Ponting diminished without his trusty hook

The Australian Angle
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The Independent Online

An awful lot happened on the second day and not all of it smiled upon England. Although the scorecard remained balanced the fortunes of players rose and fell sharply. So far it has been a tale of the unexpected. It has been as much an examination of the brain as skill. Australia were sustained by two telling performances but also looked fragile.

It was all a reminder that cricket is a game played in the mind. Batsmen with liberated brains laid about themselves with intent. Colleagues worn down by worries prodded around. Overall England looked mentally stronger and fitter.

Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke were tentative. Pitted against probing swing bowling, the Australian captain concentrated on occupation. To that end he decided to put his hook shot in a cupboard. Everyone waited for the Poms to send down a bumper but they took their time. Sometimes it's wise to let the mind play its own tricks. Moreover, James Anderson was in the middle of a superb spell of bend bowling.

Ponting never did settle. Maybe giving away the hook upset the rest of his game, undermining the conviction that has sustained him. Clarke was likewise an echo of his usual self. By the look of things his back was sore. Clearly, playing him in this match was risky. His work against lifters was especially unconvincing. One bumper thumped on to his helmet and another produced a concerted appeal for a catch behind the sticks. He lost his wicket soon afterwards and departed with the air of a man not much surprised. With Clarke struggling, Simon Katich hobbling and Marcus North failing, the home selectors have plenty to think about.

But already this match has demonstrated how quickly things can change.

At first it might seem odd to include Michael Hussey amongst those with little to lose. After all he has been under severe scrutiny for 12 months. Eventually, though, the time comes to stop sandbagging. Hussey has reached that point. As soon as he came to the crease he looked the part. Over the years the pull has been his signature stroke. On song, he pounces on anything landing ahead of schedule. Besides bringing runs, the shot shrinks the bowlers' margin for error. Thereafter the pressure is on them. And cricket is primarily a game of pressure.

Hussey immediately began punishing short deliveries. Twice Steven Finn erred and twice the lefty cracked the ball to the boundary. Nor was Graeme Swann spared. Twice the tweaker dragged the ball down and twice the southpaw dispatched it. Of the 72 runs scored between lunch and tea, the manic southpaw collected 46. Besides his pulling, Hussey ran as well as ever between the wickets.

England will study the charts and realise they bowled too short. Allowing any batsman to score as many runs square of the wicket is a mistake. But Hussey deserves a lot of the credit.

Bowling also requires a settled mind. In that regard England have the edge. On previous tours their bowlers have fallen apart. Now the quartet remained aggressive. They were let down by poor execution. Except between lunch and tea, they did not maintain the expected standard. Anderson was dependable and periodically piercing, Stuart Broad dropped too short, Finn waxed and waned but England's redoubtable spinner was disappointing.

Sometimes mental strength is not enough. Swann's patchy performance reinforced impressions that he might find the going hard. Over the years flighty spinners have not been effective on antipodean pitches. Even Murali has been expensive. Mickey Arthur, the last coach to conquer this land, thinks that Monty Panesar's extra bounce might be more dangerous.

However Andrew Strauss is lucky in one regard. Mitchell Johnson is not his vexation. His team did not enjoy the best of days but Australia's troubles run deeper.