Australia lose openers' thread
For 84 runs and 24 overs, Shane Watson and Chris Rogers left England's bowlers more bereft of ideas about how to confound Australian batsmen than at any time in recent memory. As a promising opening combination read faultlessly from the book on how to handle the new ball, a curious flatness descended on Trent Bridge. In contravention of what the tourists are expected to do - collapse - Watson and Rogers rotated the strike, cuffed regular boundaries and kept the good stuff out. Seldom in recent times has Australia's batting been cause for less concern.
Of course, it did not last. Watson departed first ball after drinks to Stuart Broad, victim of a marginal lbw decision just as Rogers had been in the first innings. What followed was a slow, inexorable decline, as English pressure compounded Australian lapses of the kind that have come to be expected almost as a matter of course ever since Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey disappeared from Test match view.
While the wicket of Michael Clarke provided a definitive conclusion to the chief sportswriters' walking debate and that of Phillip Hughes ensured questions of technology would only grow in urgency, they were dramatic parts of the wider whole. Shown how to conduct themselves in these circumstances and conditions by their openers, Australia's batsmen failed comprehensively to follow suit, once again leaving an enormous task in the hands of the debutant Ashton Agar.
In the case of Ed Cowan, Australia have a batsman apparently out of step with his natural game, having lost the kind of patience and judgment that took him into the side in the first place. Should they go on to record a stirring victory, it will not conceal the fact that the new coach Darren Lehmann's most pressing task is the same that confronted Mickey Arthur. At least he will have the example of the opening stand to point out.
One of the most startling effects Rogers and Watson had while they batted together was to make the target Australia confronted look eminently achievable. England's tail had appeared satisfied with their lead at the start of the day, after Ian Bell and Stuart Broad had ridden considerable luck but also showed plenty of skill to ensure it would go beyond 300. But within a few overs of the chase English brows had began to furrow, as a pair of Australia batsmen showed authority, good sense and sound technique.
Only the occasional play-and-miss interrupted their flow, and apart from one Watson loft to the straight midwicket boundary from Graeme Swann scarcely a single shot was struck in the air. The slow, deteriorating surface meant it was admittedly easier to face the new ball than the old but at no stage did Rogers and Watson allow England's bowlers to settle, punishing the merest miscalculations in line and length and also scoring from plenty of deliveries that were blameless, using quick feet and subtle hands to do so.
For once, the end of Watson's innings was not a matter for too much introspection about wasted foundations. Stuart Broad swung a good one into him, the pad was struck, and the appeal was upheld. Watson's referral was instinctive, and a Hawk-Eye projection that had the ball clipping leg stump was another marginal call against Australia. In other words, it was the kind of dismissal that, while influential, could be lived with. The next would be quite the opposite.
Cowan has been ill across this match, suffering badly from a virus that has consigned him to bed at times when he has not been needed at the ground. But he has also been afflicted by a kind of compulsion to play as his position demands rather than the way he generally builds an innings. On day one he wafted at a ball that might normally have been left and was out for a golden duck. This time around he tossed away a serviceable start by driving heedlessly at the first ball Joe Root floated into the footmarks outside off stump, moreover in the last over before tea.
In isolation, Cowan's exit was wasteful. In the context of the match it was critical. Bell later acknowledged that England had bowled somewhat loosely prior to tea. After it they tightened up, and thanks to Cowan they had a new batsman in Clarke to concentrate on. Lehmann has spoken often of allowing his players to bat the way they know best. In Cowan's case he must rediscover exactly what that is, and quickly. Even retention for the Lord's Test is far from guaranteed.
Having played so well in Watson's company, Rogers was gradually becalmed. He found it increasingly difficult to find the occasional boundary that kept his score ticking, and at length the supply of singles also began to dry, his innings slowly becoming almost as parched of runs as the dusty pitch lacked for moisture. Eventually, Rogers was undone by a neat James Anderson plan from around the wicket, cramped for room and flicking in the air to a short midwicket. Unlike Cowan, Rogers has been his usual self in this match. But he will rue the constriction of his innings, leading to error and dismissal.
Batting by this time had become a rather more difficult task, complicated by a softening, moving and spinning ball, a more focused England and the tension of the chase itself. But Clarke would be another batsman to find difficulty adapting to his new role. Typically, Clarke's best innings at No. 5 have begun with a distinct note of counterpunching, going after good balls and bad with a busy, energetic approach that takes momentum away from the bowlers. He was strangely conservative here, trying to preserve his wicket but ultimately allowing England to encircle him. His exit will be talked about mainly for the use of Australia's final review but he had hardly set a confident marker, and No. 4 will remain a kind of millstone until he can be more proactive.
Steve Smith and Phillip Hughes duly fell victim to the momentum and pressure inflicted by England, plus the extravagant turn gained by Swann. There was a familiar sense of fear and claustrophobia about Australia's batsmen in England, the kind of feeling first visited in 2005 and repeated again four years later. Agar, Brad Haddin and the rest of the tail have been left with an almighty task. But even if they achieve it, the batsmen have plenty to ponder before Lord's. A video of Rogers' partnership with Watson should be required, repeat viewing.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here