ENGLAND may have retained the Ashes courtesy of the rain last week in Manchester, but this series is alive and kicking as Australia are rediscovering some vim and vigour in their cricket.
Since Lord’s, which was an absolute thrashing, England have been becalmed and mostly because Australia have become much more disciplined.
Gone is the slapdash and in its place is a bit of cussedness, or as older Aussies call it, a bit of mongrel.
The main exponents yesterday were Chris Rogers and Shane Watson. The former is no surprise, as his entire game is based on stubborn occupation of the crease, but for Watson to prove a battler in trying circumstances is a much-needed but pleasant surprise.
Their fourth wicket partnership of 129 earned parity at the very least and rescued Australia from a parlous position in which four major wickets had fallen for only 50 runs and Stuart Broad was rampant, beating the bat at least once every over.
The recovery was old fashioned cricket based on graft and a liberal dose of good fortune. They deserved it as well, especially Rogers, as the pitch was very helpful to the seamers and runs had to be chiselled like granite from rock.
What Rogers will remember is how his hard work meant something to his team. It gave them a chance to force dominance and maybe win and that is what should please him most. He is a worker, not a glamour and thoroughly deserved his hundred. Its arrival was as tortured as his earlier battles with Broad, as he spent 28 minutes stranded on 96. Somehow it seemed fitting with no quarter asked for and none given.
Shrewdly, Alastair Cook refused to let him pinch a single off Graeme Swann and the spinner was conjuring each and every one of his tricks. It was compelling, each delivery increasing the pressure on the batsman and after a dreadful attempted cut shot that just missed both his edge and off-stump, Rogers boldly decided to hit a hard sweep shot. Something had to give and he nailed it for four. It brought blessed relief and a cheer to the dressing room. It could have been so different though, as earlier in the day he was adjudged caught behind off Broad.
He reviewed immediately and was vindicated as no edge was shown but Hawk-Eye had him out LBW. England, watching the screens, assumed he was still out but as the on-field umpire had given him out caught and the DRS stated “umpire’s call” Rogers could not be given out LBW.
Confused? For a system that was meant to simply eradicate howlers it is proving to be too much of an influence and story.
There was little doubt about the drop though, as on 49, Swann dived in front of Cook and spilled a tough chance. It was a split-second decision and probably the right one as he could not tell if the ball would have carried to the deeper-lying first slip.
Watson also had a reprieve on five but his innings was one of his finest. It was a dogged half-century with few thrills and he was unfortunate to be caught glancing down the leg-side. Interestingly, the rather truculent body language of earlier in the series has been replaced by something a bit more jaunty and bristling. He seems to be enjoying bowling more and has accepted batting in the middle order rather than opening and he looks a much better all-round cricketer for it.
So he and Rogers have fought hard but when bad light stopped play just before 6pm there was the opportunity for them to forge ahead and get a decent lead.
Much will depend on Rogers continuing this morning and Brad Haddin delivering yet another counter-attack. If they can, a lead is possible and possibly a crucial one, because as the pitch continues to deteriorate they will probably need it.
However, their tail is much longer, with Peter Siddle at No.8, so England will also be reasonably satisified.
There is much to play for between two increasingly evenly matched teams.