Test slows down, but remains exhausting
Deck-shoes, flipflops, sandals, trainers; Panamas, cotton hats, canvas, straw. The crowd gently melted into their clothing as the heat bore down on Trent Bridge, and the first Investec Test wound itself slowly, tightly towards the resolution that was coming, probably on Saturday, first blood in a series of ten.
If the first two days had been bewilderingly fast, this was deliberately attritional cricket. Deliberately attritional, but not dull and stultifying. Delicious, in the way a bean and vegetable hot-pot sometimes surpasses a bag of chips. For the first time in the series, everyone had a chance to undo their top buttons, loosen their belts and really look at each other. The crowd could watch the players, get their heads around this Australian team of new faces, and the players could study each other, largely undistracted by gangling sixes or devastating spells of reverse-swing. It was a test of concentration and hydration. But an infinitely rewarding one.
From the early morning heat, when the rays bounced off the concrete parquet paving on the walkways around the ground, to the afternoon haze which sapped the energy even from those who otherwise might have stood and sung, the sun was king. Spectators sat in their seats and baked till they started to crisp around the ears. Drunken ditties, that grow lazy with repetition, lasted a single verse. Mr Whippys dripped down cones and wrists to puddle stickily in the inside of the elbow. Plastic pint pots stacked up untidily until tired feet kicked them over while uncomfortably stretching away the session. It was a day when lazy afternoon somnolence started at 11 and lasted until six.
On a day like this there is a lot of time to think. Too much time to think. To wonder what Ian Bell thinks about when he potters off to do a little gentle gardening mid-pitch, or replays little shots in his own little world. To wonder why Australian baggy greens always fit better than English blue, why the crowd always wakes up with six overs to go. Should you feel sorry for an umpire who is trying his best? Should sports teams learn to accept the hand of fate? Would Ashton Agar still bounce around with the same enthusiasm at six o'clock? (yes).
Michael Clarke was a young bloke brought to Hampshire by Shane Warne when most English people first saw him. He's had lots to deal with since then, not least the indiscipline of his side - the magnificent homeworkgate in India in March which left Shane Watson dropped. Watson flew off home to meet his new baby and resigned the vice-captaincy. There was a widely reported tiff.
Yet here they were standing together at slip, a delicate petit pain and a chunky wholemeal loaf, brains and brawn. Clarke, nimble and slim, long-sleeved, crouched down, hands on his knees, sunhat pulled firmly over his head, giant sunglasses covering his face. Watson, titanic, who probably couldn't get sleeves to cover the vast muscle of his arms, had hands low to the ground, ice-cream scoops waiting for an order. And they chatted away. Or rather Clarke chatted and Watson nodded, filled with the exhaustion of bowling, his huge frame casting a tiny shadow at midday as he trudged back, maiden after maiden from the pavilion end - the first runs off him came from the fourth ball of his sixth over.
And as the day went on, and the runs leaked slowly from the bat onto the scoreboard, the Australian fielders made to do some sort of elaborate country dance over a green sward, let by Clarke who held hands and patted and hugged his men as they walked forward and across and backwards and sideways, the creaminess of their flannels adding some old-fashioned charm next to England's brilliant, modern, whites.
England alternated between crawling and boundaries, that stuttered the crowd from their Test Match Special listening and their consumption of sandwiches. The milestones came and went, Kevin Pietersen's fourth fifty in a home Ashes series, Alastair Cook's first fifty at Trent Bridge, Bell's longed for star turn, proper graft, no dilettantism.
By lunch England had made 77 runs and lost two wickets, by tea they'd made 72 runs and lost two more wickets. In the final session, as the bowlers tired and the Australians railed against the injustice of an English batsman not walking, and an umpire not concentrating, England clocked up a rocking 96 for no (official) loss.
England's run-rate in their last dozen or so Tests since June 2012 is 2.86, the lowest among all teams except Zimbabwe. This suggests a team of plodders, although they have done without Pietersen for some of that period. They didn't plod today, they battled against spin, reverse-swing heat and pressure. Slow and steady.
This has its place in Test matches. If all anyone wanted was frenetic cricket, there would be only Twenty20s. No Tests in Wellington, no soggy outfields, no light, no shadow. If you could only come to one day of this Test, today might not have been the one you choose. But as part of the whole, it was perfect
And by the close England had inched ahead. Enough. Probably. Exhausting.
Tanya Aldred is a freelance writer in Manchester