England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 2nd day September 9, 2005

The elements balance the battle



Justin Langer: patience is Australia's watchword, but are they too patient? © Getty Images

And so the days and sessions continue to tick away. Three and nine respectively are all that remain of the 2005 Ashes, and on today's evidence, the Gods are adamant that every last drop of the available time will have to be used before they allow their masterplan to be unveiled.

"Gods", as we have discovered this series, no longer refers to the Australians, although from the curiously cocksure manner with which Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer accepted an offer of bad light straight after tea, they would have you believe they still have a hotline to the heavens. Can a side that desperately needs a win afford to be so languid in their outlook? With more bad weather predicted for tomorrow, England's uncertain first innings has suddenly gained in value.

Suddenly this is taking shape as an old-fashioned finish to the summer, with gradual jockeying for position taking precedence over the stampedes of the first four games. As far as Australia are concerned, urgency has not done their batsmen any favours at any stage - not even at Lord's where, had it not been for Kevin Pietersen's drop of the series, they might have been bowled out for a total little better than their first-innings 190. No, as Matthew Hayden personified in an agonising 96-ball innings, this time they are in for the long haul.

This was Langer and Hayden's 14th century stand in four years as a pairing, but to watch Hayden scrimp his way to 32 not out in the time it took Langer to make 75, it was hard to believe this was the same player who once hammered his way to a then world-record 380. Back in their halcyon days, he was like the blacksmith and Langer his faithful hound. Now, it was left to the hound to guide his stricken master through the most arduous days of his career.

A close-of-play score of 112 for 0 is testament to a job well done. Langer has been busting for a big score all series. Like Mike Atherton in 1993, he has been a constant source of succour for a failing batting side, but - largely because of the effort that goes into his grafting - always falling short of a landmark innings. This time he used Hayden's immobility as the anchor, and cashed in on the conditions and his excellent form. He deserves a hundred, and on this evidence he is unlikely to be denied.

Mind you, had Langer fallen to a sharp chance for Marcus Trescothick on 53, England would have been pretty satisfied with their truncated day's work. The errors that undermined their efforts on Thursday were highlighted by the ease with which with Ashley Giles and the tail stretched the innings into the realms of respectability, and so to limit Australia to a reply at a modest tempo increases their need for urgency as the game squeezes towards the final stages.

Not unsurprisingly, England missed their fifth bowler. Paul Collingwood was admirable in the circumstances - he forced the one clear-cut chance and consistently pushed 80mph, which bracketed him not far behind Glenn McGrath and Matthew Hoggard in terms of pace. But guile was something entirely different. Though Andrew Flintoff was starting to bend it through the air by the time the bad light came, Jones and his uncanny knack of producing unplayable deliveries was what was needed on this pitch.

Even so, there is something in the air - and not just that enticing aroma of Ashes glory. Australia never intended that their post-tea adjournment would be it for the day, but if the forecasts for the weekend are to be believed, there is more of the same and worse to follow.

England may have stumbled in perfect batting conditions, but Australia face the opposite task - batting perfectly in showery, seaming conditions that set a team up for a fall. There is no doubt that England were dissatisfied with their first-innings 373, but this game is not yet at the halfway juncture and there is plenty more uncertainty to come.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo