Might Nathan Hauritz have the last laugh? Oh sweetest of ironies! Is it possible that the home batsmen will walk to the crease with two hundred runs to recover, the weight of the world on their shoulders and a scorned off-spinner teasing them with polite deliveries landing in the rough? His batsmen did their bit.
It has been a long time since Australia batted with such sustained application. Ricky Ponting was superb. A particular satisfaction lies in watching an abrasive young batsman mature into an adult capable of constructing flawless innings. Let children retain their Peter Pans.
Michael Clarke and Marcus North built impressively upon the foundations laid by the second-wicket pair. Now it's up to the bowlers.
Before this match began debate raged about the merits of Ben Hilfenhaus and Hauritz and surprise was expressed that a half-fit Stuart Clark had been omitted in their favour. Few expected them to play any significant role in this match. Australia's chances depended on their new-ball pair, or so the argument ran. Contrastingly, England's attack was balanced and lively, or so they said (on this evidence they've spent too long dealing with half-hearted West Indian show ponies).
Undeterred, these unsung Antipodeans promptly outbowled everyone else on the park with the possible exception of Paul Collingwood. One of them turned it one of them swung it.
Although Andrew Flintoff was periodically a handful, Hilfenhaus has been the best speedster in the contest. From the outset he swung the ball and kept a full length.
Had luck smiled upon him he'd have added Kevin Pietersen to his tally of two wickets. As it was he pestered the batsmen and removed Collingwood and Alastair Cook. Throughout he resisted the red mist that occasionally persuades him that life without bumpers is hardly worth the bother. He has a strong chest and plenty of intent.
But the Tasmanian's pace colleagues were off colour. Usually regarded as a direct and unstinting operator, Peter Siddle was wayward. His first ball in Test cricket hit Gautam Gambhir on the head. Sachin Tendulkar was his first wicket.
Bushies used to hunting possums and chasing kangaroos are not scared of anything. He'll be back.
Mitchell Johnson was fitful, blending the raging and the ragged. He is a fine bowler but a worse starter than pea soup. Both will improve as the series goes along. Still, assisted by loose strokeplay, they took wickets.
England's vaunted seamers just about held their own. Admittedly the pitch was as slow as a chloroformed tortoise. All the more reason to retain intensity. Discouraged by chilly winds, James Anderson did not swing the ball regularly, and he relies on swing more than "Count" Basie. Flintoff worked up a head of steam but lost pace as the day went along. Stuart Broad was erratic and on this evidence will be hard pressed to retain his place. Steve Harmison and Graham Onions will surely play at Lord's.
But it was the comparison between the spinners that raised eyebrows. Hauritz may lack venom but he is accurate, intelligent and adaptable. With the ball not bouncing, he relied on flight. Pietersen's observation that his pace was hard to read was ignored. Hardly once did the much abused champion step down the pitch to stroke the ball to long on.
Admittedly England's batsmen are not as quick on their pegs as Antipodeans. Australian coaches look downwards whereas their English counterparts think mostly about heads and shoulders. Michael Clarke was cat-like at the crease. Contrastingly the locals tend to favour sweeps and other contrivances.
Hauritz bowled well enough to justify his selection. Ponting was right to back him. And he turned the ball enough to have the local tweakers licking their lips. When the Australian innings began Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar were expected to create all sorts of problems. Instead they were ineffective. Swann bowled off the back foot and lacked menace. He also delivered several full-tosses.
Panesar was milked for singles. His inability to keep a batsmen in his sights reduces his impact. Maybe spinning coaches are to blame (they've been unproductive in Australia). As the Bard observed, in trying to improve things "oft we mar what's well".
Now it's up to Hauritz. The batsmen will be under the pump and, as Collingwood's cutters confirmed, the pitch is not a complete dud.
Alec’s Ashes: Facts from the front line
The largest victory in the Ashes came in 1938 when England won by an innings and 579 runs at The Oval. The homeside made 903-7 dec and then bowled Australia out for 201 and 123.
From Alec Stewart’s Cricket Companion(Corinthian, £16.99).
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