For two days Australia were asked to do what so many believed was quite beyond them. They had to prove they had more than ghosts rattling around in what used to be the most formidable tradition in all of cricket.
They did it so well under the magnificent leadership of their captain, Michael Clarke, that in the evening sunshine last night it was England, who so recently let slide their status as the Test game's No 1 team, who were obliged to answer some biting questions of their own.
The most pressing one concerned their ability to respond convincingly to the first signs of serious resistance from the routinely discredited Australians. They had, after all, been expected last summer to reject South Africa's claim to Test cricket's highest ranking and then engulf a New Zealand rated no better than pre-Ashes fodder.
Last night, with the sagging body language that comes with an ever-increasing sense of futility, they had the invitation to step beyond the doubts which came with those conspicuous failures, real and moral – and also a new fear that all the talk of 5-0 and then 10-0 triumph over Clarke's battered team had left Alastair Cook and his men completely unprepared for anything resembling significant counterpunches.
Those blows continued to pound against English heads before Clarke called off the assault at 527 for 7 with Brad Haddin, 65, and Mitchell Starc, 66, looking as though they were capable of plundering the English attack, including Graeme Swann after his latest five-for achievement, deep into the night.
Clarke, of course, knows that he could easily run out of time at Old Trafford as he seeks the victory that would keep alive his hopes of averting a third straight Ashes defeat.
So, in the unswerving style of great predecessors like Allan Border and Steve Waugh, Clarke went to the heart of the matter soon after tea interval. It was the statement of a man who, you had to believe, would never in a thousand years have followed in the path of his England counterpart Cook in refusing to enforce the follow-on against the Kiwis under a canopy of rain clouds.
However, bold gestures in the end are only as good as your means of reinforcing them with bruising action and, if Clarke had enjoyed two of the best days of his career with beautifully controlled batsmanship, now he was stepping on to much more perilous terrain.
He had to believe he had the bowlers to support the brilliance of his own performance and those of team-mates Chris Rogers, Steve Smith and those late, cool adventurers Haddin and Starc.
Certainly, Clarke left no avenue unexplored in the early barrage of Ryan Harris, Starc, Shane Watson, Peter Siddle and, most interestingly, spinner Nathan Lyon.
Many in Australia felt that Lyon deserved better than his exclusion from the first two Tests, that his spin bowling represented far more menace than that of the batting sensation of Trent Bridge, teenager Ashton Agar. The early evidence supported that view, especially when Lyon forced Cook into an edge that would have completely replicated the earlier dismissal of David Warner if Clarke at slip had been able to hold his ground as well as Jonathan Trott when the ball flicked off the wicketkeeper.
But if Lyon troubled Cook repeatedly, if he suggested he might become a significant factor on a wearing pitch, the first killer touch came from a more familiar figure. It was the relentlessly combative Siddle, who ransacked England with a hat-trick in the last Ashes Test at The Gabba and was a key factor in making a dramatic fight of it at Trent Bridge a few weeks ago.
Siddle had Joe Root, the hero of Lord's, with a fine delivery which found the edge of Root's bat and required no reference to the seriously debased DRS system.
It was a breakthrough of heady potential for the Australians who bowled and fielded with the same intensity of concentration they had brought to the batting crease. Nor did the appetite of England's key batsmen for the scale of their challenge receive the most compelling endorsement when Tim Bresnan, a durable nightwatchman at Lord's, appeared in Root's place with still half an hour to go in the lengthening shadows.
The odds, though, pointed to an early call to judgement for the man who might have been expected to precede a weary bowler to the wicket, Jonathan Trott.
What wasn't in doubt was that such as Trott and Kevin Pietersen and the recently sparkling Ian Bell faced an unexpectedly severe examination.
The Australians could hardly have produced a more impressively seamless mood when they came into the field and that was hardly undermined when the nightwatchman fell, dubiously, after attempting a pull shot off Siddle, and then failed to challenge the decision that the ball had brushed against his flannels rather than his bat.
