England provide a glimmer of what might have been

Like the bit at the end of a gameshow where they wheel out a speedboat and say "Look what you could have won," England's cricket in the latter stages of the third day served only to show what might have been in this game.

To see England's eighth-wicket pair post the highest stand of the innings or see James Anderson and co pitching the new ball up and troubling batsmen, was to see how they should have played when the match was there to be shaped. Alanis Morissette would (wrongly) have called it ironic; England supporters might simply call it really bloody irritating. Even James Anderson admitted "there are some very frustrated players in that dressing room."

But maybe they're encouraged, too. For if we learned anything on the third day of this Test it was that England can compete. They are not up against the West Indies of the late 1970s or the Australia of the start of this century. They just have to play better.

That is not to demean Australia. In Steve Smith they have a batsman who may well be remembered as a great, while in David Warner and Nathan Lyon they have two other top-class cricketers. That seam attack deserves plenty of respect, too.

But if England are honest, they will reflect on their cricket in the first half of this game and admit they were not blown away as much as they let themselves down. Their bowling with the first new ball of the match and most of their batting was well below the required standard. As a consequence, they have allowed Australia a head-start that will surely prove decisive. To win after conceding a first-innings deficit of 215 - or win the series after going two down - would be close to miraculous.

Consider the dismissals of England's batsmen in their first innings here. Consider James Vince fencing at one he should, at that stage of his innings, have left 11 times out of 10. Consider Joe Root, drawn into a lavish drive and edging to the cordon, or Alastair Cook guiding one to slip off the face of his bat as if providing catching practice. These were soft, loose dismissals. And if three of the top four sell their wickets so cheaply, it is going to prove desperately tough to set a competitive total. "We didn't feel like we batted particularly well," Anderson said with feeling afterwards. "We should have got more runs."

It was an obvious contrast with Australia's efforts. While the centurions in this series, Smith and Shaun Marsh, have been admirably patient (there were 169 dot balls in Marsh's innings and 246 in Smith's in Brisbane; both earned the right to any poor balls that came their way), England seemed impatient. Root, Vince and Cook could all have left the deliveries that dismissed them. And while Australia's seamers pitched the ball up and gained not just the benefit of any help from the conditions, but brought in the possibility of more dismissals, England squandered that opportunity with their back of a length approach.

"Overton had been planning on spending his winter playing domestic cricket in New Zealand for Canterbury. And, had he done so, it is doubtful that many in the British media would have flown over to watch his debut"

The sense of waste was most apparent when England No. 8 and No. 9 were putting together the highest stand (66) of their innings. There was nothing especially clever or outrageous about the way Chris Woakes and Craig Overton batted. Rather, they were patient, brave and sensible. And, by doing so, they not only showed up the efforts of their top-order colleagues, but perhaps showed how England might flourish in their second innings.

But for a quirk of fate, Overton would have been the England all-rounder playing in Rangiora for Canterbury on Sunday. Ahead of his Ashes call-up, Overton had been planning on spending his winter playing domestic cricket in New Zealand for Canterbury. And, had he done so, it is doubtful that many in the British media would have flown over to watch his debut or many UK papers would have carried an interview that included such gold as "yeah, good aye" as he climbed into his car. Overton is no Ben Stokes.

What he is, however, is a plucky all-round cricketer. He gets in line against fast bowling and he continues to probe at the top of off stump - remember that Steve Smith dismissal? - when he is faced with good batsmen on decent pitches. He had not scored a run on tour until Monday - all three innings in an England shirt had ended in ducks and he has not made a first-class half-century since August 2016 - but he weathered a sustained barrage of short balls with admirable composure and showed that he is a man with whom the England selectors can do business. It is hard to imagine Jake Ball resisting for so long.

Still, the fact that Overton top-scored for England at No. 9 and yet still didn't score as many as Australia's No. 9 underlines the sense of underachievement with what went before. And it showed again that, if the basics of Test batting are followed, there is no reason England cannot flourish in this season.

That should be their frustration. This Australia seam attack, for all its quality, is only three men deep. If England can just keep them out in the field for longer, they can be wearied and conquered. Why else would they not enforce the follow-on, with the evening session under lights available to them? But if batsmen flash and flirt as Root and Vince did, England give themselves little opportunity to take advantage.

It was a point made by Woakes after play. "If you can build a partnership and get that ball soft, batting does get easier," he said. "That's what we need to do as a team. We need to bat for longer periods of time." Sounds pretty obvious really, doesn't it?

Woakes also produced one of his better overseas spells with the ball in the final moments of the day. It wasn't just that he and Anderson gained some movement, it was that they learned from their disappointing first innings performance and pitched the ball significantly fuller. While it would be simplistic to say the rewards followed - conditions were clearly a factor - it did, once again, underline what might have been.

So, is all too little too late? Probably. But if England can learn the lessons from aspects of their day three performance, we may have an engaging series yet.