Disciplined England land the early blows
Without ever quite matching the penetrative excellence of their Boxing Day work at Melbourne, England's cricketers stole the ascendancy on the first day at Sydney, thanks to their determination to give their opponents nothing. In conditions that weren't quite as helpful as the grey weather might have suggested, they ploughed a disciplined furrow, sometimes inching a touch too wide to be truly in the hunt for wickets, but rarely if ever did they allow Australia's batsmen to slip the leash. Four wickets in 59 overs, or the equivalent of one an hour, was a perfectly acceptable return against a run-rate that barely nudged past two-and-a-quarter an over.
There was a time, not so long ago, when no Test line-up would feel cornered by such slow scoring - in fact, on this very ground 24 years ago, when Australia beat England to ease the pain of their last home Ashes defeat, their net run-rate for the match was almost identical to today's figure, with Dean Jones digging in for nine hours in the first innings to set up the game with an unbeaten 184. Times have moved on, however, and the twitchiness of Australia's top order was palpable today, as they dug in for the hard yards, only to glance up at the scoreboard, and realise they were travelling without moving.
"We bowled well, we put them under a lot of pressure in the first session, and I think it's definitely our day," said Tim Bresnan, who was the most successful member of England's attack for the second innings running. "We bowled really well in the first session with the new ball, we made them play in a way they are probably not used to playing, and so we're happy with that. A lot went past the bat and we got inside-edges onto pads and stuff like that, so although they played really well, we were unlucky not to have them more down."
Such confidence in Australia's fallibility stems from the fact that they have been bowled out on the opening day of each of the last three Tests - even during their third-Test defeat at Perth where hindsight demonstrated that 268 was significantly better than par. The loss of control in that particular innings, however, had been the clincher, with Australia clattering along at a tempo of 3.52 an over. The runaway train had enough of a head of steam to make an impact before it ran out of track.
England learned their lessons from that match with impressive speed and selectorial decisiveness, as they jettisoned Steven Finn for conceding five an over, and brought in the thrifty Bresnan for the MCG, where his ability to strangle the run-rate was critical in dismissing Australia for 98 on the first day. It's been significantly tougher to break down Australia's resistance in this game, but against a line-up containing such natural ball-strikers as Shane Watson, Philip Hughes and the next man in, Steve Smith, England believe that patience will pay off in the end.
At least in Usman Khawaja, Australia showcased a debutant who looks to have the technique and the temperament to thrive in the face of such a parsimonious attack. His dismissal on the stroke of the day's final rain break was an anticlimactic end to one of the most promising debuts of Australia's recent history, but a forgivable one given the pressure of the occasion. Hughes and Watson had fewer excuses, however. Both men battled admirably in a tough morning session, with Watson waiting an unheard-of 89 deliveries to register his first boundary. And yet, both men gave their positions away meekly, fencing to the cordon when another dot-ball was there to be accumulated.
Bresnan, for his part, did not believe it was a coincidence. "We bowled well and we got our rewards, so why shouldn't it be like that," he said. "They played really, really well this morning - especially with it moving as it was - but I think [Hughes] could have nicked any one of those, he might have nicked one first- or second-ball after lunch anyway, so it certainly didn't change our thought processes or how we went about our work. The first session, we forced them to play in their shells a little bit, [while] in the Khawaja-Watson partnership, they played a few more shots - which helped us pick up a few wickets."
Australia's glory years, which were effectively brought to a close in a triumphant triple-retirement on this very ground four years ago, were built on two key principles. Their bowlers, led by Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, gave their opponents nothing; their batsmen, led by Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting, took what little remained and more besides by belting along at close to 4 an over. It's an approach that has become embedded in the Australian psyche, but needs to be unlearnt in a hurry, because the time has come to go back to batting for time.
With the exception of Michael Hussey, who is the last man standing again, none of Australia's established line-up have shown the ability to bed in for the long haul, although Khawaja does look capable of bearing some of the load in the middle order, which in turn may take some of the pressure off Michael Clarke and - if and when he returns from finger surgery - Ricky Ponting. "I had a ball out there, I was having so much fun," said Khawaja at the end of his debut innings, which is not a bad mindset to take.
But in the end, England did enough to show that their game-brains are still in place. It helped that the weather played into their hands once again, with less scorch and more squelch creating a home from home for the bowlers, particularly Bresnan who learned his game up at Headingley. But after the celebrations that followed the Melbourne win, they showed no visible signs of any hangover.
"I think these were very English conditions we got today," said Bresnan. "We were definitely pleased with the first use of that pitch. I think we were going to bowl first anyway, the way it looked and the overhead conditions, because it's only going to get better. That's how we see it. But it's always good to get the first punch in, and I think we certainly did get the first punch in. It's definitely our day."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.