Every team is entitled to an off-day. Really the surprise is that Australia's day of struggle has been so long coming. From the time the season began in Malaysia last September until this lacklustre session at the SCG, Ricky Ponting's side has been playing superb and undefeated cricket. A few awkward hours have unfolded but most have owed more to stiff opposition than antipodean waywardness. None has lasted long. Ponting's side has become adept at correcting mistakes on the hoof. Before long normal service has been resumed.
Occasionally, though, even a powerful team starts badly and does not recover. It is not a question of complacency. Australia could not have prepared any better for this contest. To watch the team practise before the match was to notice the intensity of their work. Contrastingly their opponents appeared slapdash. Admittedly Ponting, Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson were missing but their replacements were not exactly novices. The hosts was ready to play.
Australia was let down by its bowlers. Usually they force batsmen to work for their runs by keeping a tight line and length. Now they were as unreliable as a CIA`report. Impressive in practise, Shane Tait mixed up scorchers and wides. He bowled at high pace and looked like taking wickets but also gave the batsmen too many opportunities to drive towards the short boundary. Called upon to work with only two fieldsmen on the leg-side, he tended to stray to far outside off-stick. Burdened with a wonky shoulder, his fielding fell below the common standard.
Nathan Bracken began tidily but rapidly tired and a toll was taken of his third and fourth overs. He did not swing the ball much and his bowling lacked vitality. Alarm bells started to ring when he did not so much chase a ball towards the boundary as trot along behind it. Happily subsequent spells suggested that his body was intact. He has bowled resourcefully in this form of the game and has rarely failed to take an early wicket. He can survive a few days like this.
Meanwhile England's openers took the chance presented by erratic bowling and a friendly pitch to send the score rattling along. Ed Joyce is an accomplished player who deserved a chance in the longer version of the game. Instead England retained faith in its formula of playing four fast bowlers, some of them flattered by the company they were keeping. Joyce batted intelligently, consolidating on a lively opening with alert running and thoughtful placements. It was a splendid performance. He seemed to enjoy batting with Ian Bell, a nippy partner and an efficient cutter of the ball. Alongside Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, the irishman gives Britain a solid list of batsmen.
Not until Glenn McGrath was given the ball did the Australians get into the game. McGrath struck by removing Mal Loye straight after the lugubrious opener had taken a long break for running repairs to head and helmet. That the second wicket also fell immediately after a break in play, for drinks on this occasion, reminded observers of the importance of concentration. Truly cricket is a game played in the mind.
Even McGrath was slightly off colour, occasionally dropping short and suffering as errant deliveries were put away to the short boundary square of the wicket. Bowlers cannot afford to be put past point in these capers. Otherwise the pig shooter served with distinction. Stuart Clark bowled respectably without ever suggesting he was about to run amok. Hereabouts it seemed that the attack lacked variety. Although always keen to play, Lee and Johnson did not miss much.
Finding the pacemen under pressure, Adam Gilchrist tried his spinners. However Australia had omitted its leading tweaker and was forced to rely instead upon part-timers. Brad Hogg has been bowling exceptionally well in recent weeks and is more likely to take wickets than his rivals. Nor is he a mug with the bat or in the field. Amongst those included, Michael Clarke has been developing his left-armers and his work has improved. Cameron White is a cracking batsmen but lacks confidence with the ball. Here he sent down five overs on a flat pitch in front of a large crowd and mostly passed muster. Andrew Symonds surprised all and sundry by preferring his seamers to is breakers.
Australia also lacked sharpness in the field, with half-chances missed and and a dolly dropped at fine leg. Truth tell it was just one of those afternoons. But it was instructive. Credit must be given to a touring team that came to life just as the gravediggers were completing their unsavory work. Fearing another early finish the crowd had booed when Flintoff won the toss and elected to bat. Happily they were able to watch not the anticipated debacle but the unfamiliar sight of the home side being out through a mangle.