To and fro of dominance shows Ashes sides are perfectly matched

Possibility of an unlikely Australia win underlines likelihood of a tense series
Click to follow

Just because you miss the boat, you don't have to go ahead and throw yourself off the wharf. For much of yesterday, however, that seemed a pretty fair précis of the derangement shared by this inexperienced Australian team in the matter of seven days since Monty Panesar and James Anderson bobbed away to safety in Cardiff, using the white handkerchief of surrender to mop their brows instead.

The mutual metamorphosis in the meantime had been so extreme that it might have been more comprehensibly telescoped across the notorious interval of 75 years since England last beat the Australians here. By the gloaming, however, it seemed that the reversal of fortunes could conceivably extend to an act of sporting larceny still more bewildering than the one perpetrated by England in Wales. For you could seek far beyond 1934, and an arena that derives global mystique from the many deeds already witnessed here, and still find no precedent for an Australian escape to victory today.

One way or another, the exorcism of the home dressing room could be no perfunctory ritual. During this match England had seen the true purport of Australia's hesitation with the bayonet in Cardiff. The failure to finish off a batsman as feeble as Panesar might have been met with disbelief, on all sides. Here, however, the Australians had come to understand the matter as sooner a lack of belief. This is hardly an inveterate national vice, of course, as Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin would soon remind us. Even before their stand, the suspicion had persisted that the transformation from Cardiff – one that entitled England's own fans to wrest for their own use those placards bearing the reproof that "Only cowards pray for rain" – should not be taken too earnestly. After all, it could scarcely be attributed to Graham Onions, the one change among the 22 men gathered here. For both teams to have experienced periods of such heady dominance, in successive bouts, surely implies that this series will prove every bit as tense and attritional as 2005. Few neutrals with a taste for theatre will be raising any objections, if so, albeit the margin between the sides would appear to be blurred by several shades of grey.

Whatever happens today, both camps will bring their different concerns to Edgbaston. Australia are a new team but not an especially young one – with the notable exception of Phillip Hughes, who is 10 years Marcus North's junior. Both men remain inexperienced in this kind of crucible, however, and Ricky Ponting will be hugely indebted to his vice-captain, Clarke, for the felicity of his batting with his back to the wall here.

And to turn things round in South Africa last winter disclosed a nerve among these men for steeper odds than England could ever exact. The difference on this tour, of course, is that Hughes and Mitchell Johnson – ostensibly their new match-winners with bat and ball respectively – have looked a good deal more lost in St John's Wood than did that young British backpacker in the Blue Mountains. Moreover, the selectors who brought them here did so with a pretty extortionate brief. These boys simply have to come off. There is no reserve batsman to compound the pressure England's bowlers are applying to Hughes, while the talk is that Brett Lee, who offers precisely the blend of experience and menace so lacking in the Australian bowlers here, is unlikely to be fit for the three-day game at Northampton starting on Friday. Stuart Clark, himself considered short of rhythm after an elbow operation last winter, might redress Johnson's lack of control, but at a presumed cost in penetration.

England, in turn, know that the heavy feet of Andrew Flintoff, which again shook the pavilion windows as he came pounding in yesterday, are on very thin ice. As for Kevin Pietersen, it is hard to know where physical and mental unease meet in his scatty contributions to date. Then there is Ravi Bopara, yet to harness the natural gifts that might qualify him as a number three with commensurate gravitas. England will doubtless persevere with him, just as they did Ian Bell in 2005, though the latter may be wondering whether this should be a time to cash dividends, rather than make fresh investments.

As Andrew Strauss made clear, in summoning his team together for an earful before taking the second new ball, this attack cannot afford complacency. Flintoff was promptly wheeled out and asked to reprise a memorable spell before lunch, when he had stifled the reproaches of his own limbs in the adrenaline of his final Test appearance here. He has always put his body on the line in an alarmingly literal way, and there was something of Dorian Gray in the incongruity dividing the athlete who flung the ball down the wicket with such abandon and the old man who hobbled back to his mark.

By this stage, however, Clarke's gorgeous innings had taken him into territory so dangerous that Flintoff again seemed burdened by the responsibilities that have eroded his body – and statistics – for so long.

When North had been bowled through the gate by Graeme Swann, it had promised an end to all equivocation. Three of the four previous wickets could be attributed to oversights by the officials, while Ponting himself had been unlucky to play on. With North's departure, however, the crowd raised a sadistic cheer as the big screen showed Ponting seated glumly on the balcony. The cause was surely lost now, and the only realistic ambition for Clarke and Haddin was to lay down a marker. In a sense, the Edgbaston Test began here.

Gradually both sides perceived more imminent possibilities. After all, the inherent peril of the situation had always been that Australia could win more or less by accident, simply by meeting the unfeasible challenge of batting two full days. Sure enough, Clarke and Haddin stole every available run as if their nation depended upon it.

That, after all, is how Australia have prolonged this long lease at the home of cricket. These two men have shown that victory comes from pride, not the other way round – and the pride plainly abides.

*WEATHER WATCH

Cloudy, with scattered showers expected during the morning. Max temp: 2C.

*TV TIMES

Sky Sports 1, HD1, 10.00-19.00.

Highlights Five 19.15-20.00,

Sky Sports 1, 22.15-00.15.

*BET OF THE DAY

Andrew Strauss to be England's top run scorer in the Ashes: 5/4 (Coral).

Comments