SOMETIME around the middle of the afternoon an awful hypothesis occurred. It was that no-one in Australia can bat anymore. On a perfect summer's day, on a blameless pitch at the world's greatest sports arena, they imploded.
The tourists' first innings in the Second Test of the Ashes series was a catalogue of carelessness, neglect, farce and plain stupidity. Perhaps they were overawed by the surroundings and the occasion, perhaps England's bowling was so relentlessly probing that they felt there was nowhere to go.
But the assertion, repeated like a mantra, that everything is hunky dory in their dressing room looked just a little wide of the mark. In being bowled out for 128 in under four hours they demonstrated the durability of mayflies and the rigour of truants.
Graeme Swann took five wickets in an innings for the 16 time and the second at Lord's. Incisively as he bowled, he could not have asked for more help from Australia had he approached them with a begging bowl saying he was down to his last wicket, guv'nor, and needed some help urgently.
In the evening of the second day of the match, sponsored by Investec, England compounded the high jinks by contriving to lose three wickets in their second innings. Could anyone anywhere bat anymore? The Test is moving along at a rapid pace which is belying a blameless pitch.
England extended their lead to 264. Nothing is impossible in cricket but for Australia to win and level the series would not only take a monumental comeback but also require England to play for two days with a similarly cavalier attitude.
It was so blatantly wretched that some people were probably calling for the dismissal of the coach. But Australia have already tried that once on this tour.
The litany of disaster embraced miscalculated strokes, misuse of the review system, mistimed running between the wickets and an incomprehensible change to the batting order. To suggest that these were schoolboy errors is a calumny. Just William was smarter than this and had a much straighter bat.
The day started wonderfully for Australia and they must have felt then that they were well in the match. They took a wicket with the first ball when the exemplary Ryan Harris moved one up the slope which Tim Bresnan edged behind.
Things started to go slightly awry after the removal shortly after of Jimmy Anderson when, by common consent, England were still around 100 runs short of what they might have expected given the blissful conditions. For the third time in the series, the tenth wicket pair made a nonsense of their status.
Swann and Stuart Broad sensibly went for their shots, hitting through the line and driving jauntily away to add 48 from 40 balls. It was annoying for Australia, as these late flurries inevitably are, but hardly a portent of what was to come.
Indeed, their opening pair, Shane Watson and Chris Rogers started with such assurance that they looked determined to keep England in the field until tomorrow. The catalyst for all that followed came in the last over before lunch when Watson was lbw to a ball from Tim Bresnan which moved in at him and beat him as he played across his front pad.
Instead of accepting the verdict, Watson decided to review it. To general expectation the replay showed that the ball was indeed hitting the stumps about halfway up. Watson had to go.
The gravity of his appeal became truly apparent only when Chris Rogers received a waist high full toss from Swann, the ball slipping from the bowler's hand. Rogers, eyes doubtless on stalks at this tasty morsel, swung across the line, missed and was hit in the groin.
Umpire Marais Erasmus upheld England's appeal and Rogers, probably realising that Watson, had already used up one of the two reviews, turned and went. Replays showed the ball was missing leg stump by several inches.
The mood was now set. Phil Hughes, coming in at four when he had done well at six at Trent Bridge, flailed wildly outside the off stump and reviewed the decision for a catch behind when the wretchedness of such an ill-conceived shot alone should have persuaded to keep his counsel. Usman Khawaja, the new number three, having been dropped at slip off Swann, launched into a drive and was caught high at mid-off.
Then, Steve Smith, in at six instead of five, was sharply held by Ian Bell at short leg, Michael Clarke, returning to the relative comfort of number five, was lbw to a peach of from Broad, going with the slope.
But nothing embodied the mess more than Ashton Agar's dismissal. When Brad Hadding nudged a ball to square leg, Agar set off fir a run in which his partner showed not the slightest interest. Agar kept coming. Matt Prior scurried across and threw the ball to the bowler's end where Jimmy Anderson whipped off the bails.
Twenty years ago on this ground, Australa made 632 for 4 in their first innings. The top three all made hundreds, the number four 99 and the next man in another fifty. To play in the shadow of a side that has achieved so much is difficult for lesser players but this was a limp approach to the playing of Test cricket which undermined a valiant bowling effort, not least by Harris who became the 22 Australian to take five wickets in an innings in an Ashes match at Lord's.
All that was left for Australia to do was to restore some dignity. This they managed with distinction in the evening sunshine. Peter Siddle steamed in as usual from the Pavilion End and induced both Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott to play on to their stumps with rather wooden shots. Kevin Pietersen played a bizarrely loose drive to point and no day could have made a more trenchant statement about the general state of Test batsmanship.