A fate Australia did not deserve
Ashton Agar did not deserve it, and nor did Australia. Life isn't always fair and nor, at regular junctures in its winding five-day narrative, is Test cricket. Sometimes, events simply do not unfold in an equitable manner. It is a fact of life an international cricketer must learn to deal with, for too much rage at an apparent injustice can still be clouding the mind when the next pivotal moment arrives.
An obvious edge to slip that the umpire Aleem Dar did not see, and that the batsman Stuart Broad insouciantly declined to acknowledge, was the most sickening moment for Agar, the captain Michael Clarke and the coach Darren Lehmann, who wore a thunderous expression on the team balcony. But it also spoke to a wider truth about day three. The touring side put their very marrow into the task of dislodging England on a flat pitch, and could not be criticised too much for their thinking, or their execution. Yet Agar and the rest still walked off the field at Trent Bridge with another four wickets to claim on day four, Broad's among them.
Australia's planning for the day had shown plenty of evidence of lessons learned from the dysfunctional tour of India earlier this year. There were tight spells by the pacemen with ring fields and an avid search for reverse swing. Agar dropped onto a teasing length and used the footmarks created by the bowlers as a source of variation, in addition to the loop, flight and changes of pace he was able to impart. And Shane Watson was used on short stints at the crease that emphasised nagging accuracy and concentration, the occasional stumps-seeking inswinger used as a weapon of surprise.
All these stratagems forced England's batsmen to play with considerable discipline, from the moment Kevin Pietersen joined Alastair Cook on the second evening following the fall of Joe Root and Jonathan Trott to successive balls from Mitchell Starc. It was perhaps the most sustained display of such bowling by an Australian attack in generally unhelpful conditions since the 2004 triumph in India, when a far more revered team succeeded in winning the battle of patience.
"Michael Clarke set some very good fields today," Pietersen said. "Their bowlers also bowled really well. We had to play with a lot of discipline. Siddle runs in all day. It is like he has Duracell batteries in him. He is a fantastic cricketer for Australia. He is a typical die hard serve your country bowler. They all bowled with discipline and good areas. It was important for Chef and I to set a foundation certainly last night to get to the end of play and set foundation for our players to go out and play today."
Even accounting for the time and effort put in by Pietersen and Cook, they did not get away from Clarke's men, nor from Agar. Pressure was sustained over upon over, and was rewarded when James Pattinson coaxed a Pietersen drag onto the stumps. Cook then fell 10 runs later, defeated by lovely loop and line from Agar, plus the spectre of the rough, which caused him to close the face of his bat in expectation of turn and offer a front edge well held by Clarke. Agar's celebrations were well earned, but he was not content with one.
Jonny Bairstow became Agar's second victim, a ball spinning just enough to slide across the bat's slightly open face and nestle into Brad Haddin's gloves. In those two balls Agar had done close to everything a spin bowler must to succeed over a long period - one that spins, another that doesn't and both delivered with teasing flight and drop. He gained in accuracy and poise with each successive over, already far more confident than the naturally nervous figure he appeared on the first morning.
Matt Prior held the Australians up for a time, but it is clear that they have done a great deal of planning for the strengths of England's counterpunching wicketkeeper. A shortish square cover was posted, as it had been in the first innings, while men stationed at gully, point and a slightly deeper midwicket waited for airy, aggressive shots. The first chance Prior offered did not go to hand, when an ill Ed Cowan was unable to jump high enough to clasp a slice behind point. But another was not long in following, ironically to Cowan at midwicket from a pull shot after Steve Smith had been sent to roam the offside region.
To this point it was Australia's day, reflecting a good deal of credit on the bowlers, their captain and the coaching staff who had prepared them for Trent Bridge. The burning of the team's referrals on a pair of somewhat speculative lbw appeals sat in the back of English minds, and so too the decision to exchange an old ball that was reverse swinging notably for a new projectile that did not immediately deign to bend. But the overall impression was of a team working neatly and intelligently together, Agar's spin losing little by comparison with that of the off spinner Nathan Lyon, who he had edged out for this match.
Broad's innings would start in fortunate fashion, an inside edge preventing the tourists from raising their voices fully in an lbw appeal, and several other edges slid out of the reach of Clarke's fields. While Ian Bell was near enough to impassable, demonstrating the purity of his technique against the moving or spinning ball, Broad's survival after snicking Agar to slip was enough to test the patience of any team. The next over, Haddin was unable to grasp the toughest of low chances to his right from Bell, enhancing the opportunity for frustration.
But even in this moment the Australians showed something that was admirable, and worth savouring. Clarke's remonstrations against Dar were sharp, but short, and the final 15 overs of the day gave up only another 29 runs. It had been a staunch effort under-rewarded, and only occasionally blighted by flawed judgement. Better was deserved, and in this series there will surely be other days when Agar and Australia benefit from greater fortune than they received on this one.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here