Peter Roebuck: Aussies stutter as underdogs do best to depart from script

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The Independent Online

An underprepared England have played well enough here in Sydney to suggest they might belatedly produce a performance worthy of the world's second-ranked side. Presented with the challenge of retaining the Ashes, the tourists crumpled. Facing ignominy in the form of overwhelming defeat, they have rallied.

When the England lower order went to pieces for the umpteenth time, it did seem the same old story might be told. Although the pitch was still helping pace bowlers armed with a new ball, England's 291 did not seem likely to extend an order bulging with heavyweights.

But rather than batting with the anticipated authority, Australia stuttered along, allowing their opponents back into the match. A succession of batsmen came, contributed and departed, none of them falling to the sort of deliveries that bear the mark of doom.

After breaking his duck with a crisp hook, Justin Langer unfurled several sumptuous strokes, driving daringly past mid-off and opening his wrists to glide a ball behind point. In the space of a few deliveries he had used the broadsword and the epée.

Hereabouts the thought occurred that Langer might mark his last Test match with a hundred. Since he had dropped three slip catches he needed to reach three figures merely to square his account. Instead he fell foul of the sort of misfortune that irritates willow wielders as a flick off his hip ended up in the keeper's gloves. Batsmen of all descriptions dislike losing their wicket meekly. Red-blooded types, whose spare time is spent in boxing rings, consider it a mark of dishonour.

Matthew Hayden did not settle. Although he has scored heavily in recent weeks, he has not been as commanding as in 2005-06. Not that he looked like getting out till he reached for an errant delivery that deflected from the bottom of his bat into the hands of an alert slip. Hayden departed with the air of a man against whom the fates had most unkindly conspired.

Ricky Ponting was likewise taken after the hard work had been completed. He was responsible for his own downfall. After tea he produced two of those signature pulls that reduce the area in which a bowler can safely land the ball, bringing to mind medieval executioners who did not merely hang the condemned, but also drew and quartered the breathing body. And then he embarked on a risky run that cost him his wicket. Michael Clarke likewise did not impose himself.

And so the day wandered along, searching for direction. The first hour belonged to Australia. The last hour belonged to Australia as the new guardians imposed themselves. In between the visitors did their best to turn a predictable script into a page-turner.