Justin Langer moved through the gears but Australia were second-best in the race today © Getty Images
Justin Langer drove in his own lane to return some normality to Test-match batting, but Australia suffered another second-best ride and serious, unexpected trouble. After the fine-tuning at Lord's following that first-innings stumble, Edgbaston was supposed to be a lazy stop-off before a jaunt up the M6 to Old Trafford.

Instead the world champions have spent two days of a thrilling contest breathing England's fumes. Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne tried to suck them back late, but the sirens blared as Australia gave up 99 runs on first innings. By stumps the home side had earned a hefty advantage for the loss of Andrew Strauss and the visitors faced a night of honest reflection.

While his partners were intent on matching their opponents' break-neck batting, Langer checked his mirrors thoroughly, accepted the stinging bumper blows of pumped-up bowlers ... and played the innings of the match. Small and tough, he is unlike the sparklers that follow him because he remembers how to pull on stained overalls. Dirty fingernails are not beneath him and he could be forgiven today for wagging them in the dressing room.

Matthew Hayden has talked about driving straight and spurning risk, but he didn't manage to transfer the talk to deed for one ball. Ricky Ponting sped to a sweet half-century before being unable to satisfy his demands for more pace and Damien Martyn gave up a tasty start by ambling through a run when foot-to-the-floor acceleration was the prerequisite. Langer was not shown cursing, but having taken bruises for the team he had been let down.

Steve Harmison's first-over welcome to Langer is becoming Ashes folklore. At Lord's Harmison banged into an elbow and today he clattered the back of Langer's helmet with a vicious bouncer. Further blows to the stomach, hands and thighs gave Langer the message to slow down and he started the panel beating. His team-mates wanted only polish.

Twenty-seven at lunch, Langer demonstrated his hard-to-forget, but largely-outdated 1990s model. During that period Kerry O'Keeffe once said he'd rather watch bananas brown than Langer bat. However, this was a ripe and mature innings that was riveting in its application. There were only seven boundaries over 154 balls, including a cracking cover-drive off Matthew Hoggard to go to 61, but there was plenty of defiance through each deflection or punch for two. And when Simon Jones pulled him over on 82, Langer was angry to have given up within sight of the match's first century.

There were other disappointments. Michael Clarke chipped in with a bright start and Gilchrist arrived ready to work, but the tail fell to a mixture of impressive late swing and Warne's irresponsible charge to Ashley Giles. Warne's focus quickly switched and he delivered another huge legbreak to baffle Stauss, making him the first overseas bowler to take 100 wickets in England.

When Australia have been in trouble during their years of dominance, they have given "no worries" shoulder shrugs, and waited - and then watched someone save them. This time only Langer and Gilchrist recognised the moment of need on an ideal batting surface. Worried looks joined them in the field and more hands must go up alongside Warne's during the second innings to avoid a stunning turnaround.

While Australia are not motoring in their normal fashion, they have Langer to thank for not being banged up in the garage. Even with him they have suffered damage. The warning signs are now fluorescent and the series is alive.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo