England fly to Perth today with their precious unbeaten record intact. It may not sound much, a humdrum draw with a weak state side in a match marked by contrived declarations, but by the end of the third day the result was as cherished as the Ashes themselves.
That might be a little extreme on swift reflection but a defeat, as suddenly seemed possible by the afternoon of the last day when the tourists lost almost as many wickets as they had in the past seven days of Test cricket, would have made them distinctly less pleased about matters. They are trying hard not to talk about it – everybody else is – but they can retain the urn this week if they win the third Test.
Heading west in the wake of a daft defeat would not have squared with the invincible aura now bestowed on England by the Australian media while lamenting the parlous state of their own team. England hung on against Victoria thanks to a jaunty hundred from their wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, and a tenacious occupation by their captain, Andrew Strauss, batting down the order and determined that there should be no cock up.
The third Test starts at the Waca on Thursday and while a defeat might not have derailed an entire campaign immediately, defeat is never good for the sportsman's soul. Whole kingdoms can be lost for the want of a nail.
"Going into lunch we were losing the game," Prior said. "Winning is a habit and it's a habit you want to protect. If we had lost today there would have been some very disappointed people. You can't take a good run for granted and sometimes you have to dig in and make sure you continue that run. We were hell bent on getting through the day. It meant for attritional cricket which wasn't pleasant for anyone but it was important we got through with a draw."
England finished on 211 for 6, 100 short of their target which had been more or less prescribed between the captains Strauss and Cameron White. The chase was affected not only by the unseemly loss of wickets – it was like watching some team from the distant past of five weeks ago – but by the regular stoppages for rain. It was one of those typical Melbournian days: warm and balmy one minute, cold and stormy the next.
After an overnight declaration which had been determined after some old fashioned declaration bowling – Strauss took the third wicket of his career with his left-arm Chinamen – England must have fancied their chances of winning their fourth match out of six on tour.
But the unusual recent sight of Alastair Cook departing early when he chopped on led to a flurry of wickets. Four had gone before an early lunch was taken, two more went soon afterwards. There was no doubt an element of lethargy creeping in. Playing before a smattering of people in a ground built to hold 100,000 can have that kind of effect.
The clatter enlivened dull proceedings as did the rare action by the umpires to remove from the attack the Victorian debutant Jayde Herrick for bowling high full-pitched balls, the last of which Ian Bell clipped for four. Paul Wilson, a former fast bowler who played one wicketless Test match for Australia in India 12 years ago, invoked Law 42, sections six and eight governing dangerous and unfair bowling and Herrick was off to the long grass for the rest of the match.
Prior, who had earlier been hit in the hip by Herrick on the full, enjoyed himself. With frequent use of the square drive and square cut he made his 20th first-class hundred, his first for England outside Test matches. Although the tourists displayed no aggression at all for the last 20 overs or so, his 102no still came from 145 balls. Prior is the sixth out of England's top seven batsman to make a hundred on this tour. The one to have missed out – so far, that is, knowing him – is Paul Collingwood.
The anticipated bowl-off against Victoria between the three pacemen, Chris Tremlett, Tim Bresnan and Ajmal Shahzad produced no strong evidence for any of the trio who are hoping to replace Stuart Broad in the England team, so the selectors will have to use prior knowledge in making their choice.
And so to Perth with the Ashes at stake. It is too much to hope that they can pull it off so soon and the team dare hardly think about it. They have been there before – last year when they went to Leeds knowing a win would mean the series and they lost abjectly.
"We're in a very similar position to 2009 and went into the Headingley Test looking far too far ahead, as an opportunity to win the Ashes and we came up short," Prior said. "We have got to take a lot of lessons from that and make sure it doesn't happen again. Yes, there's an opportunity, everyone will know about it, everyone will talk about it but as long as we don't talk about it and just go into the Test match and win every session the rest will look after itself."
They may not be talking about it but between now and Thursday they will be dreaming of little else.
The contenders: how the audition to replace Broad panned out
Of the three bowlers vying for Stuart Broad's Test place Bresnan was the only one to take a wicket in the tour match against Victoria. He is widely regarded as the most likely to offer the sort of control that Broad brings to the team but is perhaps less likely to produce the wicket-taking deliveries. Bowled 18 overs for 56 with four maidens in the first innings and 10 overs for 28 in the second with two maidens. Of the three is the best with the bat and hit 19 off 27 with two fours in England's second innings before being caught behind.
Despite failing to take a wicket against Victoria Tremlett looked in good rhythm and was unlucky with a couple of leg before wicket shouts. Probably bowled the most "wicket-taking" deliveries during the match and the ball came out at good pace. His height also allows him to get the sort of bounce that Phil Hughes, in the Australia side for the injured Simon Katich, dislikes. Tremlett had a catch dropped off his bowling in the first innings in which his 15 overs only cost 29 runs with five maidens. Second time around he went for 28 off nine. The favourite.
The Yorkshire bowler was keen and willing throughout the Victoria match but also failed to take a wicket. The slow pitch did not help Shahzad – the batsmen were able to get on the front foot too easily and stick the pad out and the umpires were clearly, and unluckily for Shahzad, stuck in "not out" mode. Shahzad Bowled 19 overs for 47 runs with six maidens in the first innings and seven overs for 28 in the second without a maiden. Of the three was probably the least impressive. Did not get a bat in either innings.
Melbourne (Second & final day of three)
Victoria won toss
VICTORIA First Innings 216-2 dec
ENGLAND First Innings
Friday overnight 50-1
Runs 6s 4s Bls
*A J Strauss c Carters b Holland 66 1 9 98
I R Bell not out 60 0 7 95
P D Collingwood not out 29 2 2 40
Extras (w 1, nb 1) 2
Total (2 wkts dec, 45 overs) 184
Fall: 1-39, 2-131.
Did not bat: †S M Davies, E J G Morgan, M J Prior, T T Bresnan, A Shahzad, C T Tremlett, M S Panesar.
Bowling: C McKay 10-4-24-0, J Herrick 12-2-51-0, J Holland 12-2-53-2, J Hastings 8-0-42-0, C White 3-0-14-0.
VICTORIA Second Innings
Runs 6s 4s Bls
R G L Carters b Collingwood 68 0 10 135
A J Finch c Bell b Panesar 45 0 5 74
A R Keath c Prior b Collingwood 46 0 5 78
†M S Wade c Cook b Collingwood 1 0 0 9
J W Hastings c Collingwood b Panesar 7 1 0 12
C J McKay not out 58 3 7 28
M W Hill lbw b Strauss 4 0 0 9
J M Herrick not out 40 2 5 19
Extras (lb 4, w 1, nb 4) 9
Total (6 wkts dec, 60 overs) 278
Fall: 1-72, 2-147, 3-163, 4-174, 5-176, 6-197.
Did not bat: *C L White, D J Hussey, J M Holland.
Bowling: C Tremlett 9-1-28-0, T Bresnan 10-2-28-0, M Panesar 21-4-83-2, A Shahzad 7-0-28-0, P Collingwood 6-1-19-3, A Strauss 4-0-51-1, E Morgan 3-0-37-0.
ENGLAND Second Innings
Runs 6s 4s Bls
†S M Davies c White b McKay 18 0 3 19
A N Cook b McKay 10 0 1 12
P D Collingwood lbw b Herrick 8 0 1 19
M J Prior not out 102 0 12 145
E J G Morgan c Wade b Herrick 6 0 1 10
T T Bresnan c Wade b McKay 19 0 2 27
I R Bell c Keath b McKay 17 0 2 29
*A J Strauss not out 22 0 2 65
Extras (b 1, lb 5, w 1, nb 2) 9
Total (6 wkts, 54 overs) 211
Fall: 1-15, 2-36, 3-36, 4-55, 5-100, 6-149.
Did not bat: A Shahzad, C T Tremlett, M S Panesar.
Bowling: C McKay 17-4-68-4, J Herrick 11.4-0-74-2, J Hastings 8.2-3-26-0, J Holland 10-2-22-0, C White 6-0-14-0, A Finch 1-0-1-0.
Umpires: G C Joshua & P Wilson.