Australia pay for batting madness
As the evening shadows began to creep across Lord's, Ashton Agar stepped in to bowl to Jonny Bairstow. His languid action, more stilted in this match due to a hip complaint, wound up towards the crease in seven bounding steps, before his left arm began its ascent.
Usually it rolls over smoothly and propels the ball down towards the batsman with flight and a little spin. But this time he pulled out of the motion before completing it, having lost grip on the ball. Offering a gently embarrassed smile, he shuffled back to his mark to try again. It had been that sort of day for Australia, as Friday's madness became Saturday's consequences.
There was only ever the slimmest chance that England would allow Australia back into the Test after Australia's staggeringly slipshod first innings batting display, and it was arguably gone the moment neither Brad Haddin nor Michael Clarke chose to accept a regulation outside edge from Joe Root late on the second evening.
The tourists' bowlers battled manfully on day three, working away patiently despite the near hopelessness of their situation. But they were unable to wring dramatic results from the dry yet still quite trustworthy pitch, as Root, Tim Bresnan, Ian Bell and Bairstow pushed the target well beyond the realms of the possible.
The bowlers' frustration at finding themselves in such a predicament was plain on their faces throughout. Ryan Harris grimaced and cussed frequently, James Pattinson's expressive features were contorted more often in exasperation than intimidation, and Peter Siddle charged in angrily. They knew their best efforts were being thwarted by solid, unspectacular stuff from England; exactly the sort of batting the Australians should have aimed for on the second afternoon. The coach Darren Lehmann has spoken admiringly of how this series Bell has played within his limitations, and on this day Bresnan and Root in particular would follow that blueprint grandly.
The lessons for Australia's batsmen were many, from Bresnan's dogged occupation of the crease in the morning to absorb the freshest of the bowling, to Root's commendably straight bat in either defence or attack. Overall the impression was of batsmen not prepared to give up their wickets cheaply, even if the only two wickets to fall were to misdirected pull shots. Good spells were respected and bad ones punished. Scoring was steady but not unduly hurried, and the closing overs of sessions were played out without the merest hint of a brain explosion. Having survived only 53.3 overs themselves, the tourists have already slogged through 110 from England in this innings and in the process have also worn down the bowlers who represent Australia's best chance of nicking a Test match.
Harris, so incisive and effective on the first day of the match, was clearly diminished by lack of rest. His pace wavered somewhat, and he was unable to conjure the wickets he has so often provided when fit. Returning to his bowling mark time after time, Harris would no doubt have recalled similar scenarios when playing for an underperforming South Australia before his move to Queensland.
The discontent of bowlers in a weak team are compounding - there is less rest to be had, the opposing batsmen are not afflicted by the heavy legs associated with long hours in the field, and teammates wait for chances more in hope than the expectation associated with regular winners.
For Agar, this was a sobering day. The dryness of the surface suggested opportunities for spinners, as Steve Smith had demonstrated in the first innings. But his lack of success reflected the fact that at 19 he remains a bowler in development, regardless of how beguiled the selectors have been by his obvious natural ability. It is likely that Agar will become a very fine cricketer, but right now it is not quite clear that bowling should remain his primary string. Save for one delivery that bit out of the rough and spun across Root's bat to Clarke at slip without taking a touch, there was little mystery or venom in many of Agar's offerings.
Watching on from the pavilion, Nathan Lyon can rightly wonder at how he may have fared. His omission from the Trent Bridge Test was a tight and contentious call, its consequences obscured for a time by the blinding light of Agar's debut 98 at No. 11. But on a day like this, it cannot be debated that Lyon would have posed more problems for England's batsmen, having learned as he has the nuances of Test match bowling over the apprenticeship that had appeared geared towards this series. Lyon has taken his absence from the team as well as could be expected. For all the romanticism of Nottingham, Agar may soon be dealing with similar emotions.
Speaking of injustices, Bell's survival of an apparent clear catch by Smith in the gully when he had only 3 maintained a theme almost as disquieting as that of Australia's anaemic batting displays. For the second time in as many Tests the tourists were denied a wicket by umpiring error, in this case the third official Tony Hill being fooled by the optical issues presented by television footage of a clear catch. Like Stuart Broad, Bell stood his ground with the brio of an established performer. In this instance, the fielders' frustration at their plight as warranted. But in the context of the day it was a misleading moment. Australia deserved precisely the fate that befell them. Like Agar to Bairstow, they have completely lost their grip.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here