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

The odd couple rediscover the magic

Little and large: Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden will resume tomorrow in what could be their final Test as a opening pair © Getty Images
Australia's most formidable opening combination has re-discovered its reliability at a crucial moment. The giants of the batting order have rarely stirred in England, but Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden stood at full height with their first century stand of the series against an attack missing Simon Jones and beginning to be treated like mortals.

Hayden has become especially tired of being floored by England's slingshots, and he proved he could subdue his dominating instincts in the national - and personal - interest. This was the type of innings that he has avoided during a run so bad this could be his final Test.

During the tour Hayden said he was too old to change his approach, but through his toughest moment he successfully back-tracked to an unfamiliar method. He was 16 when Langer had 65 and as the century partnership arrived for the 14th time in their four-year combination Hayden owned 25 to his partner's 70.

The big-and-small, salt-and-pepper duet, which is the second-most prolific opening couple behind Greenidge and Haynes, was again complementary. Purpose shown in their running between wickets was as important as the concentration ploughed into singles or Langer's two mood-swinging sixes from Ashley Giles. The huge calls of "no" from Hayden were similar to those yelled from the gate towards his childhood farmhouse; Langer preferred "yes mate" in a caring and understanding tone, another example of how strong their bond has become.

A partnership that began at The Oval in 2001 may also end in south London, but there were no signs of the uncomfortable shuffling at an airport farewell. The men embraced and smiled on clocking up 50 and then 100 - they have also carried opening-batting affection to record levels - and only looked awkward when offered the light immediately after tea.

Walking off initially seemed ridiculous when a lack of time could determine the destination of the Ashes, but with storm clouds rumbling there was only wicket-losing danger in batting at most for a handful of overs. Hayden had taken hours to feel comfortable and didn't need to waste such an important vibe. Australia will play better walking out without loss on Saturday.

Langer driving on his way to an unbeaten 75 © Getty Images
Another difficult opening phase was negotiated by Hayden with a couple of plays and misses and under-edges while attempting pulls, but unlike his previous eight innings he remained unflustered and unhurried. Cross-batted shots slowly started hitting the middle and even though they registered only singles he began to feel secure. A full toss from Paul Collingwood found the boundary and his best shot, a pull from Andrew Flintoff, came shortly before tea.

Langer's role was important for team and team-mate. His first full-faced blow came in the sixth over and he was soon running. The cut was productive and he moved at a reasonable pace until exploding in Giles's first over with 14 runs that brought up his half-century. Twice he charged and crunched sixes to mid-on and midwicket, treatment Australia fans expected of Giles throughout the series. There were more signs the momentum had shifted slowly to Australia: Flintoff misfielded to give Langer a second run for his fifty and three runs later was dropped by Marcus Trescothick, diving towards the area where a regulation first slip would have hovered.

The Ashes contest briefly appeared to return to normal. Hayden and Langer were in control, the covers appeared with predicted English rain and Australia were 112 for 0. However, the series scoreline remained at 2-1, they were 261 runs behind and more wet weather was forecast for day three. Each factor is a worry, but the health of Langer and Hayden provided Australia with a reason for cautious optimism.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo