Another bit of the jigsaw fell into place for England yesterday. It has been as straightforward so far as those chunky 10-piece puzzles for four-year-olds. The worry persists, of course, that by the time the Test series against Australia arrives – only 11 days now – it will have transmogrified into one of those 1,000-piece types which start so well round the edges and then remain an unfilled mystery.
Alastair Cook became the latest to slot neatly into position, ending a poor start to the tour by scoring an unbeaten century on the third day of the match against South Australia. He and captain Andrew Strauss, who scored his secondfirst-class hundred in successivematches, shared an opening partnership of 181. It was disconcertinglyelementary. The bowling was, as they say in these parts, ordinary, and the tourists' openers were in the mood to capitalise. Strauss was imperious at times and Cook, having compiled his first 50 in determinedly studious fashion, fairly cruised to three figures in another 49 balls. He hit 19 boundaries.
Shortly after England's declaration at 240 for 1, rain intruded to make academic South Australia's initial pursuit of 308 from 65 overs. The match ended after 21 overs with South Australia on 48 for 2.
In their dreams, England could not have wished for a smoother start to this intensive campaign. They should be further heartened by the fact that the two state sides they have encountered have provided fairly limited opposition. It is generally recognised that Australian cricket has greater strength in depth at all levels than in England but neither Western nor South Australia have given much credence to that theory in the past week.
Australia A, however, are likely to provide a sterner examination in Hobart next week. While it might be tempting for England to play their fringe players, they seem of a mind to resist, at least in the batting department. Strauss said that while there was a case for everybody having a game, it was important to prepare the likely Test team as well as possible.
"We have to be a bit cold-hearted about it," he said. "If there are injuries later on, players will have to come in and do as best they can." That seems to indicate that most, perhaps all, of the batsmen will have another outing in Tasmania. As Strauss pointed out, not quite everything has gone England's way. "Our batting could have gone better, certainly in the first innings of both games," he said. "In Australia you set up the game by how you bat in the first innings. We will be looking for big first-innings scores and we haven't done that quite as much as we should have done. But I'm happy that the batsmen have all had good time at the wicket."
The bowlers will be treated differently. Although it is yet to be officiallyconfirmed, it is probable that the three seam bowlers certain to play in the Test – Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn – will travel early to Brisbane with the squad bowling coach, David Saker, to acclimatise themselves to the humidity.
Australia A will view next week's match as a double opportunity. First, they will wish to undermine England on the eve of the First Test, secondlythere are places up for grabs in the national team, if not for the opening match then sometime soon. There is a stability about England which used to be Australia's preserve.
Australia are announcing their squad tomorrow in an outdoor ceremony at Sydney Harbour. It promises to have the trappings more of a showbiz event than the simple publication of a cricket XI, but it is a mark both of the aura surrounding this series and the perceived need for cricket to be seen as showbiz. There are likely to be 16 names, which may not take anybody much closer to their starting XI in Brisbane.
England's declaration in Adelaide yesterday was a declaration of intent: they wanted to win. Anderson bowled with venom to take two wickets, Jonathan Trott helped by taking a blistering diving catch at mid-on. The picture is by no means complete but it is taking shape in a much more composed manner than on recent tours to this neck of the woods.