Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 1st day December 5, 2013

Clarke grins and bears it, again

As Australia's top-order batsmen squandered their starts, the job of ensuring a score the situation merited was once more left to Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke smiled broadly upon winning a critical Ashes toss at the new Adelaide Oval. By day's end, his face wore something more like a grimace, as Clarke was again left to shoulder the bulk of responsibility for constructing a first-innings tally worthy of the beaming grin he offered to television cameras upon seeing the coin fall in his favour.

For most of a day speckled by rain interruptions, the task of laying down a foundation for Ashes success weighed very heavily indeed on the Australians. Their most prickly opposition appeared not to be a doughty-but-flawed England - whose players dropped three catches - or an extremely dry drop-in pitch that offered slow turn, easy pace and largely even bounce.

Instead the greatest difficulties emanated from the minds of the batsmen themselves, as a history of inconsistency, and the knowledge of what was at stake, took hold of minds that had been relatively free of self-recriminating thoughts at the Gabba. No batsman, perhaps bar Steven Smith, could legitimately claim to have been bowled out by an unplayable ball or defeated before he had found his bearings.

The brittleness of Australia's batsmen left them in very real danger of doing scant justice to the conditions, and granting England an avenue back into the series after the exceptionally downcast aftermath of the Brisbane Test and Jonathan Trott's pained return home from the tour. David Warner, Shane Watson, Chris Rogers and George Bailey all made starts, but each fell by the wayside after doing the hard work, and left Clarke in his most familiar position of recent times, trying to drag the team along behind him.

"We spoke about if you get in on this wicket you've got to make it count, and that's probably the big disappointment for today," Rogers said, following his 72. "There were a lot of starts, but saying that a lot of us contributed and if we can keep going that's going to be a very competitive score."

How competitive exactly cannot be known until England bat, but the anguished reactions of each player upon losing their wicket in a manner quite avoidable told a tale as anxious as the stumps score of 5 for 273. They had hoped for better in the morning, when a cool day and regular showers could not disguise the fact that the surface was about as suitable for seam and swing as the dry strips of England had been earlier this year.

Warner had little trouble getting established, buzzing his way to 29 in a manner that allowed the more sedate Rogers to take his time. He was particularly strong through the off side, punching powerfully off front and back feet. It was this area that brought his downfall, as for the second time in the series he slashed too eagerly at something short of a length and skewered a catch to backward point.

The pitch's lack of speed relative to Brisbane had found out Warner, and it would have a similar effect on Watson. For most of his innings he showed good judgment of what to attack what to defend, but the firm-wristed drives that look so perfect when the ball is fired back down the ground can seem inflexible when a variation in pace has him through the shot early.

So it was this day, James Anderson accepting a low return catch and hurling the ball aloft while Watson wandered off regretfully. He remains a batsman almost as vulnerable between 50 and 100 as he is before scoring a run, and opposing bowlers can feel enlivened by his progression beyond the half-century mark for reasons backed up overwhelmingly by statistical evidence.

Rogers' battle against Swann has entered a new phase, after spin was the opener's major source of grief in England. Having worked thoroughly and well with Dean Jones to find more consistent scoring avenues against Swann, Rogers was able to turn the strike over here, and on one occasion knelt down to deliver a sweep shot the equal of the one that took him to his first Test century in Durham. But Swann's capacity to generate variation in turn had flummoxed Rogers in England and did so once more in Adelaide, his bat unable to resist following an off break that spun sharply, if slowly, away, after pitching on course for the stumps.

Rogers turned on his heels immediately, reproaching himself for missing the chance to go on to a hundred and, more damagingly, losing his wicket the very over after Watson. When Smith played crookedly inside Monty Panesar's stock ball before he had settled, the subsidence of three wickets for 19 had England's fielders reacting with more excitement than relief for the first time since day one at the Gabba.

On this uncertain ground, Bailey built his most sure-footed Test innings so far, showing a level of comfort with the slower, lower Adelaide that had eluded him in Brisbane. He scored more swiftly than Clarke, and did not hesitate to punch Swann down the ground when offered a little extra flight, reminding seasoned observers of some innings played on turning pitches for Tasmania against South Australia in earlier years.

But he too lost composure as the shadows grew long, hooking Stuart Broad in the general vicinity of Swann at square leg. The catch was memorable, but the score of 53 less so. Clarke thus had to play for stumps with all the trepidation of a captain knowing his side has not yet made the runs required by the situation, while at the other end Brad Haddin survived only through good fortune offered by Michael Carberry and the DRS.

Captain and deputy were relieved to reach the close with the opportunity for more runs on day two. But they did so knowing that Australia's first brush with the pressures of front-running in this Ashes series had been far from smooth. Further partnerships will be required before Clarke's smile can return.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here