James Lawton on the Ashes: Classy Michael Clarke brings Ashes series back from the precipice

The Australian captain produced his credentials as a leader and batsman of superb skill

Old Trafford

Something amazing and, quite frankly, entirely uplifting happened and it wasn't merely that Australia had a surprisingly good day. They also carried a passing resemblance to, well, Australia.

The one, this was, that would no more turn their noses up at an uphill battle than at a tray filled with glasses of cold beer.

Times, and the balances of power, change, of course, but some things are constant. One of them is the pedigree of player of the highest class and it was Australia's great fortune that on the day they remembered how to fight in that old-fashioned way their captain, Michael Clarke, produced his credentials not only as a leader hugely praised by his predecessor Ian Chappell but also a batsman of superb skill and judgement.

When he stroked his way to his 24th century in 95 Test matches – and maybe one of the most vital in the history of Australian cricket – another heavyweight Australia captain, Allan Border, leapt to his feet in something which, for such a doughty figure, was suspiciously close to rapture.

It was a little bit as though a whole embattled sports culture had been brought back from the edge of the precipice.

No doubt such a belief remains hazardously fragile. Trailing 2-0, annihilated at Lord's in their last outing, Clarke's team still face the spectre of a third straight Ashes series defeat. There was also no doubt this was a good toss to win. However, it was also true that not only did Clarke, opener Chris Rogers and the impressive young fighter Steve Smith lay claim to the first day of a Test that had to be won, they also survived a couple of aggravating disasters that might have broken a force so close to competitive oblivion.

First there was the latest failure of cricket to exploit the value of technology properly, the outrageous endorsement by the television umpire Kumar Dharmasena of his on-field colleague Tony Hill's errant decision to pronounce Usman Khawaja caught behind. The naked eye said this was a nonsense, something which the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and Shane Warne hardly needed to overstate.

Then we had Graeme Swann's second victim, the admirable 35-year-old Rogers going within sight of his maiden century in only his fourth Test match. This was entirely in accordance with the laws of cricket but, unfortunately, it immediately followed the prolonged distraction of unsupervised movement behind the bowler's arm. Old Trafford's refurbishments glowed in the sunshine, but in this case the stewarding might have caused a frown in the seediest of nightclubs.

Rogers went in the manner of a seasoned professional, accepting philosophically one of those twists of fate which may well have delayed his arrival at the top of his game.

There was a wider issue, though, and it concerned the ability of Australia to absorb such setbacks without any sense of persecution. Unfortunately for England, it seemed to be the last thought on their minds.

England bowled well, outstandingly so at times. James Anderson came close to exciting an adoring home crowd. Stuart Broad might have claimed his 200th Test wicket at any time. Tim Bresnan reminded us of his often undervalued qualities when he broke the opening partnership with the wicket of Shane Watson at 76. Swann was never to be taken lightly on the hard pitch.

Yet this was indeed the day Australia called up their best qualities – and some of the best of their talent.

For a while their effort was reflected perfectly in the work of Rogers. Victim of a comic dismissal at Lord's, after showing much resilience in the opening Test at Trent Bridge, Rogers came with an uncomplicated mind and a perfectly marshalled talent.

It is one that will probably never light up the sky, but it had a glowing quality surely enough in the intensity of its purpose. He scored 10 fours in his 50 and by the time his momentum was halted when he reached 84, by a superb delivery from Swann at the resumption of play, it was reasonable to suspect that at least one great story was about to emerge from the shells and the smoke of a doomed Australian campaign.

When he went, 37 runs after the devastating loss of Khawaja, England had plenty of reason to believe that once again the whip had come into their hand. If it had, neither Clarke nor his young ally Smith were in the mood for the familiar lashing.

Clarke's duel with Swann was both pivotal and entrancing. The weight of Chappell's praise for Ricky Ponting's successor was to do with his aggressive instincts. Chappell said that Clarke, more than any other skipper in Test cricket, is most interested in shaping a winning position.

"Some captains think first of defending their position," he said, "but with Michael it is a case of looking for a winning advantage. He's been in a difficult situation but I think he will come through."

