Too late, Australia finally bat ugly
In Twenty-Four Hour Party People, the Manchester graphic designer Peter Saville puts together a brilliant and influential poster for the first of Tony Wilson's Factory club nights. The only problem being that he delivers them as the gig is actually taking place. "It's beautiful - but useless," retorts Wilson. "And as William Morris once said: 'Nothing useless can be truly beautiful'."
So it was for Australia on day one at The Oval. Earlier mistakes in selection, attitude, technique and planning were learned from and not repeated, allowing the tourists to establish the sort of first day bridgehead they longed to form at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge. But with the Ashes gone, the improved nature of Australia's cricket felt not only surprising but also perplexing: 287 for 3 was far from too little, but August 20 was certainly too late.
Without the pressure of the Ashes on the line, a series of smart decisions were made. But the fact they were being made now left all present at The Oval to wonder what had prevented such clear-headed thinking when it truly mattered. There was some solace to be taken from lessons learned, nevertheless it will be impossible to know if these learnings will stand up under the Ashes spotlight until the next time Australia contest the urn on these shores.
The mea culpas started before the toss, as the selectors Rod Marsh and Darren Lehmann reverted to an XI far more suited to English conditions yet also truer to their own philosophies on the game. Where Mitchell Marsh had been rudely shoved aside so that his brother Shaun could be brought in to shore up the batting in Nottingham, now the team reverted to an allrounder. Where Peter Siddle's English expertise had been summarily dismissed in the first four Tests, now it was finally recognised as a useful bringer of control to an otherwise ultra-aggressive ensemble.
Siddle's selection surprised many, and caused an infuriated Shane Warne to sound off at length. But it was at the very least an acknowledgement of earlier fault in the balance of attacks chosen, and at last a selection tailored to the requirements of the moment rather than the achievements of the recent past or preparation for the future. Pat Cummins could doubtless have done with the experience, but a bowling attack of Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson and Cummins would not have been terribly balanced either.
Confronted by a green-tinged pitch and an overcast, muggy day, the tourists clearly feared the worst upon being sent in to bat a second time in as many matches. The anguished look on Michael Clarke's face said as much. This anxiety could quite easily have led to another rush of wickets, and the air around The Oval crackled with just such an expectation.
But a staunch opening stand by Chris Rogers and David Warner, a slightly off-kilter England attack and a surface less malleable than expected for seamers allowed the day to unfold in a manner far removed from the hullabaloo at Trent Bridge. Most importantly, all Australia's batsmen played with a level of humility at odds with some of their earlier displays. It was clear that they now realise the fact that in England they are, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a modest Test team with much to be modest about.
Rogers and Warner did an admirable job to ward off the new ball. If less sideways movement was evident than at Trent Bridge there was certainly plenty of bounce, and the occasional ball rearing sharply meant that footwork had to be precise and judgment of length sound. Stuart Broad helped by bowling wide of the stumps too often, evidence that his Trent Bridge spell was exactly the sort of once-in-a-lifetime burst he recognised it to be. After 10 overs Australia were 14 without loss - they had been 35 for 7 at the same stage in Nottingham.
While Rogers did more or less exactly in his last Test what he has done over the previous 24, blunting the bowlers with skill and thought, Warner showed further evidence of his progress as a batsman on this tour. Significantly, his 85 was the first time he had endured in a first innings this series, and a patient start drew rich rewards beyond the first hour. Warner was irritated to be out before a century once more, but the fact it took Moeen Ali to dismiss him said much for how much his innings had changed the day.
Clarke and Steven Smith then joined one another for a brief, baton-passing stand that reflected how the older man was correct in his decision to retire, while his junior is self-managing in ways becoming of a top class international batsman and imminent Test captain. A warm guard of honour was formed by England's fielders for Clarke, who walked out bedecked in long sleeve shirt and black armband in recognition of his fallen friend Phillip Hughes. He fought doggedly to find rhythm, and even reverted to the natural forward movement he had used most of his career but abandoned for much of this series.
For a time it looked as though Clarke might be able to carve out an innings of worth, and on one occasion sallied forth with his old vigour to swing Moeen down the ground. But the pitch's propensity for the occasional flyer remained, and Ben Stokes conjured a lifting delivery that Clarke may well have edged in his pomp. He was unsure of the edge, and referred it, but did not linger when Real-time Snicko showed a fine nick. His dismissal occurred, believe it or not, at 4.08pm.
At the other end, Smith fought himself to regain the flowing touch he had lost over the past three weeks. His exaggerated cross-crease trigger movement had clearly been a point of contention for Smith, as he now took a guard far closer to off stump and took his back foot from leg to off in a far more controlled manner. It was clear this adjustment had been difficult to make, as he often found himself reaching for deliveries that his previous movement would have taken him more comfortably in touch with, and both outside and inside edges were probed.
This was no masterpiece from Smith, perhaps the most dog-eared of his major Test innings to date. But in its very ugliness there was significance - to be the batsman and captain his team needs, Smith will have to score runs in most circumstances, irrespective of his own comfort at the crease. It is a quality Adam Voges must also demonstrate if he is to carry on as a bridge between generations old and new in the middle order, and together they demonstrated it keenly here. That much was significant for the team's future, even if it was too late to affect the outcome of this series.
Saville and Wilson did eventually get their design schedules right, as the striking visuals of Factory Records would attest in later years. In much the same way, Australia's batsmen must take heart from the way they played on a good day for bowling at The Oval, while also recognising that such performances will be useless until they are put together when it matters.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig