Brawny batting, coy captaincy
By the end of the second day at Sydney, Andrew Strauss had set up England's innings with a brilliant assault on the new ball, but for a brief and uncharacteristic spell towards the end of Australia's first innings, he appeared to suffer something of a loss of nerve. It was almost as if he believed the rumours of a correlation between Mitchell Johnson's batting form and the occasional explosiveness of his bowling, because with Australia reeling at 8 for 189 against a ball that was just five overs old, there seemed no other reason to abandon a gameplan that had suited his side so well.
Until Johnson was joined at the crease by the unassuming Ben Hilfenhaus, a boa-like run-rate of 2.22 had been asphyxiating the Australians, not least the hapless Mike Hussey, who picked out the cover cordon for four sweetly timed shots in a row before inside-edging Paul Collingwood's final delivery onto his leg stump. But then in a slightly doo-lally passage of play, England's fields were scattered and the tail was allowed to break free, adding a further 91 runs at nearly five an over.
It is true that Johnson is a cricketer who thrives on confidence. On the three previous occasions he had made significant runs in the first innings of a Test match, he had followed up with searing spells with the ball - his 96 not out against South Africa at Johannesburg became 4 for 25, his 47 against India at Mohali became 5 for 64, and of course his 62 against England at Perth last month became an unplayable 6 for 38.
When, however, Strauss decided that six men back on the fence was the best way to prevent Johnson's inner beast being unleashed, it was a counterproductive spell of captaincy that enabled a substandard first-innings total to grow in stature with every rasping strike. Apart from anything else, the time and runs equation meant that England were unable to get their noses in front before the close, meaning that regardless of their own impressive response with the bat, they'll still need to push on until tea at the earliest on day three to secure the sort of first-innings advantage that they might otherwise have taken as read.
"It is frustrating when that happens but it does happen quite often in Test cricket, the tail wagging," said James Anderson, who eventually wrapped up the innings for his third four-wicket haul of the series. "Johnson and Hilfenhaus had a licence and free rein to swing the bat, and sometimes it comes off - it did for Hilfenhaus, who had his eyes shut for the majority of his innings.
"I wouldn't call Mitchell Johnson a tailender - he's a very competent batsman," added Anderson. "We saw reasonably early on that he was hitting the ball well, so we decided we wanted to bowl at Hilfenhaus and Beer. I think we had every right to [do what we did]. We still had two or three slips to Johnson but just had an in-out field to him - and then attacked the other guy.
"But if you'd given us 280 when they chose to bat on that pitch we'd have taken it," he added. "So we were pretty happy with our couple of days' work as bowlers. We think it's a challenging total, that we can get past."
All the same, England memorably failed to overhaul a similar scoreline at Perth last month, when Australia's first-innings 268 was given a whole new complexion by the ferocity of Johnson's old-ball assault. But where Strauss may have erred in the field, he made fine amends with the bat, taking personal responsibility for clawing back the lost momentum with a 58-ball 60, before leaving the stage to his sidekick Cook after being undone by the best delivery that Hilfenhaus has bowled all tour.
It was a scenario reminiscent of the Boxing Day Test last year at Durban, where Dale Steyn's whirlwind 47 had given South Africa an improbably formidable total of 343, only for Strauss to respond with a brilliantly counter-punching 49-ball half-century. Then as now, his silent accomplice was Cook, who played the tortoise to his captain's hair in making just 15 of the first 71 runs of the innings, before going on to record a brilliant anchorman hundred. At 61 not out overnight, and with 638 runs to his name in the series already, Cook has the chance to extend the similarities even further.
"It's been a massive thing for us to be getting off to good starts," said Anderson. "It just settles the dressing-room down when you know it could be a nervy start with the new ball doing a bit, and when you see those guys leaving the ball really well and putting away the bad ball, it gives everyone a lot of confidence."
The two batsmen were helped on their way by a shapeless spell of new-ball bowling, not least from Johnson, who was entrusted with the cherry for the first time since the same pair had destroyed him at Lord's in 2009, but responded to the honour with three wayward overs for 13. But the manner in which Strauss in particular climbed onto the offensive was instantly reassuring. "I honestly just think that Straussy is quite a positive batsman, no matter what form of cricket he is playing," said Anderson. "He puts away bad balls, and that's exactly what he did today."
Cook by the close was ensconced in his own little world, oblivious to anything but the very next delivery - albeit grateful for Umpire Bowden's no-ball referral on 46. Shortly after posting his fifth half-century in seven innings, he overhauled Michael Vaughan's tally of 633 runs in 2002-03 to become England's highest run-scorer on an Ashes tour since the seven-Test series of 1970-71.
"He's been fantastic. Considering people were questioning his spot during the summer, I think he's shown exactly what a player he is," said Anderson. "He's got huge character, huge talent - and there were no doubts in our dressing room that he was going to perform when he came out here. He relies on the shots that he has got, and his mental toughness to get him through, and he's shown how talented he is this trip."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.