James Lawton: Reality bites as Australia's granite will fires pursuit of redemption

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The Independent Online

Remember - and surely who can forget it - the image of "Freddie" Flintoff bending to console the fallen Australian hero Brett Lee on that astonishing Sunday of the second Test when England's ability to once again beat Australia in a match that mattered was a fact radiating across the nation like some monster sunrise?

Remember the standing ovation for Shane Warne when he claimed his 600th Test wicket at Old Trafford, and how, moved almost to tears - almost is of course a relative term - he waved his floppy hat in appreciation?

Yes, even while we have attacked them, we have nourished their finer feelings.

Warne, we have allowed, is a phenomenon of competitive zeal and imagination. His fellow 35-year-old, Glenn McGrath, is another legend still capable of springing deadly ambushes. If batsmen like Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer were living deep in personal nightmares of lost form and belief, they still had the capacity to build the foundation of a comeback victory. We kept saying all of this rather like apprehensive boys whistling in the graveyard, but did we really believe it would prove true after the great eruption of English cricket?

The question became academic here yesterday when most of a crowd of 23,000 stood staring at a glowering sky - and praying for rain.

All that brash certainty on the approach to this final Test match - all those conversations with the office of the Mayor of London and the Met Police about the staging of a massive celebration in Trafalgar Square - win or draw the series - came down to umbrellas waving as though they were so many white flags.

At first it was a confusing situation filled with mixed messages. For four hours the Australians had fought their way into a position to save the Ashes - an astonishing possibility after England's summer of growth and power with both the bat and the ball. Then, immediately after the tea interval, Langer and Hayden were invited by the umpires to return to the pavilion because of bad light. They accepted and it seemed that a large part of Kennington gasped with the purest relief.

For a little while there was bewilderment. How could the Aussies, so cold-eyed in their pursuit of redemption on the back of Warne's brilliant aura for the best part of two days, break off in their pursuit of an astonishing recovery?

Again you had to believe that it was another example of the Australian instinct to take all of the blows while preserving their chance of some great escape. Langer was 75 not out, Hayden 32 not out and Australia had knocked 112 runs off England's disappointing first-innings total of 373. If the weather forecast was discouraging today, there was a strong belief that Sunday and Monday would see long days of testing action after some sporadic play today.

So what did Langer and Hayden do? Did they wing it in the gloom, hope to continue the arc of Australia's growing ascendancy - and risk the loss of one or two wickets under an assault led by Steve Harmison, the man who first broke through Australian psychological defences in the first Test at Lord's with his bodyline assault on Langer?

Langer and Hayden decided to bat only under optimum conditions. They had fought for an advantage that might still permit the chance of a strike for victory tomorrow and on Monday. They had come from a place of extreme pressure and with 10 wickets standing Australia were in so much better shape than they could have hoped for when their captain, Ricky Ponting, lost potentially the most important toss of his career on Thursday morning.

That was how it was when pause came to the epic Ashes battle last night, and it was another extraordinary place for it to be. If Langer and Hayden had gone in a brief flurry of action before play was abandoned finally, we might have seen another swift change of momentum. It is not what champions like to risk, and certainly not encourage. They like the development of certainty over any contest, and that is what was happening when a blue sky slowly turned to grey.

Before the action, Langer's father revealed that when his son goes in to bat he lights a cigar and smokes it for so long as his boy is at the crease. Recently he could have got by with discarded cheroots in some Tijuana bodega but yesterday's ritual required a two and a half hour puff. The wise move for him now might be to lay in a supply of some of the best of Havanas.

Before this series Langer had the reputation of being Australia's ultimate grafter, a man of steely purpose and great patience. Yesterday he showed quite a lot of those qualities in subduing the early menace of Matthew Hoggard, but soon enough he was digging deeply into the confidence of one of England's key men, the spinner Ashley Giles.

When Giles, a vital component in England's gamble to pad their batting with Paul Collingwood and rely on just four main-line bowlers, was introduced by his no doubt concerned captain, Michael Vaughan, Langer's resolve was as brutal as an old gunfighter's.

He smashed Giles for two massive sixes and a total of 14 runs in his first over. Vaughan cleverly re-grouped, moving Giles to the Vauxhall End and having him bowl with the protection of much deeper boundaries at that end of the field. That briefly troubled Langer - and preserved Giles' presence in the match that will decide the Ashes.

However, when the teams walked off Langer was in control again. His jaw seemed to be made of granite and no one, least of all anyone English, was mouthing platitudes about the fighting instincts of the Australians as they went down. Kind words had become a hard reality.