This was not the compelling reaction to the target set by Clarke and his men that Old Trafford, and all those who insist that the Australians are essentially incapable of winning a single Ashes Test, might have expected. Instead, it was foggy and irresolute, and the Australians have every reason to come to the work this morning with a light and optimistic step.
That would have especially been so if Cook had not so fortuitously survived a run-out scare in the last-but-one over. As it is, the Australians, win or lose, can draw considerable comfort from the fact that in the end they found the nerve and the belief to give themselves a serious chance of some redemption.
Timeline: How The second day unfolded at Old Trafford
11am BST: Australia resume on 303-3
Overnight rain disappears as captain Michael Clarke and Steve Smith return to the crease. Smith gets the day two ball rolling with a single off James Anderson.
11.44am: Dropped catch; Aus 331-3
Clarke survives a speculative attempt at a catch by Graeme Swann, the bowler throwing up a hand as he ducks Clarke's smash.
12.08pm: Wicket; Smith c Bairstow b Swann 89; Australia 343-4
An hour gone and England get the breakthrough – Smith lofting Swann out to a leaping Jonny Bairstow.
12.22pm: Clarke reaches 150; Australia 361-4
The Australia captain has again settled the tourists' nerves, continuing where he left off on the opening day as he reaches 150 – minutes after surviving a Tim Bresnan appeal.
12.26pm: Wicket; Warner c Trott b Swann 5; Australia 365-5
After entering the field to boos, David Warner is cheered off the field after edging to the slips.
12.40pm: Dropped catch; Australia 380-5
Anderson finds Brad Haddin's inside edge which carries to Matt Prior, who moves like a dancer but fails to keep hold of the ball.
1.01pm: Lunch; Australia 392-5
England have made the breakthrough but Clarke is still standing strong and Australia will be happy with their morning's toil. This series has a way to go yet.
2.19pm: Wicket; Clarke b Broad 187; Australia 427-6
It's the big one! Clarke is unlucky as he edges on to his stumps to give Stuart Broad his 200th Test wicket.
2.26pm: Wicket; Siddle b Swann 1; Australia 430-7
Suddenly it's England on the up. Swann bowls Peter Siddle as the batsman goes for the slog.
3.11pm: Haddin 50; Australia 479-7
Haddin steps up to steady an innings which could easily have been derailed, pinching a single to reach his half-century as the Aussies close in on 500.
3.13pm: Fifty partnership; Aus 480-7
To England's frustration, Clarke's wicket did not spell the end of the tourists, Haddin and Mitchell Starc doing a fine job.
3.40pm: Starc 50; Tea; Australia 507-7
Australia pass 500 and Starc makes his third Test 50, from just 53 deliveries – not so much keeping the innings ticking over as propelling it forward.
4.06pm: Failed appeal; Australia 521-7
Wonderkid Joe Root is given a try as the tourists bat on, and the youngster fails with an lbw appeal against Starc. The visitors may be thinking about declaring soon.
4.14pm: Australia declare on 527-7
The tourists take just 15 minutes after tea to declare, having finally enjoyed prolonged time at the crease. England pad up.
4.51pm: Dropped catch; England 17-0
Alastair Cook edges Nathan Lyon, the ball ricocheting off Haddin's pad, but Clarke can't reach it, leaving Cook to pursue his first big series score.
6.00pm: Wicket; Root c Haddin b Siddle 8; England 47-1
The hosts fail to see out the session, Haddin tempting Root. The Yorkshireman took 90 minutes – and 57 balls – in amassing that score.
6.18pm: Wicket; Bresnan c Haddin b Siddle 1; England 49-2
Just what England did not want – nightwatchman Tim Bresnan falling, somewhat harshly, to Siddle.
6.31pm: Stumps; England 52-2
Jonathan Trott survives a shaky edge as England cling on – Australia's day again and Clarke's side lead by 475 going into the weekend.
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