The Ashes are coming alive again. Australia spurned the opportunity to roll over and have their tummies tickled on day two and instead stood tall and proud to provide a brand of assertive Test cricket which they seemed to have left behind in their golden age.
Led again from the front by Michael Clarke as both batsman and captain, the tourists squeezed England dry on the second day of the third Investec Test. They forced their opponents to stay in the field until shortly after tea by which time they had accrued 527 for 7.
It was an imposing total and England had 32 overs left to discover how imposing. When it seemed that they might see it through safely to the end without damage, they wilted in the evening sun.
The loss of two wickets does not make their task of saving the match – and retaining the Ashes – impossible. Far from it, but they need another 276 runs to avoid the follow-on. That has to be their initial objective and they seem uncertain how most effectively to go about it.
Joe Root, the hero of Lord’s, had scored only eight from 56 balls when he hung back once too often to a ball from Peter Siddle that held its own and left him nowhere to go. Root had decided that it needed a long vigil to save the match but England have to find runs from somewhere.
Continuing their policy of having two nightwatchmen, England sent in Tim Bresnan with eight overs of the session remaining. He was out strangely (or perhaps it was perfectly ordinary in a match full of strange dimissals) when he essayed a needless pull at Siddle and was adjudged caught off a bottom edge down the leg side.
After a brief consultation with Alastair Cook, Bresnan trudged off. Replays showed that the ball had not made contact with bat but with thigh pad but England chose to sacrifice him rather than risk a review. The system is making everyone nervous now that it is a tactic as much as vehicle to overturn dodgy verdicts.
Had Cook been run out in the penultimate over when he and Jonathan Trott dashed for a needless single, England would have been deep in the mire. But the throw from David Warner missed by a millimetre. It might yet come to be seen as the most significant margin in this series.
Talk of a victory margin of 5-0 for England which had been rife in the week before the match has been stilled. It will take much more yet for Australia to turn this series around with England 2-0 ahead but the looming months when the teams will play a total of 10 Test matches no longer appear so foreboding.
No doubt the dry, benign surface helped Australia’s ambitions but they made a nonsense of the beleaguered state in which they entered this match. They had been categoric in their assertion that the way back into the series was to play in an attacking style and stayed true to their word.
It was vital that Clarke was not left to play a lone hand and nor was he as they rattled along at more than three an over. While he took his overnight 125 to 187, the ninth of his 24 Test hundreds to go beyond 150, his efforts were grandly supplemented by Steve Smith, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Starc.
Clarke and Smith, starting the day with their team on 303 for 3, took their partnership to 214, the highest for the fourth wicket in any Test match at the ground and for Australia in England since 1934. Those statistics will be scant consolation for Smith.
After being granted three lives early in his innings on the previous day he was within 11 runs of his maiden Test hundred. He was playing neatly and crisply. But it was all too much for him.
He attempted a reckless pull against Graeme Swann and sent the ball off a top edge high to mid-wicket where Jonny Bairstow was clearly elated to take the catch. It will be fascinating to see Bairstow’s reaction when he holds on to something truly spectacular.
In came Warner, rather more than a pantomime villain to the hordes who greeted him with a chorus of jeers as he made his way to the wicket. Warner clumped one four but was then immediately out in strange circumstances.
It was clear that he had edged a turning ball from Swann which went gently via Matt Prior’s leg to first slip where Jonathan Trott took the catch. Clear to all but Warner who instead of walking persuaded Clarke that the decision should be reviewed. If he thinks the camera lies the replay might have changed his opinion.
The incident looked odd, if not selfish and poor Warner whose reputation was already in tatters slipped further in the public esteem. The road back will be long and arduous.
Here was England’s chance to bring Australia’s innings to a swift end. But having dropped Clarke off a blistering drive to short cover early in the day they now allowed Haddin to escape when Prior failed to gather a bottom edge plunging to his left.
It was to be costly. Haddin, going for his shots, helped Clarke add another 63. Clarke looked set for his fifth Test innings above 200 when Stuart Broad found an extra bit of zest. Clarke had played several glides down to third man with the greatest of ease, but this ball rose at him and he could chop it on to his stumps.
When Peter Siddle was outfoxed by Graeme Swann, taking five wickets in a Test innings for the 17 time, Australia still refused to subside. Indeed, there followed the most entertaining batting of the match with Starc’s purposeful striking adding to England’s tired legs.
His straight driving especially was ferocious and he dominated the partnership, Australia’s fourth in the innings above fifty. Clarke called them in and then changer his bowling regularly and innovatively seeking a breakthrough. The ball is turning and so are Australia.