Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer led Australia out here in Sydney yesterday for the final Test of their distinguished careers, and that was as good as it got for the triumvirate in the opening two sessions of the fifth Test. England had moved along nicely to 166 for 2 before McGrath, the gnarled old warhorse, highlighted just what Australia will miss when he is gone.
A restrained and responsible Kevin Pietersen, along with a watchful and patient Ian Bell, had attempted to ease the initiative from Australia's grip following the early loss of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook.
Pietersen's batting was unconventional at times but it seemed to be working before, on 41, he spliced a hook at McGrath and was well caught by Michael Hussey at midwicket.
In his next over the veteran produced a superb nip-backer that sliced through the defence of Bell and clipped the top of his off- stump. Bell had completed his fourth half-century of the series and he will be disappointed not to have gone on to score a hundred in Australia.
The double strike undid much of England's good work and gave fresh impetus to Ricky Ponting's side when they were beginning to flag. Andrew Flintoff and Paul Collingwood resisted Australia's surge, with the captain bravely taking the game to his opponents. The pair added 67 runs to England's total before bad light brought a premature end to play with the visitors on 234 for 4.
England made McGrath work hard for his wickets, yet he deserved his success. The 37-year-old's step may not possess the same spring as it once did and the body the same whip, but he is still a mighty fine bowler.
McGrath will have been disappointed to take only two wickets in Melbourne. He is an immensely proud and competitive man who wants to finish his career in style. McGrath will not want to be upstaged by Warne here, on his home ground, and the early exchanges tested his patience.
Langer dropped a straightforward catch at third slip and Strauss was fortunate to survive a very close leg-before appeal. And while Bell and Pietersen were playing and missing at him during the afternoon session one sensed that he was about to blow his top.
McGrath's tussles with Pietersen continue to make great viewing and England's new No 4 was doing his best to upset the bowler's rhythm by shimmying down the pitch and stepping across his stumps. McGrath will not have enjoyed the tactics but, on this occasion and on a pitch offering bounce, he got his man.
If a harsh coach were to look at Bell's dismissal in isolation, he would be critical of the gap between his bat and pad when he tentatively pushed forward. But in doing so he would ignore the superb bowling that took place before the error. Prior to the dismissal, McGrath had shaped several deliveries away from the right-hander. The strategy encouraged Bell to feel for the ball, a reaction that creates the gap McGrath exploited superbly. Bell will leave Australia with his reputation enhanced and only McGrath knows whether the delivery was intentional, but the more balls a bowler puts on a good length the greater his chance of success.
Warne had a quiet day but Stuart Clark and Brett Lee gave McGrath excellent support, and it will be fascinating to see how these two bowlers fare without two giants of the game.
England have received plenty of criticism for their inept performance in Australia, and rightly so. The selection of the touring squad, the preparation of the team and the selection once in Australia have been flawed, as has been the ability of the side to handle pressure situations.
Yet it is not all doom and gloom for England. Far from it. Despite the manner of the Ashes defeat and the patronising way in which the Australian media views the health of English cricket, Flintoff's side contains several players with exciting Test careers ahead of them.
In many ways it is Australian cricket which faces a more anxious future when the Test series finishes. Australian cricket followers seem pretty relaxed about the retirement of Warne and McGrath. They seem to assume that replacements will jump out of the system over the coming weeks. The Australian view is arrogant and unrealistic, because it underestimates just how great these two players are, and how impossible it will be to replace them.
Following McGrath's debut in November 1993 Australia spent more than nine years with at least one of the pair in their starting XI. The run came to an end against England in Sydney in January 2003. It was a game Australia lost.
Australia have played only nine out of 157 Tests without both Warne and McGrath since the fast bowler's debut. Four of these matches were against weak West Indies and Zimbabwe sides and each was won comfortably.
The remaining five Tests were played against England and India and the results - one win, two draws and two defeats - give a better indication of how Australia will cope when the pair have gone.
England's chances of avoiding the dreaded whitewash were dealt a major blow before the toss when Matthew Hoggard was forced to withdraw for the Test with a side strain. The injury, sustained in Melbourne, ended a run of 40 consecutive appearances for the fast bowler. During this period Hoggard has taken more Test wickets, 156, than any other seamer in world cricket.
Hoggard's absence will give James Anderson an opportunity to finish his tour on a positive note, and the Lancashire seamer will not have minded bowling on an overcast first morning.