Clarke wore the acclamation of Chappell as though it had been fitted in Savile Row.

He was simply masterful, working the strike, hitting perfectly fashioned shots to the boundary and, in his shadow, his young accomplice slowly grew in authority. When the new ball came, England were like fighters who had been beaten against the ropes. They had fired some impressive blows, each of their bowlers had produced moments of quality, but their opponents had, as they say in boxing circles, come to fight.

They did it with a resolve that was, in all the circumstances, nothing less than stunning.

Today they will hope to continue at a reclaimed level of their cricket existence. A week or so ago such an ambition was almost beyond ambition. The Australians were broken, casting about for some hint that they might find, if not victory, certainly a degree of self-respect.

That came, most notably in the lovely stroke-making of their captain, and if it was a bad day for England they could surely afford one – certainly when it came with a huge lift for the good name of cricket's oldest contest.

Timeline: How the first day unfolded at Old Trafford

11am BST: Australia win toss

After calling correctly, Michael Clarke opts to bat as the tourists seek to save the series. Shane Watson gets them off the mark with a single off James Anderson.

11.35am: Failed appeal; Australia 35-0

Half an hour in and Watson comes close to a trademark lbw dismissal, Stuart Broad thumping into his pads. But he survives.

12.17pm: Rogers fifty; Australia 70-0

Chris Rogers cements the tourists' fine morning with his second half-century of the series. He reaches the target off just 49 balls.

12.20pm: Wicket; Watson c Cook b Bresnan 19; Australia 76-1

Watson has struggled to match his opening partner, and becomes the first to fall, prodding at a fine delivery from Tim Bresnan. Game on.

12.46pm: Wicket; Khawaja c Prior b Swann 1; Australia 82-2

Australia fume. Usman Khawaja remarkably given out on review, despite little evidence of any noise.

1.05pm: Lunch; Australia 92-2

The first break in play and that second wicket is still causing friction. Rogers remains unbeaten on 67, with captain Clarke at the other end on five.

1.56pm: Australia 102-2

Clarke brings up the hundred for Australia with a sweet off-driven four. England seek that third wicket to keep the momentum with Alastair Cook's side.

2.31pm: Wicket; Rogers lbw b Swann 84; Australia 129-3

Graeme Swann traps Rogers leg before. The 35-year-old will have to wait for his first Test ton.

2.50pm: Failed review; Australia 135-3

Swann is bowling like a dream and rips a ball back across Steve Smith. Review shows the ball is only half in line and Smith remains.

3.03pm: Clarke fifty; Australia 157-3

A boundary off Tim Bresnan brings up the fifty for Clarke, leading from the front. The under-fire captain is settling in for Australia's first century of the series.

3.31pm: Failed review; Australia 176-3

England claim that James Anderson had Steve Smith caught behind. Replay disagrees and that's all the hosts' reviews used.

3.40pm: Tea; Australia 180-3

Australia reach tea after a maiden, with Clarke on 55 and Smith going well on 20. England need more wickets before the end of the day.

4.16pm: Failed appeal; Australia 186-3

A vocal appeal by Stuart Broad is proved correct as Smith is hit plum leg-before, but England have no reviews left and it is Australia's turn to benefit.

5.10pm: Hundred partnership; Australia 229-3

Clarke and Smith have dug in where earlier in the series they would have struggled – third time lucky?

5.32pm: Clarke century; Australia 251-3

He wasn't just talking a good game, Clarke has displayed his class with the bat as well. The captain reaches his ton with a single off Swann.

5.43pm: Smith fifty; Australia 263-3

The milestones are coming with the frequency of the Manchester trams.

Australia get their third half-centurion of the day, Smith helping the visitors pile on the runs.

5.46pm: New ball; Australia 269-3

After a forgettable over from Jonathan Trott, England seize the new ball, but Australia hold firm and are well set to see out the day.

6.33pm: Stumps; Australia 303-3

End of proceedings and it's very much Australia's day. Clarke unbeaten on 125, Smith on 70 and England have to keep the champagne on ice.

Joe Ponting

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