A game of fractions and moments
Denouement still awaits this Test, and who knows what twists lie in store, but it has been a great match already. Compared to yesterday's thrill-a-minute proceedings, it was a sedate day, but while explosive drama was missing, the day didn't lack in plots. Just when Australia seemed to be taking a unshakable grip on the match, England struck back with three wickets, and while the Australian lead is already substantial, this English side has shown the stomach for a chase. Tomorrow will be the most important day of this Test that already feels like a classic.
If Australia find themselves slightly ahead in this contest, it was due to a vital change in approach when they batted the second time. Like they had done on their successful campaign in India last year, they kept their ego in place and showed respect to the opposition and the conditions. The pitch, though never spiteful, stayed challenging all day and Australia knuckled down to the task unlike the first morning when they had looked overwrought.
No doubt, the pitch had a bit more zip yesterday and the Australians had ran in to Stephen Harmison at his menacing best, but equally, the Australian batsmen had betrayed an anxiety to establish early control which reflected in some of their shot selection. Today, their batsmen allowed their nerves to settle, they saw off Hamison, battled through a period when Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff were bowling potentially wicket-taking balls and then took advantage when England were forced to go on defensive. It was Test-match batting of the highest order. They ended up scoring at nearly four an over, but there was little violence in it till Michael Clarke grew impatient with the off-side cordon and gave his wicket away. And as it often happens with a partnership, one wicket led to another.
Cricket is a game of fractions and moments and most great deeds are achieved when the mind stays focused in the moment. From the moment Kevin Pieterson decided to take on Glenn McGrath, England scored 55 runs in 43 balls. McGrath, who had given away 21 runs in 13 pin-point overs yesterday, conceded 15 in one chaotic over without straying in length and line. McGrath's five overs this morning cost him 32 and included five fours and a six. Simon Jones and Stephen Harmison, who had nothing to lose, then added 33 in 4.3 frantic overs and it was the second-biggest partnership of the England innings. There was no complication in thinking, only a clarity of purpose.
But even the worthiest of competitors will tell you that it is not a task easily achieved. Throughout this summer, Mathew Hayden has been the personification of a player battling with an uncertain mind. Not so long ago, he had an intimidating aura about him in the crease, taking guard a couple of feet outside the crease to fast bowlers and advancing further down the wicket to assert his utter dominance. At such moments, not only did he look invincible, but he made his opponents look insignificant. Since arriving in England this season, he has managed to cross fifty only once against an international attack, that too against Bangladesh. He has been pinned back by bowlers who have had both pace and accuracy. He did try his best to erase the memory of the knock on his head by attempting to pull every short ball directed at him. He managed to put a couple away, but mistimed several and finally, almost inevitably, perished to one.
Clarke and Martyn them what calm can achieve. They batted beautifully, with grace and poise, with style and panache. Clarke dominated the partnership with a flurry of boundaries against Matthew Hoggard and a spectacular assault against Ashley Giles, but it was all done with an assurance which has been lacking from the Australian batting all summer.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine