells, it set up the victory and no doubt has now set up the series for us," Ponting said.

A dilemma for Australia will be whether to retain the four-man pace attack that was so effective on the lively WACA wicket, or call up untried spinner Michael Beer on the drop-in MCG pitch.

Meanwhile, England will be trying to rid the perception that their own four-pronged bowling attack is feeling the pinch after three compressed Tests and mounting injury concerns.

Main bowler Jimmy Anderson looked pained by a side strain and Steve Finn fatigued after bowling 36 overs in Perth, coming on top of Stuart Broad’s series-ending abdominal injury in Adelaide.

Premier spinner Graeme Swann had a forgettable time in Perth, capturing just two wickets and conceding plenty of runs.

"All the work we have done so far on this tour has given us a lot of confidence," opener Alastair Cook said. "We scored runs heavily against the bowling attack before and we can do it again. We have to trust ourselves."

England coach Andy Flower preferred to focus on Australia’s top-order batting frailties as he mapped a way back into the series.

"There is no doubt that everything is not rosy in their camp. One Test match does not create that, we realise that," Flower said.

Shane Watson and Mike Hussey have been "very good for them so far" but the rest of the top order has been unconvincing, "and we will be looking to make the most of that in the next Test", he said.

Hussey is the series top-scorer with 517 runs at an average of 103.40 and Watson has made 293 runs. But Ponting has just 83 runs at 16.60 and vice-captain Michael Clarke has only made it into double figures twice.

Ponting also has injury issues after fracturing the little finger on his left hand in Perth.

The drop-in pitch for the Boxing Day Test is expected to be more favourable for Australia’s pace attack, but ground officials deny any skullduggery.

Melbourne Cricket Club chief executive Stephen Gough said the decision to use the alternative, greener, drop-in pitch was made before last week’s Perth Test.

"I’m glad we made the decision early," Gough told The Australian newspaper.

"I’d hate to think if we released it after Perth whether anyone would think we were up to something. I’m not surprised with the conspiracy theory, given the success in Perth."

The Australians have won four of their last five Ashes Tests at the MCG, where officials are forecasting a record single-day crowd on Sunday in excess of 91,000.