The weight of history
For approximately half of the first day at Lord's, Australia bowled as badly as they have done in any Ashes Test for a generation. All the while that Mitchell Johnson was spoon-feeding England's openers in a ghastly new-ball spell, a packed Lord's crowd that has witnessed five Australian wins in their last six visits was left blinking incredulously through their pint-glasses. Who were these impostors, and what had become of the men who pushed England to the brink in Cardiff last week?
By the close of the first day, we knew. While Andrew Strauss settled serenely into the innings of the day - his fourth century in 12 Tests at Lord's, the ground on which he learnt his trade as a young buck at Middlesex - Australia's rookie cricketers were quite simply crushed by the expectant weight of history. Nobody in the ground can have been unaware that the Baggy Green has reigned supreme at this venue since 1934, and nobody seemed more acutely aware of that fact than the Australians themselves.
No fewer than eight of the men who followed their captain out of the visiting dressing-room, down the central staircase and through a packed and buzzing Long Room were playing in their first Test at the grand venue, and not one of the six bowlers used on the first day had ever had to contend with the vagaries of the slope, let alone follow in the matchless footsteps of the great GD McGrath, who etched his name on the dressing-room honours board three times in three occasions.
Last week, Australia were deprived of the victory that could have settled their nerves for the summer, and at the close of play, Brad Haddin mentioned the tension of the occasion on five separate occasions in a ten-minute press conference. Contrast that anxiety with England's ease with their surroundings. Of the 14 men who vied for selection in this game, only two - Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad - have yet to make their mark on the walls of their dressing-room, and it's fair to suggest that time is on their side.
"We've all batted pretty well at Lord's in the last few years," said Strauss, and with 17 Test centurions since Australia last had a hit, that's something of an understatement. "It has been very batting friendly to be fair, but there's a lot of confidence in our batting unit here, and hopefully we can continue to display that over the coming days."
But confidence in English batsmen is a very dangerous thing, especially when coupled with Australia's ability to rise above adversity. By the close, the two traits had collided to create a perfect cliché - a day of two halves. In their first 47.4 overs, England managed 196 for 0, and then 168 for 6 in their last 42.2. By the time they retreated to their dressing-room, no doubt for the sort of talking-to that their opponents received over lunch, they had squandered their second priceless toss of the series.
At Cardiff last week, England attempted to seize the momentum, but ended up taking the piss. Their desire to dominate translated into arrogance, as ten starts and a top-score of 69 amply testified, and their first-day scoreline of 336 of 7 was soon revealed to be entirely inadequate. What, then, will be made of this effort? As Strauss proved by piling on through to the close, the opportunity was there to atone for those first-Test errors, and convert a confident start into a formidable finish.
But the recriminations will abound if, as Australia suggested with their end-of-day rally, their stage-fright has dissipated by the time their turn comes to bat. "The whole occasion of Lord's got too big for a few of us," admitted Haddin, "but late in the day we got into our rhythm and started to build a bit more pressure, and relax more into our work. We were looking down the barrel of a very bad day at 0 for 200, and I thought we fought back well."
They certainly did, but England assisted them in their downfall. Superbly though he played for the first 146 balls of his innings, Alastair Cook missed pretty much the first straight one he received (just as he had done at Cardiff), and once he had gone nobody else could muster the necessary application - not even Paul Collingwood, whose out-of-character shovel to mid-on with the new ball looming was the most culpable failure of the day.
Coming so soon after Ponting's agenda-setting 150 at Cardiff, Strauss's hefty performance was timely in one ways than one. But as he admitted at the close, it had been a better day for him personally than for his team, and nothing telegraphed his frustration more pointedly than the look of daggers he gave Collingwood, his Cardiff hero, as he made his way back to the pavilion.
"It is a slightly disappointing [position] from 190 for 0, but I suppose Collingwood was the only one you could say had a hand in his own downfall," said Strauss, "He was trying to push things along before the new ball came along, which can sometimes happen. But otherwise it was a bit of swing and a bit of nip that did for most of our batsmen, which was pretty encouraging."
"There are more wicket-taking opportunities here than at Cardiff, definitely," he said. "The ball swung around more, and when it swung at times batting was quite tricky. At the same time, in between that there were opportunities to score. It's always a fast-scoring ground, so if you're slightly off it's going to go. If we can get up to 450 tomorrow, we'll be in a pretty good position in the game, but we'll have to bat better than in Cardiff."
They'll have to bowl better as well, and in that respect, the percentages selection of Graeme Onions over Steve Harmison may in hindsight prove to be prudent. On his last appearance at Lord's, Onions claimed four wicket in seven balls, on his way to becoming the latest notch on England's honours board - and while the quality of his West Indian opponents were barely worth mentioning in the same context, he can at least claim that Lord's rarefied atmosphere did not affect his performance in the slightest.
Today, that was not remotely true of the Australians. If they can recover their poise from this position - and this evening they made a fantastic fist of a comeback - then they truly are worthy to follow in Bradman's footsteps.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo