James Lawton: England still show their mettle on day of misery

If this was cricket carnage it had been created on a margin formed by a wafer
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The Independent Online

Now we are going to find out about Andrew Strauss's England. Not so much about their talent but how they operate while they are getting the hardest inspection of their careers. How they respond when they are asked, in an Australian accent, how good they really are.

The fact is that even if this First Test looks hopelessly lopsided in favour of some psychologically reprogrammed Aussies there are still, bizarrely enough, plenty of reminders of why England came here quite so full of themselves.

Jimmy Anderson, who lived through a nightmare while trying to swing the ball in his trademarked fashion here four years ago, has looked the thoroughbred whatever the scoreboard has said. Even the most battle-hardened wearer of a baggy green cap is ready to concede that so far he has gone without a sliver of good luck.

Most dispiritingly, he had the restored hero of all of Australia, Mike Hussey, a dead-to-rights lbw victim but only when his captain had run out of video referrals and had no way of overturning an incorrect umpire's decision.

His young team-mate Steve Finn was roughed up quite terribly at times by Hussey and his partner, Brad Haddin, but came through the ordeal with a stunning if slightly meaningless haul of six wickets. Graeme Swann was also required to recover from shell-shock. He did it by removing one of his principal tormentors, Haddin.

Nor should we forget, when measuring the impact on England of the stranglehold Australia exerted on the third day, that in the first innings England had three, maybe four batsmen who moved at least some way along the road later travelled so relentlessly by Hussey and Haddin.

Jonathan Trott, Alastair Cook and, most spectacularly, Kevin Pietersen all reached the foothills of a major innings and Ian Bell, quite beautifully, had achieved one before he went in a desperate search for late runs as the tail collapsed.

What it meant, even as Hussey and Haddin operated with merciless efficiency in the burning-hot afternoon, was that if this was cricket carnage it had been created on a margin formed by a wafer.

This, surely, has to be the message hammered home by Strauss, who became an expert on the fine line between survival and disaster when he froze over the first delivery of England's second innings, a beauty from the man who had sent him back third ball on the first morning, Ben Hilfenhaus.

Strauss survived a blow of horrendous timing that might have made any subsequent rallying call sound very thin indeed, but the challenge of making it was still facing him early this morning when he and Cook went out again to fight for some kind of foothold in this Test, and the rest of the series.

England's coach, Andy Flower, was also due back on duty after his operation on a melanoma that demanded immediate action, and perhaps his experiences could add a new dimension to the job of lifting any pressure his team feel over the scale of a challenge facing them on a mere cricket field.

Finding a sound perspective is certainly vital to England's chances of recovering the kind of nerve and momentum which brought them victories in the home series of 2005 and 2009.

They were a lost cause here in Brisbane four years ago when Steve Harmison delivered his first ball directly into the slips but Strauss needs to remind his players that England were also thoroughly outplayed in the 2005 opener at Lord's and in Cardiff four years later.

Five years ago at Lord's, Glenn McGrath was unplayable in one of the best pieces of seam bowling some of us have ever seen. Then, a few days later in Edgbaston, he stood on a cricket ball during the warm-up and England were alive again.

It is the kind of resurrection required here over the next two days if England are to keep the series level and put a little flesh on the bones of the belief that they have indeed made themselves an emerging force at the top of world cricket.

Hussey sounded an encouraging note for an English cause that may be far from lost, at least not in the long run. "They bowled very well through a long day," he said, "and they never stopped encouraging each other. To be honest, they maintained a very high standard of bowling, one of the toughest I've ever faced. At no point did we have an easy time."

Four years ago another Ashes-winning England could not disguise the fact they were falling apart at precisely this point of the tour. Now Strauss's team are doing, at the very least, a better job of hiding such a possibility. Who knows, by tonight there may just be evidence that it really isn't true.

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