Anderson leads attack into pivotal third day
Slowly but surely England are feeling their way into the series, and it is a mark of both the respect they've been given by their opponents and the tenacity they've shown in two less-than-perfect days that they are so close to parity despite spending so long chasing the game. Judgment on their immediate prospects will have to be deferred until Saturday's first hour is done and dusted, when the second new ball promises a seismic shift in the narrative, but whatever transpires it won't be anything less than compelling.
If this was any Gabba contest of the past 20 years, England would already be out on their feet. From Andrew Strauss's third-ball dismissal to Peter Siddle's hat-trick, and on through a frustrating second morning which began with Simon Katich and Shane Watson's chiselled opening stand and crescendoed with a trio of UDRS knock-backs, the reasons to believe would have been exhausted long ago. If this was 2006, Matthew Hayden would by now have bludgeoned a brutal century, and the series obituaries would be written up already.
But time has marched on for Australia, and they aren't in a position to dominate as they once could. No-one knows that better than their man of the moment, Michael Hussey, whose gutsy 81 not out required a conscious decision to rid his game of doubts, the like of which wouldn't have existed in the first place if the team as a whole were still the champions of old. As a consequence, England's bowlers were given a chance to adapt on the job, a luxury which both Steven Finn and Graeme Swann were especially grateful to receive.
Neither man bowled appallingly, and in Finn's case his post-lunch performance was superb. But like a mortar platoon with a speculative range-finder, there was all manner of adjustment before that perfect length was nailed. Early in his spell, Finn was too full to Shane Watson and paid the price with three crunching drives, while Hussey's assault on Swann was not - he claimed - pre-meditated, but neither did it need to be given how regularly he dropped the ball short.
For all his natural bravado, Swann's worst Test to date was last summer's Ashes opener at Cardiff, when Nathan Hauritz outbowled both him and Monty Panesar, and once again he was showing signs of anxiety when, after four overs, he was nursing figures of none for 34. But instead of allowing himself to be belted out of the attack, Swann rose to the challenge and found a means to respond. He owed much of that, of course, to Australia's new-found fallibility - with Marcus North's tame dismissal following the predictable script of his career - but England deserve credit for willing themselves back into contention.
"They stuck at their tasks really well," said Hussey. "Graeme is an outstanding bowler if he's allowed to bowl and get into a real good groove, so I wanted to be positive, because I do get into trouble if I get tentative or negative. There's a small margin of error on this pitch, so the game is really interestingly poised. It's probably 50-50 at the moment, and the first hour or two tomorrow might be the pivotal point of the match."
For Finn, his first taste of Ashes cricket was the culmination of a stellar rise, and the sort of moment that could hardly have been further removed from his low-key debut in Chittagong back in March, where the crowd consisted of a handful of local fishermen rather than tier upon tier of rapt and raucous Aussies. He was alone among England's bowlers in conceding his runs at four an over, but when his 6'10" frame located that elusive "right area" he was deadly, as Hussey could testify after watching his first-ball snick die inches short of second slip.
"A few times today, it didn't quite go to plan," said Finn. "But I'm young; I'm learning all the time - and it's important that I keep doing that and come back better. We're happy with our day's work as a unit. I thought the other bowlers bowled fantastically well, but that's been the nature of the game so far. It's ebbed and flowed, and I'm sure it will tomorrow."
One man, however, deserves an extra dose of plaudits, because if England had some leeway for experimentation in their lengths, they still required a stalwart to buckle down an end. James Anderson was that go-to man, as he buzzed through his day's work at a notch over two runs an over, with nine maidens out of 21 a testament to his new-found reliability.
Like Ian Bell on the first day, Anderson's maturity came as a shock to Australians who recalled him as the whipping boy from 2006, but it was his pre-lunch defiance that prised apart the opening stand, before the strangulation of Ricky Ponting came along to compensate for his lack of fortune with the review system.
Even he took his time to get into the game - early on he wasn't attacking the crease with anything like the relish he reserved for Pakistan last summer, and one of his deliveries to Watson was the shortest he's dropped all year. But he was also the first to get it right, living up to his billing at England's attack leader; a process that's been in place since the tour of New Zealand almost three years ago.
As David Saker, England's bowling coach, has been stressing all year, the secret for Anderson is to avoid getting cut. That was once his biggest failing, as he'd come into a match with a reputation for prodigious swing, and bang the ball in far too short in a bid to force the issue. Today with the Kookaburra there was some gentle bend on offer, but by attacking the stumps with a determined full length, he kept up the pressure regardless. Like Matthew Hoggard, who took a beating here from Hayden back in 2002, Anderson has grown in the intervening four years, and has returned to Australia ready to prove a point.
"He's definitely a better bowler," said Hussey. "I think he's more experienced, he knows his game very well now, and he trusts his game a lot more than last time he was here. He's generally trying to chirp away whether he's going well or battling away, but having that experience of being here before [is crucial]. You can't really buy experience."
"Jimmy's played 50-odd Tests and taken nearly 200 wickets, so he's obviously a very, very good bowler - and he's been an ever-present in the side for a long time," said Finn. "I look up to him, obviously. To have him and Broady around me who have bowled a lot of balls in Test match cricket, it's great for me to feed off. We're always communicating as a unit. It's not just one bit of advice he's given me; it's spell-to-spell, ball-to-ball that we're always trying to work out a way of getting batsmen out."
That process will continue on Saturday morning in a session that can hardly come soon enough. There's a battle royal developing this summer, and the next few hours of skirmishing will tell us how much England have really learnt.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.