Aus build commanding position

England 373
Strauss 129, Flintoff 72, Warne 6 for 122

Australia 277 for 2
Hayden 110*, Langer 105, Ponting 35

Fine centuries from Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden dominated the third day of the deciding Ashes test. Rain and bad light only allowed 45 overs to be bowled, and the tourists still trailed by 96 runs at the close of play. However, with eight wickets in hand, Australia must be confident of building a large first innings lead and then bowling out England cheaply to level the series. That scenario may yet be affected by the Autumnal weather. Writing this article on the outskirts of South West London, having not seen a drop of rain all day, it seems extraordinary how different conditions have been 15 miles up the A3. Maybe God is an Englishman after all. If so, large number of the home side’s followers will spend the next 48 hours imploring the Almighty to continue to play His part in proceedings.

Play started 30 minutes late this morning with Australia 112 for 0. England, starting with Hoggard and Flintoff came close to a couple of early breakthroughs. On another day, the Yorkshireman may have had a leg before shout answered in the affirmative, but England could hardly complain after some of the decisions that went their way at Trent Bridge. Even closer was the attempted run out by Collingwood who, recovering from diving full length to stop a full-blooded cut from Hayden, came within a whisker of a direct hit which would have meant the end of Langer. Shortly afterwards, a quick single could also have resulted in a run out had the throw been more accurate. But that was as close as England came to a breakthrough during the morning. Having got these scares out of their system, the openers bedded in and continued to build a platform from which to attack England’s unsatisfactory total. Another 30-minute break for rain meant that the total only progressed to 157 by lunch, with Langer now on 91 and Hayden having reached 60.

The afternoon session was even shorter, with only eight overs possible before the rains descended again. That was time enough for Langer to reach a thoroughly deserved hundred, but it also saw his dismissal after the best piece of bowling that we have seen from Steve Harmison since the Lord’s test. For once, the big man found both his pace and his line to really unsettle Langer with a series of accurate short-pitched deliveries. The final ball of a tremendous over caught Langer fencing at a widish delivery but only succeeding in edging the ball back onto his stumps. Langer, naturally, was desperately disappointed to lose his wicket in a slightly unfortunate manner, but the opening partnership of 185 had provided the basis for his team to dominate proceedings. However, the afternoon rain ensured that they were unable to make further progress before tea.

After the break, Hayden was joined by his captain, and we all wondered when they would step up a gear in an effort to overtake England before the close. Hayden was certainly more aggressive, and, as he neared his century, unleashed a series of his trademark drives. One of these, off Flintoff, took him to three figures – a landmark that was warmly received by friend and foe alike, recognising how hard he had struggled to make this contribution at the end of a difficult tour. Apart from edging Giles between Jones and Trescothick, he had looked increasingly secure as the day progressed, and his success was well earned. At the other end, Ponting was batting fluently, albeit with occasional alarms. An attempted hook against Harmison could have gone anywhere, and replays suggested that he was lucky to survive a bat-pad appeal against Giles. Either way, they were beginning to up the scoring rate when, with the score on 243, rain once again intervened.

Surprisingly, conditions improved sufficiently for the batsmen to return for a final min-session, and they added 21 runs before Flintoff struck. Somehow, with the ball now 72 overs old, the all-rounder managed to surprise Ponting with a lifting delivery that he was only able to fend towards Strauss who took a superb catch, diving forwards at second slip. Suitably encouraged, he unleashed a vicious barrage at the incoming Damien Martyn. His first ball flew through the vacant point region, and three subsequent deliveries flew past the new batsman’s outside edge. Shortly afterwards, the umpires offered the light, and, this time, no-one was surprised that they accepted.

Given two full days’ play, Australia must now be favourites to level the series. If that happens, their careful batting today and yesterday will have been fully vindicated. However, if the rain continues to hold up proceedings, I wonder if they will regret their approach, which has rarely seen their overall run-rate rise above 3.5 per over. England have bowled tidily, but on this wicket and with the home side’s most dangerous bowler missing, I expected them to press on by now. Hayden’s 110 has so far taken 250 balls. Batting through a bad patch, or batting to preserve his place in the side? In many ways this has been a commendable innings but, if bad weather does allow England to narrowly hold out for a draw, his performance may be viewed rather less sympathetically.

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