ENGLAND’S batsmen must respond to the pressure applied by Michael Clarke if they are to retain the Ashes in Manchester after all.
For the first time in this Investec series, thanks largely to Clarke’s tour-de-force 187 and then a nervy start from England’s top order, the hosts are behind the game after Australia piled up 527 for seven declared on day two of the third Test at Emirates Old Trafford.
Clarke and Steve Smith (89) extended their record stand to 214 yesterday; then either side of tea, Brad Haddin (65no) and Mitchell Starc (66no) put on another 97 in under 20 overs.
In 30 more before stumps, England lost Joe Root and then Tim Bresnan to Peter Siddle in a vulnerable 52 for two.
It was Stuart Broad who had eventually seen off Clarke, a notable scalp for his 200th Test wicket – with a short ball which nipped into the gloves and was deflected down on to the stumps.
But the success of Graeme Swann (five for 159) was the most obvious hint that Clarke’s 314-ball stay might have given his own off-spinner Nathan Lyon an outside chance of helping to bowl England out twice here to keep the series alive.
There were no wickets for Australia’s frontline spinner, but he was a constant threat to Alastair Cook especially as the left-hander struggled to cover the sharp turn.
Lyon was in the attack after only six overs of seam, and found Cook’s edge with his third delivery - only for the ball to ricochet off wicket-keeper Haddin’s knee and loop just short of the wrong-footed Australia captain at slip.
Instead, after Cook and Root had withstood the best efforts of four bowlers – the young Yorkshireman mustering just a single off the first 40 balls he faced - it was Siddle who struck.
Clarke held the combative seamer back for 21 overs, but Siddle had Root with only his 10th ball – a very good one delivered from slightly wider on the crease and holding up off the pitch to take the outside-edge behind.
Clarke had needed almost half an hour, and 15 balls, this morning to add to his overnight 125.
He did so with an edge, at catchable height, for four between slips and gully off James Anderson but then immediately added a much more convincing second boundary from the next delivery - forced off the back foot just in front of point.
Clarke had one moment of fortune, on 136, when Bresnan had him driving on the up through a tight off-side ring - where Swann, at short extra cover, could only parry a half-chance over his head but not as far as Kevin Pietersen behind him.
The same Bresnan plan again very nearly worked when Clarke chipped a boundary agonisingly just over the head of Anderson at mid off.
But that was as close as England came to breaking the fourth-wicket stand until, after 68 overs without success, Swann had Smith mistiming an attempted big hit to be safely held by Jonny Bairstow at mid-wicket.
There was the cue for David Warner’s belated Ashes debut, and an obligatory chorus of boos for the current focus of English supporters’ antipathy.
Warner infamously landed a punch on Root in a Birmingham bar during the Champions Trophy, and his consequent Cricket Australia ban meant the tourists did not pick him for the start of the series.
His first Test innings of the summer was memorable for its brevity, and enhancement of his anti-hero status when he squandered Australia’s remaining review despite edging Swann to slip via wicket-keeper Matt Prior’s thigh.
Haddin was dropped on 10 shortly before lunch, when he got an under-edge on an attempted pull at Anderson and Prior could not take the chance diving low to his left.
Clarke went at last, in early afternoon, and Siddle’s apparent instructions to attack brought only a single before he became Swann’s fifth victim when he missed a mow to leg and was bowled off-stump.
But Starc fulfilled the brief, with nine fours in his 53-ball 50, as Bresnan became the last of England’s four frontline bowlers to post his century of runs conceded.
When the Yorkshireman’s nightwatchman innings ended a couple of hours later, caught behind off his thigh after missing a pull at Siddle, Bresnan’s tough day was complete.
England’s almost got even worse when Cook was short of his ground responding to Jonathan Trott’s call for a single in the penultimate over.
But after Warner’s throw from mid-wicket missed by a whisker, the captain survived to rejoin what is sure to be another tough battle today.