In both summer sunshine and under floodlights the prospect began to emerge yesterday of a long, long summer of toil and heartache for England. It was premature for tears in their ice baths last night but Australia continued to be relentless in their quest to establish a platform for a full-scale assault on the Ashes.
The third day of the First npower Test followed a similar pattern to the second in that two Australians were stubbornly intent on sucking the lifeblood from England. They were two different Australians from the previous day. Call it the vampirical approach to cricket.
After rain had delayed play for two hours the last part of the day was played under floodlights for the first time in a Test match in Britain. Never could it have been foretold that this landmark would be reached in Wales. England might have liked the chance for more of this since the lights were having little affect on the gloom – they actually managed to take a belated wicket, their first for 42 overs.
It seemed perverse that play was eventually abandoned for the day because of bad light. Only in cricket. By then Australia were 479 for 5, 40 runs ahead, by no means over the hill and far away but building up a lead that will be difficult to overcome. In those ice baths, England will have contemplated the need for early wickets today or the need for heroics.
Both the centurions of the first act of the tourists' first innings, Simon Katich and Ricky Ponting – or Count Ponting – were removed early enough in the proceedings to entitle England to think of parity. They were back in the game and if everything was not roses, it was not a dung heap either.
England had taken three wickets in 50 minutes. Katich had gone to the second new ball, undone by a swinging yorker from James Anderson which must have saddened Billy Doctrove to confirm as leg before, given his pre-disposition to decline all such appeals. Michael Hussey feathered a flat-footed drive behind to sustain a mediocre Test match run and Ponting himself, having reached 150 with nary the remotest alarm, got a bottom edge to Monty Panesar, which rebounded on to his stumps.
Then along came Michael Clarke and Marcus North. It was as if Clarke, the right-handed batsman, was playing Ponting to the left-hander North's Katich. As vice-captain of this party Clarke was the senior man and it was his controlled authority which set the parameters of the fifth-wicket partnership, ended only when he mis-hooked a short ball behind in what turned out to be two overs from the close.
North is a novice at Test cricket and although he made a hundred on his debut against South Africa last winter that can be offset by his having played without overwhelming distinction for five English counties in six seasons. Like the second-wicket pair, both men put a high price on their wickets.
Bad balls were summarily dealt with but good ones were either left or defended. They were both equally vigilant and neither offered a proper chance. It was classic Test cricket in its way, using up time, rotating the scoreboard and having in mind not only this match but an entire series. At no time did they forget the lessons handed down by Ponting as if on tablets of stone.
England, for their part, were largely bereft of ideas or substance. If they had plans (and they did) they did not work and their bowlers, on a benign pitch, were exposed. If it is too soon for tears, it is also too early for judgements but the indications so far are hardly uplifting for the home side. This was lacklustre, often inefficient stuff and not what was promised only three days ago.
Unless there is a second innings turnaround the ploy of using two spinners, held in such regard for so many months leading up to this Ashes series, looks doomed already. Both Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann had indifferent days and were not allowed to impose their wiles.
Panesar suffered from his usual lack of variation – England will have to live with that – but dragged too many balls short. Swann looked strangely diffident and started too many of his overs sloppily. This was Test cricket against Australia, unlike too many other countries and the difference between shopping at Tesco and at Harrods: no two for one offers. But the spinners were not alone in being disappointing. The seamers found their best-laid strategies foiled by Australian composure. It was the more commendable for its refusal to be disturbed by the early rattle of wickets, without which England would have been in dire circumstances.
The new ball was taken in the morning as soon as it was available and this time it was used by Anderson and Andrew Flintoff, a measure of Broad's poor form. This time at least, Anderson did not squander it and both Katich and Hussey were important wickets legitimately gained.
Ponting's departure was a surprise. It always is. It should have been just what England required but over after over, Clarke and North took the sting out of England. Clarke has repressed some of his natural instincts for the sake of pragmatism, but not all of them. He danced down the pitch to hit Panesar over the short straight boundary for six and to reach his 50 hit a full toss from Swann for four, repeating the stroke a little to one side the next ball. It was not hit-and-giggle cricket but it was intense in its application and a timely reminder what it takes to win matches and series. England, the feeling is, will have to come up with something cleverer and smarter than they have done so far.
There was some relief when Clarke was out with the fifth-wicket stand having raised 143 from 252 balls. Its pace said it all about Australia. They are rushing nothing but they know exactly what they want to achieve and they will take some disrupting.
Clockwatch: How events unfolded on the third day in Cardiff
*11.01am Third ball of the day cuts away from Simon Katich, goes through the surface and blows up a cloud of dust to offer England fresh hopes. Surely dust is not what they will turn to.
*11.32am The ritual of the new ball. England take it immediately, umpire Doctrove throws it to Anderson and then takes it back, realising he must wave it in the direction of the scorers in the fashion of a monarch to his subjects.
*12.43pm Monty Panesar bowls Ricky Ponting off a bottom edge and England are back in the match, with three wickets for 26 runs. Sophia Gardens look lovely again.
First session: England
*2.01pm Jimmy Anderson leaves the field, it is later revealed, to take on liquids, and does not return for 35 minutes. What was he drinking?
*2.16pm Michael Clarke dances down the pitch and drives Panesar casually for six over long off. He has twinkle toes and if he is free this winter could get a gig on Strictly.
*3.14pm Paul Collingwood enters the attack and gets his off-cutter to work. Confirmation that England's five-bowler attack has not come off and that Nathan Hauritz might have an affect on the second innings.
Second session: Australia
*4.10pm Heavens open. England resist temptation to perform rain dance, which on the evidence thus far may become a key part of their preparation.
*6.35pm The lights come on for first time in a Test in England. Glimmer of hope as Clarke feathers a hook.