England v Australia, 2nd Test, Edgbaston, 1st day August 4, 2005

England's chancers miss a trick

Andrew Flintoff: his first fifty against Australia, but never entirely convincing © Getty Images

Cricket. Bloody hell. For the second time in a fortnight, the opening day of an Ashes Test contained more thrills, spills, twists and turns than one could reasonably expect in the course of a full five-day battle. By the time the rain arrived to dampen England's ardour - just as they were about to fling their all into five full-throttle overs - there were runs on the board, Australia had wickets in the bag, and the crowds could go home happy, albeit utterly bemused by what they'd just witnessed.

A late wicket would have been the perfect finale for England, but from their point of view, the ball of the day had already been bowled. When Glenn McGrath ricked his ankle while stepping on a stray cherry in Australia's pre-match warm-up, the façade of fear that had been erected during the Lord's debacle was torn down in an instant. Shorn of their attack leader, Australia's remaining seamers were exposed for what they truly are - competent, persevering and occasionally incisive, but genuinely lacking any semblance of greatness.

For that very reason, England's eventual total of 407 actually seems a little guileless. Like a gang of pikey chancers, they couldn't believe their luck at sneaking into the warehouse behind the guard dog's back, but instead of making off with the goods in a calm and orderly fashion, they decided to whoop and yell and holler, and got themselves evicted anyway. Tellingly, this was the first time England had scored 400 batting first against Australia since 1987-88, but times they have a-changed since then, and not just in terms of the balance of Ashes power. Only 10 home Tests ago, at The Oval in 2003, South Africa racked up 484 in a day-and-a-half ... and ended up being thumped by nine wickets.

But if England's performance smacked once again of bravado, then so too did Australia's reaction to McGrath's misfortune. Though the stats suggest that bowling first at Edgbaston is the way to go, the state of the series - and the uncertainty surrounding both the rain-damaged pitch and, let's face it, the Australian attack - suggested otherwise. But, in a distant echo of the manner in which England have stood by Ashley Giles, Ricky Ponting backed the men at his disposal to do a job. Never has sentimentality proved so thrilling.

Talking of Giles, he produced a typically Gileish 23 - an invaluable contribution to England's third wave of run-making, after their two slumps at lunch and tea. But, for all the bickering this week, the issue has never really been about Giles at all - he does a job, he always does a job. The debate is more about the imbalance higher up the order, specifically in the No. 6 slot, where Andrew Flintoff once again looked out of his depth.

Kevin Pietersen: looking like a real batsman © Getty Images

That is perhaps a harsh judgment on a man whose partnership with Kevin Pietersen was the defining image of the day. But for all the obvious similarities between the two - their yellow ear-guards, their love of the leg-side, the sheer brute-force of their strokeplay - today was the first time they have batted alongside one another for any length of time, and the differences between the two were just as striking.

Their technique against Warne was a case in point. Both were equally capable of clearing the boundary rope, but Pietersen's approach was all about soaking up the pressure as and when it was created - three dot-balls in a row, then a nudge off the hips to rotate the strike. Flintoff, by contrast, was all or nothing. Picking the gaps has never been his forte - his idea of a quick single is still a mishit lunge that evades a fielder. Therein lies the difference between the genuine batsman that Pietersen is proving to be, and the bowling allrounder that Flintoff - at the very highest level - is proving to have become.

Given the immense stroke of providence that struck before the start of play, it's little wonder that Flintoff and his mates were able to cash in with Lady Luck. Marcus Trescothick was caught off a no-ball and Andrew Strauss was dropped at slip, after which the pair batted with such cool assurance that it was just like watching 2004 all over again. Shane Warne's delicious ripper to end Strauss's stay ought to have been a reminder that liberties and Australia should never be paired together, but somehow the message failed to sink in. Even so, Warne needed all of his wiles to buy four wickets on this surface - all the more evidence that Australia erred in denying him last use.

In short, England's wickets were frittered away and a total that might have been 550 and more with a bit of top-order application ended up being substantial but not quite a full portion. But, seeing as they doubled their Lord's tally - and more - in less than a full day's play, there can be little genuine cause for complaint.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo