Peter Roebuck: Golden trio hit flat first notes for swansong

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When Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Shane Warne reported for duty here yesterday they must have hoped to mark the occasion with something stirring. Always the dream is the last thing to desert a sportsman. Eyesight, pace, judgement, footwork, even wives, may leave them but the yearning endures.

McGrath must have imagined a scintillating opening burst, Warne a dazzling intervention, Langer a thrilling farewell century. Doubtless they pictured a blazing sun and a roaring crowd.

But cricket does not bend to the will of players. It is a hard, sometimes unfair game. More power to its elbow. Far from bringing the crowd to its feet, Australia's old sweats had to sweat hard to stop their swansongs going flat. Now they must fear that they will appear on the losing side in an Ashes Test match for the first time together.

Not that it was entirely their fault. Ricky Ponting's reluctance to set aggressive fields cost the bowlers several wickets as the ball flew unmolested through a sparse slip cordon.

Among the departing trio, McGrath had the most diverting day. England's decision to bat first gave him the chance to treat a large crowd to one last display of precise and penetrating pace bowling. Nor did he exactly waste his chance. However, he did not take any wickets in his first spell. In recent days he has beaten the bat often enough to test the patience of a mystic, a group that does not contain many shooters of wild pigs. Repeatedly the ball has landed on a length, changed direction and eluded a bat pushed forwards with the wariness detected in forks called upon to explore suet puddings.

McGrath's arm was high and he kept a tight length, but did not strike with the new ball. Appearances can mislead. His time is up.

Nor did Langer have a satisfactory day. His hopes of batting dashed, he found himself at third slip, a position usually as quiet as a city tunnel. Although he hurled himself around, he did not stop much and dropped a crucial catch.

Warne was unusually subdued, placing pessimistic fields. A long-off was set for Ian Bell before the youngster had once chanced his arm. Nor did he summon his usual range of deliveries, relying instead upon his leg-break, a delivery dispatched with varying trajectories.

But cricketers of this calibre are not easily denied. McGrath struck in his third spell, fooling Kevin Pietersen with a surprise second bumper as the batsman tried to build momentum. He followed with a nipbacker that found a way through Bell's defensive stroke. Warne's efforts proved fruitless. Tomorrow is another day. It is the beauty of sport. The dream endures.