Australian angle: In the nick of time the real Australia stand up

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The Independent Online

Two moments from an eventful but abbreviated third day here told the tale. First came Brad Haddin's dive to clutch an outside edge from his counterpart, Matt Prior. It was a fine catch for any gloveman, superb for a bloke with a broken digit. Then, at the fall of the final wicket the Australians celebrated; and then trooped from the field with Mitchell Johnson leading the way. His fall had been Australia's fall. By the same token his rise and his team's rally were connected.

Although the local tailenders threw the bat with gusto towards the end, the Australians dominated the match. Two days of abrasive, gritty cricket were enough to quell an alarmed home outfit. Finally the batting clicked. Until the third morning, too, the pace attack was irrepressible. In the nick of time the real Australia stood up. Until the last ball of that devastating second day they hardly put a foot wrong. Marcus North's dropped slip catch stood out because of the company it had been keeping.

Australia's pace bowlers were outstanding. It's rare for every member of a quartet to be on top of his game. Bowlers are not trained musicians. Nor are they playing in drawing rooms. All series Ben Hilfenhaus has been the best of the bunch but even he surpassed himself. Running down the hill at Headingley can be unsettling. Hilfenhaus overstepped a few times but bowled with purpose, pace and conviction. His dismissal of Ravi Bopara was a corker. Against expectations he was greeted with a cutter, a variation the Tasmanian has been reluctant to try. Although the right-hander was unlucky, the delivery was spot on.

Steaming up the slope, Peter Siddle recaptured his lost accuracy. Any fool can plonk the ball on a length. A few can bowl fast. It's the combination that separates the Victorian from the pack. He is an unstinting cricketer and deserves his rewards. Stuart Clark brought experience to an attack still learning its craft. Mind you he was the worst offender as England's eighth-wicket pair cut loose, hastily abandoning his usual line and length. Still, it is unthinkable he could be omitted at the Oval.

Of course Johnson was the big improver. Convinced that he could only angle the ball away from right-handers, English experts had dismissed him as a hoax. Left-handers unable to bend the ball back seldom prosper in these conditions. Johnson began to wake up in Birmingham. As much could be told from his confrontations with the local batsmen – they were about as cordial as meetings between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Spared the new ball, blending hostile lifters and late inswing, he tore through the batting on a sunblessed second evening.

Now the antipodean think-tank needs to reflect on Johnson's preparations for the fifth Test. Australia have a 10-day break. Some of the players may benefit from a "smoko". Johnson needs to keep working. It takes him ages to recover from a spell in the paddock. Last summer he missed a couple of one-day matches and on his return could hardly hit the cut strip. Johnson missed a lot of cricket in his formative years and it shows when things go wrong.

Australia's batting was as sharp as the bowling. Admittedly a couple of the incumbents failed but that is the nature of the game. Certainly the home bowling was accommodating but that was hardly Australia's fault. Much could be told from the contributions of the less glamourous players. North was unflappable at six, Shane Watson (right) has been effective at the top of the order. Both were patient. North scored three runs in his first 75 minutes at the crease. After cracking his first two deliveries to the fence, Watson was content to play second fiddle to his captain. It was mature batting from a side desperate to build their own legends.

Of course the deed has not been done. England are bound to reconstruct a woebegone batting order. Presumably their bowlers will keep a more disciplined length as well. But it's hard to imagine the series undergoing a third seismic change. Not that Australia can relax. And even success has its headaches. Australia have won their last three Tests with an all-pace attack. Wither Brett Lee? Wither spin?

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