Khawaja, Bancroft contrast on village day

Late on the second day, as another bounteous SCG crowd lazed in the January sunshine, Tom Curran tried one of his (even) slower back-of-the-hand balls to Steve Smith. It was what can colloquially be called a "pie", over-pitched, wide and begging to be gobbled up. Smith, who has pared down his once expansive game in order to achieve maximum efficiency, had acres of free space to hit it into, but managed only to slice it straight to backward point. Bowler and batsmen alike were united in their embarrassment.

In many ways, this vignette summed up proceedings, which were of the kind that sap meaning from the term "absolute village" because it can be used so often. There was Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood competing for the simplest dropped catch of the series, James Anderson and Mason Crane conspiring for a run out to end England's innings, then Crane offering a steady diet of half-trackers, full tosses and false starts at the bowling crease for all cricketers of modest skills to relate to.

Little reasoning for all these passages of play could be found in an excellent pitch, which offered something for everyone, nor in the environs of the SCG, which under an azure sky offered up conditions that might have been termed Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way. Instead it seemed that the aforementioned instances of indiscipline, inattention or plain old ordinariness had more to do with representing the 22nd day of an Ashes duel that in the 21st century is the longest such battle in Test cricket - Australia and England are now the only country who play a fifth Test with any level of regularity.

"I don't know whether it is because the end's in sight, it's been a long series, or because we're up 3-0 or maybe we've just got to know each other more, played more cricket together, but here it just feels like we've got a job to do but enjoy it along the way," Cummins said. "When the series is on the line and there's so many unknowns with two or three matches left it was certainly pretty fiery and every over, every session you're fighting. Here we know each team so well now and you know your role in the team after five Tests, those uncertainties are taken out of it, I think."

Ashes fatigue, then, provided a test of its own, as distinct from those posed by individual batsmen and bowlers to each other, most either weighed down or bolstered by the experience of crossing paths with the same opponents on multiple occasions now.

No-one on either side has fallen into the former category quite like Cameron Bancroft, the West Australian opener who entered this series with a considerable head of steam. Innings of 76 not out and 86 against the Australian Test attack, followed by 228 not out against the Adelaide 12th man in Chadd Sayers, seemed to have put him in the best possible technical and temperamental frame for Ashes combat. A firm, undefeated 82 to help David Warner reel in a fourth-innings target in Brisbane only enhanced that sense.

But from a point where Bancroft seemed capable of taking off, he has instead trailed off, afflicted with increasing acuteness by technical flaws that Stuart Broad and James Anderson have exploited with no little efficiency. Put simply, Bancroft has struggled to avoid edging or being bowled by the sorts of deliveries that an international standard batsman must be able to cope with. Balls of a length and line demanding coverage on the front foot, either to defend or attack.

Numerous theories have been thrown around the press and commentary boxes of Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney about why this is so, ranging from the angle at which Bancroft's bat comes down (roughly third man to mid on) to the fact that his pre-ball routine has the bat being tapped at the moment of release so there is precious little time to complete a backlift and stroke before the ball arrives at the other end.

Whatever the specifics, Bancroft was left horribly exposed by the first ball he received from Broad, aiming a drive at a well-pitched delivery that also seamed. It was, in fairness, a very useful ball, very much of the kind Broad has made a habit of taking wickets with - 399 in all as of the end of day two - but one that Bancroft's method turned into the nigh-on-unplayable. Perhaps, given the seam movement, Bancroft might have fallen lbw to it had he covered up in defence, but as it was his optimistic drive left open a gate of the dimensions that the SCG will supposedly need to have installed if it is ever to acquire a drop-in pitch.

Where his debut press conference about the Jonny Bairstow "headbutt" had left Smith in stitches, here Bancroft has sounded and looked like he is in need of a mental break, followed by a technical rethink. Before this match, Bancroft had expressed hope that he would demonstrate to watching teammates, coaches and selectors that he had progressed, but instead his dismissal confirmed the impression given earlier in the week when he spoke in ways that suggested a muddled mind.

The phrase "every day I wake up" was repeated, as was "life is too short", and then it all came together with the following bit of life-coachspeak: "Life rewards action and every day I wake up and come to training, come to Test matches to play, I'm learning more about Cameron Bancroft." He may well be, but so are the world's bowlers. Undoubtedly, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel have been given plentiful evidence as to how they should attack him in the event that the selectors choose to persist with him. On the evidence of day two, they will be questioning the wisdom of doing so.

Bancroft's exit brought Usman Khawaja to the middle. With a top score of 53 for the series and numerous starts wasted, he has been unable to maintain the sort of substantial contribution to an Australian Test summer that he made in both 2015-16 and last season. After Moeen Ali defeated Khawaja early on in Brisbane, he has faced concerted challenges from the same bowlers who have so confounded Bancroft, with the moving ball - both conventional and reverse - proving fiendish.

Khawaja's languid manner at the crease and at the microphone has not always endeared him to everyone, suggesting plenty of self-belief but also a touch of inflexibility in his methods. He has shown indignation this summer about the way he was shuffled out, then back in, then back out of, the Test team during two Asian tours, and then expressed mystification about why his comments to that effect were reported as such. At the same time Khawaja has tried not to fuss too much over the fact that the big scores have not come, instead reassuring himself that he is not out of form, merely out of runs.

As he told ABC Radio in Melbourne: "Definitely less than what I hoped for, I think the difference is probably I got a couple of starts in the last couple of Test matches, 50s, and probably haven't gone on to make a big score and got out pretty much right when I got to 50. The first time I played a bad shot, the second time was an umpire's call 50/50 and they can go either way. If I score a hundred in one of those games then you set the game up for your team. So it's probably disappointing in that respect, but I still feel good. I feel like I've contributed to the first three wins in some respect, so for me it's just about going out there to do as well as I can to hopefully set up games. I haven't done it this Test match, but hopefully next Test match."

That equanimity was evident in how he took his time at the SCG, strolling safely and unhurriedly to 10 from 31 deliveries before striking his first boundary. With the exception of a couple of plays and misses, Khawaja negotiated England's pacemen with aplomb, and if he still looked somewhat uncomfortable against Moeen and the fledgling wrist spin of Crane, it was not to the extent that he worried himself into a hasty shot or a loose dismissal. At the other end Warner looked assured until the moment of his dismissal, then Smith used edge as much as middle to play in Khawaja's slipstream.

Neither Khawaja nor Smith, then, looked at their best, but in a series of this duration, the ability to overcome Ashes fatigue and simply keep going is meritorious in itself. Certainly the older pair have dealt better with the mental and technical wages of five Test matches than Bancroft. They should in turn be much the fresher and more effective in South Africa, where they will be required to play to a higher standard than the one that defined this particular day's cricket.