Australia tough like 1989
Cardiff's battle for English hearts and minds, a fight that they were winning hands-down after a sceptic-crushing display during the first half of this Test, was quite possibly completed in the most perverse of circumstances on the third afternoon. Thanks to a timely dose of Welsh mizzle, Australia's serene progress was stymied just as it was threatening to become decisively dominant, and the late-evening removal of Michael Clarke redressed the balance significantly. Arguably, not since the Oval Test of 2005 have England's fans been so grateful for a break in the action.
Funnily enough, Andrew Flintoff found himself evoking the spirit of that very contest when England left the field at the end of a dispiriting second day's play. Though they responded after a fashion and improved upon yesterday's effort of one wicket in 71 overs by claiming four in 67 today, in terms of inspirational rallying cries, Flintoff - like England - found himself comprehensively trumped by the most influential figure in the Australian dressing-room.
Ricky Ponting is now on his fourth tour of England - the rest of this team musters five Ashes tours between them. By all accounts, his pre-series address to his troops brought the house down, as he put into his own words what it means to compete in the Ashes. In so doing, he recalled how his own uncle, Greg Campbell, was selected for the legendary 1989 tour, and made his debut during the first Test at Headingley that set in motion a decade of English drubbings.
It is that 1989 series that most readily springs to mind now, with Ponting elevated to Allan Border's uber-veteran role, after a performance of raw Australian determination that has left England struggling to dredge up the requisite response. It just goes to show that all the hype in the world counts for nothing if hype is all it actually turns out to be. By the time they reluctantly resumed play under the floodlights, England's peculiarly ultra-white kit made them shine like a team of innocents, all too easily manipulated by their down-and-dirty opponents.
"We certainly didn't hit our straps yesterday, whether it was nerves or what, I don't know," James Anderson said, "but we were pretty disappointed with the way we started. But we thought about it overnight, and today we bowled a lot better. We got a lot more rhythm, and were maybe a bit more relaxed, and we asked more questions of the batsmen as well."
Nevertheless, the brumbies had bolted by the time England tightened their lines. In a desperate deviation from their intended pre-match strategy, England's best new-ball bowling was once again left to the ever-willing Flintoff, the man who ought to have been tearing in for short old-ball bursts to shock a dented middle order. Their best spinner, bizarrely, was Paul Collingwood, who spat a brace of offcutters straight out of the rough and away for four byes. And though Anderson and Stuart Broad claimed three of the day's four wickets between them, it was their pairing - and England's batting inadequacies - that lay at the root of their problem.
"They're very tired after spending two days in the field," said Michael Clarke, in a statement that needed only a "there, there" for good measure. In fact, Anderson ended up leaving the field suffering from dizziness - and what would Border have made of that show of weakness? "I just felt a bit lightheaded, so I got more fluid and food on board," he said. "We're only two days into an Ashes series, so we're still feeling pretty fresh. You're going to get long days in Test cricket."
On this evidence, England better get used to them. After Ponting and Simon Katich had carried their second-wicket stand to 239, the only surprise in the entire day's play came when Ponting, in a rare moment of less-than-absolute concentration, tried to punch Monty Panesar off the back foot but succeeded instead in inside-edging onto his stumps. A Kevin Pietersen moment this was not, however - there was no pompous assumption of superiority in the shot, merely a fractional error in that all-important execution.
That's the key difference between the attitude of the two nations. For the first time since that 1989 campaign, Australia have arrived as something short of an acknowledged world-beating outfit, and yet that fact has been extrapolated to make them out to be pushovers. For those who fancy a nice omen with their Ashes coverage, England made 430 in their first innings of that series - only five runs shy of their effort this time around. And they still ended up losing by 210 runs.
"A lot's been made of them not being a strong side, but they've just come from a series win in South Africa so we've not thought that for one minute," protested Anderson. "We've given them the respect they deserve. They've played well, made it hard for us, but we'll keep fighting."
The trouble is, the impression given so far is that Australia are willing to fight harder. "Simon and Ricky were unbelievable," said Clarke. "The start we got was fantastic and it was up to Northy [Marcus North] and I, first, to get into our innings, and then to play away. Northy has played brilliantly again, as he did in Worcester, and I think he's looking forward to getting out there tomorrow and getting another big score."
Until his timely 191 at Worcester last week, North had been unable to buy a run all tour. But the determination to make his chance count has been inspiring to behold - and already he is just 16 runs short of becoming the fourth Australian to outscore any of England's own batsmen.
"I'm sure [our batsmen] are very disappointed they didn't go on," said Anderson. "There were quite a few guys that got in, and you know in Test cricket you've got to make the most of it when you do get in, and on such a good wicket as well. The guys are disappointed, but they know what they've got to do in the second innings, and they know that it's still a good pitch for scoring runs."
The trouble is, so do the Australians. Rain may yet be the best hope for England to rediscover their composure after a chastening few days, and prepare for Lord's - a venue that really brings out the best in their opponents.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo