England toil as Australia flourish
The Gabba, Brisbane
As an England cricket supporter in Australia, you become accustomed to dealing with all sorts of misery - the stabbing pain of a sudden collapse like Thursday's, the overall melancholy of a long-term losing record, the attritional agony of having all hope slowly squeezed out of you.
Saturday at The Gabba was a classic of the latter kind. After an opening hour when England bowled beautifully for absolutely no reward, Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin did what Australian batsman seem to have been doing for time immemorial - piling on the runs, hour after hour, until the idea of a wicket ever falling again seems utterly impossible.
When the two came together, Australia were 143-5, 117 runs in arrears and in deep trouble. When they were finally parted, well over a day later, they were 450-6, 190 runs in front and in seventh heaven.
It was the highest partnership in Test history at this famous old ground, blowing away the 64-year-old record of Don Bradman and Lindsay Hassett. More than that, it was a brutal lesson in top-class batting - hanging in there when times are tough, starting to accelerate, and then grinding the opposition into the dirt.
Midway through the afternoon, four and a half hours into the day's play, England fans staring on glumly from the stands began to fear a repeat of the ultimate Ashes horror - Mark Taylor and Geoff Marsh at Trent Bridge in 1989, batting through an entire day without losing a wicket.
Hussey, on the brink of being dropped from the side before this match, cantered to his highest ever Test score - 195 almost chanceless runs, including 24 fours, off 330 balls.
Anderson will rarely have bowled better, yet the wickets refused to come (Picture: Getty)
Farewell, humble Mr Cricket. Arise, Sir Cricket of the Gabba.
Haddin played the time-honoured part of Aussie wicketkeeper to perfection. Whoever pulls on the stumper's gloves for Australia seems destined to ruin things for English bowlers, just when they think they've done the hard bit of getting rid of the frontline batsman.
Ian Healy used to revel in it. Adam Gilchrist made an art form of it, at least until 2005. Here in Brisbane, Haddin continued that fine tradition with an innings that was everything his counterpart Matthew Prior's was not.
Both are naturally attacking batsmen. But while Prior decided to blaze away from the very first ball he faced and saw his stumps splayed as a result, Haddin dug in for an eternity and only went for his shots once the momentum was his.
His first 25 runs came off 106 balls, his next 75 off 117. When he went to his ton with a straight six off the toiling Graeme Swann, the symbolism was obvious.
Hope remains for the weary tourists. After that fifth wicket partnership had piled on 307 mighty runs, the last five Australian wickets went for 31. England survived a horrendously nervy last hour to go into the fourth day with all 10 wickets intact, albeit at a deficit of 202.
What will haunt them is that it could have all been so different. Just maybe it should have been.
As England came out of the traps at pace in the first hour of the day, Anderson bowled one of the great wicketless spells anyone could remember - sliding some past the outside edge, dipping others back in to the pads, beating both batsmen time and time again.
Steaming in from the Vulture Street end with the new ball in his hand, he produced a faultless maiden with the first over of the day and then had Hussey given out lbw by umpire Aleem Dar with the sixth ball of his second.
England celebrated with the sort of giddy fervour you'd expect when the key man has been sent back to the hutch with just one run added to his overnight score. A first innings lead seemed a real possibility.
Hussey stayed calm. Encouraged by a nod from his partner Haddin down the other end, he signalled for a referral. Replays showed the ball pitching fractionally outside off stump. The original decision was reversed.
Painful though that was for the tourists, it was an example of the DRS (decision review system) working well - a wrong decision instantly corrected. The same could not be said two overs later.
Close to lbw to the first ball, Hussey looked absolutely plumb to the second - trapped on the back pad, bang in front. Anderson, Prior and all three slips all went ripe bananas, convinced that this time they had their man.
Dar thought otherwise. And with England already having burned up their two allotted referrals (DRS regulation 3.5a) with an unsuccessful lbw shout against Shane Watson before lunch on Friday and appeal for caught behind against Michael Clarke in the afternoon, there was nothing they could do about it.
Which is where England supporters could start to feel aggrieved. Replays showed that Hussey was indeed plumb. The ball would have taken out middle and leg stumps.
The premise behind the DRS is to make decisions as accurate as possible. Here was a case where television replays showed almost instantly that the umpire had clearly got it wrong, yet nothing could be done about it.
Had Dar's judgement or instinctive reaction been affected, even subconsciously and momentarily, by having his previous decision reversed? It may be that he heard two noises - the ball flicked the front pad on the way through - and assumed the first came from the bat. He is a fine umpire having an excellent match. But one glance at the replay could have put him right.
The number of unsuccessful referrals was set at two an innings to prevent players sending every decision upstairs, slowing the game down and constantly questioning the authority of the umpire. Many in the game feel two is not enough. England's players certainly do, having seen Snicko (too slow to be used by the third umpire) back up their belief that Clarke had indeed edged the chance that cost them the key review.
In rugby, control lies with the officials. If a referee is unsure if a try has been scored, he can ask the TMO to have a look. Players cannot get involved.
What's to stop cricket adopting the same system? If an umpire is in any way unsure, he sends it upstairs to his colleague. Power remains with the official. His authority is
underlined, not undermined.
None of which should take anything away from Hussey and Haddin, who batted with enormous resolve during that sticky first hour and then gradually accelerated until England were well and truly flattened under the wheels.
England, so full of confidence when they arrived at the Gabba, are likely to leave it both chastened and concerned.
Their successes of the past 18 months have been based around a four-man bowling attack. Even before the first ball was bowled here many wondered whether that could work on these pitches and with this Kookaburra ball. An opposition partnership that lasts over a day would suggest it might not.
Then there's the question of recovery. Anderson has already bowled 37 overs in punishing conditions, Broad 33, Swann 43, Finn 34. Broad, yet to take a single wicket, is suffering with blisters, and spent a large chunk of Saturday unable to bowl. And there are just four days between the scheduled fifth day here and the first day of the second Test in Adelaide.
Then there's the question of who might come in. Would Tim Bresnan have any more success in these conditions? Does Chris Tremlett have the pedigree to take enough wickets? If Ajmal Shazad was brought in from the performance squad, what sort of message would it send to those two?
Nothing, of course, is yet lost. We are a single Test into a five-match battle. England were similarly battered in the first match of the 2009 Ashes, escaped with a draw and went on to win the series.
Even if they go on to lose heavily here, recent history offers hope. Last summer they lost by an innings and 80 runs at Headingley, yet won the next match - and the series - at The Oval by a massive 197 runs.
There are silver linings. But there are also plenty of clouds.