England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 5th day August 5, 2013

Damn the weather, but Australia turn a corner

After the humiliation of Lord's, Australia refocused their game and, if it hadn't been for the weather, would probably have won in Manchester. That bodes well for the remainder of the Ashes
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The disappointment was writ large on everyone's face. Manchester's weather has behaved worse but rarely has it behaved so cynically. There was no joy for England, only relief. No joy for Australia, only a bitter taste. And there was no joy for the many media outlets that trade on tales of good and bad. There was just grey: damp and clinging grey.

The England players came to their dressing-room balcony and did a footbally thing, clapping their hands above their heads and smiling all cocksure. But there was barely a murmur in response because barely a person was left on the ground to respond. Just the workers and the anoraks and the anoraks don't even sing when they are winning. Damn the weather.

Joe Root and Johnny Bairstow will have dreamt for years of their Ashes moment: of easing a short ball past point or smashing a leg-break onto the second tier or simply playing forward defensively in the thou-shalt-not-pass mode that the first coach they ever knew insisted upon. Damn the weather. The match was a belter and deserved a conclusion. Damn the weather.

Yes, it had been a good toss to win last Thursday morning but then you must play well to take the advantage given and Australia did exactly that. Well enough to win, which they would pretty much certainly have done had the day run its course. Therefore we can say that, after the watershed at Lord's, a corner has been turned. Such defeats shock the system so deeply that the brain changes tack, subconsciously or otherwise. Nobody, and sportsmen lead the way here, likes to be humiliated. Thus, after wounds are licked, a better focus returns.

During the hour or so before play each day, the two big screens play highlights of the day before, volume and all. While the players warm up, they are subjected to the best and worst of the previous day and to the commentators' whim - thoughts and exclamations that fitted the moment of action. At 10 o'clock in the morning - coffee brewing, physio waiting, crowd queuing, coach hitting catches - the repeats look and sound out of context. The drama has lost its way and appears to point exaggerated fingers at both the worthy and unworthy in equal measure. The benefit is for the spectator, definitely not the player.

On the first day of the game, there are no highlights from the previous day so the screens show the previous match. As Shane Watson stretched his hamstrings and snaffled a few catches at 10.15am last Thursday morning, he got to see and hear again the two painful lbw dismissals from Lord's.

Hard as he must have worked to eradicate them from his memory for all time, the ground authority made sure they were shoved right back in his face. Forty five minutes later, he was taking guard once more to James Anderson. Indeed, Australia were at the wicket having just been shown an X-rated package of the worst match of their lives. This used to happen to England in Australia. Bill Lawry screaming blue murder at masterpieces created by Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne, just as Andrew Flintoff's browbeaten men were preparing to cross the divide.

It takes a certain type of person to truly ignore all this and not many of us are that person. You can't help but look and blush, or listen and cringe. Or just get angry at the injustice. This is the mind in the wringer. You could almost see it doing its worst to Watson, who near bursts out of his kit in desperation for success. 'Why me', he seems to say. 'I am better than this showreel suggests'. And the more tense he becomes, the harder it becomes, to be the cricketer he knows he can be. Few men look so condemned by unkind fate as Watson.

Thankfully, others responded a lighter sense of being and benefited from the release. Chris Rogers positively twinkled at the wicket, a hitherto unseen approach from an earnest cricketer. Michael Clarke simply played like he can, which is not so easy when the reponsibilty of humiliation is yours. Steven Smith played like the amazing dancing bear in the song of that ilk - though Simon is the fellow in the song, not Steve - and Brad Haddin gave it some 'umpty, which is the best way when you are an all or nothing sort of chap.

Later Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle ran in to make proud the people of the Great Southern Land: no airs and graces just sleeves-up stuff that keeps batsmen honest. It was this pair who would have seen their country home on the dry and worn pitch before turning to beer and meat pies in celebration. (A metaphorical assumption, for Siddle is vegan nowadays - more replacement fluid and bananas than beer and pie one imagines).

Nathan Lyon might have chipped in, Mitchell Starc and Smith too and off they could have gone to Durham on the team bus, singing about the jolly swagman and old Matilda, pride intact and with no fear of the replay screen on Friday morning.

But it wasn't to be. England were saved their own ingloriousness and are now the wounded cat with claws sharpening. Forget the million dollar smile, Alastair Cook is more ruthless than you might care to think. He hated the anti-climax and the fact that he, the England captain on the day the Ashes were retained, had to answer questions on how the rain had saved him, how the batsmen were vulnerable and how the balance of power had shifted. He hated it.