Yet Flintoff, as he did in similar conditions at Melbourne, opted to bat on winning the toss. With the ball zipping and swinging around on a fresh pitch it initially appeared to be an incorrect decision. Survival was the first priority for Strauss and Cook. The pair were just about coming to terms with conditions when Strauss cut wildly at Lee and edged a simple catch to Adam Gilchrist.
Cook fell after the interval when a nipbacker from Clark found the inside edge of his bat and was well caught by Gilchrist diving to his right. The Australian wicketkeeper will go soon, but at least he will get the stage to himself.
First Day: How They Rated
Andrew Strauss 3
Disappointing shot in a disappointing series for him.
Alastair Cook 3
Needs to work hard on his front-foot defensive play.
Ian Bell 7
Stodgy innings, but showed he is prepared to fight.
Kevin Pietersen 5
Worked hard before being overambitious against McGrath.
Paul Collingwood 4
It is easy if he is at the crease when a player like Flintoff is there.
Andrew Flintoff 5
At last he seems to be finding form, but sadly it is too late.
Glenn McGrath 7
Deserved his wickets and there will be more to come.
Stuart Clark 6
Not his day, but it will come again soon.
Brett Lee 6
Continues to get better as the series goes on.
Shane Warne 4
Has nothing else left to prove, but watch out as match progresses.
Andrew Symonds 4
Gave bowlers a rest, but did not look like taking wickets.
Debate of the Day
If England are trying to win the game, should they have been more positive with the bat? No. When a team are 4-0 down in the series and have been bowled out for 159 and 161 in the previous Test, they are just looking to post a competitive score. It does not matter how long it takes to achieve. England would be happy with a draw.
Ball of the Day
Glenn McGrath probed away for 18 overs without luck before producing a beauty to dismiss Ian Bell for 71. The ball nipped back, flicked the inside edge of his bat and hit the top of off-stump.
Shot of the Day
Andrew Flintoff looked in his best form of the series during his hour and a half at the crease. A huge clipped six off Stuart Clark highlighted this. It sailed over midwicket and into a packed stand.
Moment of the Day
The farewells of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer are sure to become emotional and allowing the trio to lead the side out on the first morning was a nice touch. But the most rewarding sight was that of Warne playing cricket with his children on the outfield after the close.
First-day scoreboard from Sydney
England won toss; first day of five
England - First Innings
A J Strauss c Gilchrist b Lee 29
64 min, 52 balls, 3 fours
A N Cook c Gilchrist b Clark 20
88 min, 47 balls, 2 fours
I R Bell b McGrath 71
194 min, 153 balls, 8 fours
K P Pietersen c Hussey b McGrath 41
162 min, 104 balls, 1 four
P D Collingwood not out 25
93 min, 56 balls, 4 fours
*A Flintoff not out 42
85 min, 70 balls, 5 fours, 1 six
Extras (lb1 w3 nb2) 6
Total (for 4, 345 min, 80 overs) 234
Fall: 1-45 (Strauss) 2-58 (Cook) 3-166 (Pietersen) 4-167 (Bell).
To bat: ÝC M W Read, S I Mahmood, S J Harmison, M S Panesar, J M Anderson.
Bowling: McGrath 21-4-57-2 (nb2) (7-1-22-0, 8-2-23-0, 6-1-12-2); Lee 15-3-50-1 (w1) (4-1-12-0, 8-2-25-1, 3-0-13-0); Clark 19-3-54-1 (w2) (7-2-18-1, 7-1-14-0, 2-0-10-0, 3-0-12-0); Warne 19-1-59-0 (13-0-43-0, 6-1-16-0); Symonds 6-2-13-0 (4-0-13-0, 2-2-0-0).
Progress: Rain delayed start until 11.41am. 50: 71 min, 15.1 overs. Lunch: 58-1 (Cook 20, Bell 7) 17 overs. 100: 161 min, 34.2 overs. Tea: 149-2 (Bell 58, Pietersen 36) 52 overs. 150: 233 min, 53.1 overs. 200: 287 min, 66.2 overs. Bad light stopped play 6.29pm.
Bell's 50: 149 min, 108 balls, 6 fours.
Australia: J L Langer, M L Hayden, *R T Ponting, M E K Hussey, M J Clarke, A Symonds, ÝA C Gilchrist, S K Warne, B Lee, S R Clark, G D McGrath.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and B F Bowden (NZ).
Match referee: R S Madugalle (S Lanka).
TV replay umpire: P D Parker.Reuse content