Uncommonly tight contest looms
James Anderson believes that England have their noses slightly in front at the end of an eventful second day at Sydney, but Mitchell Johnson's late dismissal of Kevin Pietersen for 36 has redressed the balance of a match that looks set to become one of the closest-fought contests in recent Ashes history.
Despite the tightness of the scorelines in the past two campaigns in particular, England and Australia have developed a strange tendency to beat each other out of sight in recent years, with arguably the closest contest since the 2005 Ashes being Australia's incredible six-wicket victory at Adelaide in 2006-07.
Since the 5-0 whitewash in that series, England have won two Tests by an innings and two by more than 100 runs, but have themselves been overturned by an innings at Headingley in 2009 and by 267 runs at Perth last month. This match, however, looks capable of being a much closer contest, with Australia's tail carrying them to a defendable first innings of 280, before England replied with 3 for 167 at the close.
"It's pretty even-Steven, maybe slightly in our favour," said James Anderson, the pick of England's attack with 4 for 66. "But it's a real tough one to call. We've got a crucial morning session tomorrow to get through. If you look at the last couple of days, it has done a little bit first thing in the morning - with overhead conditions. We've got to really dig in tomorrow morning and hope to get up towards them and get a decent lead."
Prior to the fifth Test, the Sydney curator Tom Parker reckoned that his wicket was a typical bat-first SCG track, which would improve over the first two days before taking spin from day three onwards. However, the majority of the contest has been played under thick cloud cover, which has not made the ball swing especially prodigiously, but may well have delayed the deterioration of the surface for the spinners.
"Who knows?" said Anderson. "There was a lot more grass than I've ever seen here at Sydney, so that might hold the wicket together a lot more and it might not turn as much as it usually does. But we'll have to wait and see, we don't know what the weather conditions will be [for the rest of the match]."
Anderson's first duty on day three will be with the bat, after he came out to join Alastair Cook late in the day, following Pietersen's misjudged hook that picked out deep fine leg. "It was disappointing to see KP go like that but it's just one of those things," he said. "He likes to play his shots and nine times out of ten he'd hit that one for four.
"My role is to bat as long as I possibly can," he added. "If I can stick around and create a partnership with Cooky, even if I'm not scoring heavily I'll still be frustrating the opposition and tiring their bowlers out, and doing a job for the team. It's not my favourite time of the day, but I enjoy the challenge and my job as nightwatchman. I know I'm doing a really good job for my team if I protect the batsman, and it's nice to walk off at the end of the day having done my job."
Anderson's presence, however, provides Australia with an obvious target in a morning session that will once again begin early at 10am, and Johnson believes that he and his bowlers had found their rhythm by the close of play following an off-the-boil spell with the new ball.
"We probably started off our innings not that great but we hung in there and got back to bowling good areas," he said. "When you bowl those good areas there was enough there in that wicket still. Obviously with conditions being overcast there was still that little bit of swing there, a little bit off the deck still, so we need to go out there in the morning and start very well.
"Hopefully get a little bit of luck to go our way as well, I think they had a little bit of luck go their way but that's just how cricket is sometimes," he added. "Once we got bowling in those good areas we showed we can do it."
Johnson, who claimed two of the three England wickets to fall including Jonathan Trott for a duck, said he had been lifted by his own role with the bat, in which he clubbed a hard-hitting 53 to help add 91 for the last two wickets.
"Yes definitely, it was a good partnership me and Hilfy got in the end there, it was very important in the way the game was going," he said. "The way they bowled was pretty impressive, they bowled very good lines and lengths throughout that whole time, that innings. But we got our score up to I think a pretty good score on that wicket."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.