So be certain that England will watch that big screen come Friday and use it to further fire their ambition. Cook has dreamt of a whitewash, something so extreme that history would record and remember in full and glorious detail. He suffered such a thing in 2006-07 and wanted to hand it back on behalf of all those who were with him then and are with him now.

His desire and Australia's regeneration promises us real flavour in the two Tests to come. The urn may have had its home decided for now but the best, and perhaps most unforgiving, cricket might still to come.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jackiethepen on August 7, 2013, 8:10 GMT

    This is fanciful. England would take the break the rain gave them, not because they haven't the ability and the fight to bat for a draw but because it would have been another long day and back to back Tests don't allow time to restore the body and mind. It's a let off for cricketers who came into the Series after going to the Final in the Champions Trophy and being forced by rain to play t20 instead of 50 over cricket. The rain is impartial. They'll take the rest thank you and the urn. Do you seriously think these professional cricketers aren't already thinking about Durham and getting into the right mind set for that game, rather than mooning about how they didn't get the media stage after the match? Blame the administrators if you want a more stately Series which each match treasured instead of a conveyor belt of cricket. As it is cricketers like KP will be more worried about his body lasting for the next 7 Ashes Tests than how the weather rained on his parade.

  • cricket_ahan on August 7, 2013, 4:26 GMT

    Big call Mark, is all I can say. Australia did play better, but I don't know if you can call it "turning a corner" just yet. Numerous people before this series even began said two things - Australia's only strengths are their pace battery and Michael Clarke. From what I can see on the scorecard, those are the strengths Australia drew on. Credit that they did, but this team is still learning and I feel it will still take some time before they really settle. I would say you are correct if they put up a fight in the next few tests as well - and in particular without a big Michael Clarke score. If they perform like they did in tests 1 and 2 though, I think it's still only a glimpse of the future.

  • DustBowl on August 6, 2013, 20:52 GMT

    Brilliant summary Mark , you write as you speak. However nothing about the batsmen, the seam bowlers are very strong with more than enough reserves waiting. If Anderson &/or Swann get injured and Oz O.T. score is approached - England could be trouble. The winter Ashes will be very interesting.

  • Sunil_Batra on August 6, 2013, 18:26 GMT

    We nearly on the first game and it was only our batting in the first innigns of Lords that cost us. In this game we finally won the toss and showed we are not too far awya from beating England. I think we have our top 6 in the batting right now, I like that Warner is back in and Khawaja is our best 3 and Smith in the middle is great. Bowling wise i would like to see Bird and perhaps he will get his chance in this coming test given its a green top.

  • liz1558 on August 6, 2013, 17:15 GMT

    It's too early to say that Aus have turned a corner. Let's see them do it without a contribution from the skipper. Take away his knock and England would've been ahead. Clarke doesn't have a great overseas record, so the odds are against a repeat performance, just as the odds are in favour of England improving on a lacklustre bowling display.

  • 2MikeGattings on August 6, 2013, 15:13 GMT

    Green shoots? The stand out players were the old stagers. The young 'uns were certainly green but misfiring as often as not. Australia still struggling to find a balance between youth and experience.

  • whoster on August 6, 2013, 13:30 GMT

    The Aussies have only half-turned a corner - their big first innings total at Old Trafford was still dependent on a big score from Clarke. They're yet to post any sizeable totals when Clarke has failed, and the batting will always be shaky until that's put right.

    Their bowling attack is in far better shape; Siddle and Harris have bowled superbly with great stamina, while Lyon bowled better than his figures suggested. Having Watson available to bowl tight spells adds to their options. Their big question is whether Harris can cope with the workload of back-to-back Tests, and whether Starc or Bird gets the third seamer's spot.

    The situation remains for Australia that they look unlikely to beat England without a major innings from Clarke.

    PS. Hope the Aussies stay at Lumley Castle again. I remember 05 when Watson was crapping himself to the extent that he had to sleep with Clarke! Perhaps Cook and Flower could dress up as ghosties and really put the wind up them.

  • dummy4fb on August 6, 2013, 11:08 GMT

    Australia improved because they had to - they are now a no frills team who have two good seamers. England battled with the knowledge of being 2-0 up in the series and the expectation that brings. England's batting needs now to be given one last opportunity in its current form - if Root, Trott and Bairstow don't give the rest of the order significant ballast, then other people need to be brought in. Chris Jordan must also be bashing on the door down at Sussex so Broad should be on notice too. "Watto" - and he's even beginning to look likt the junk seller in Star Wars - will be sleeping at the haunted castle too so there's little chance he'll improve......