England to the fore
England defied unseasonal weather and unlikely top-order resistance to make inroads with the ball in the final Ashes Test.
Rain and bad light limited the opening day in Sydney to 59 overs, in which time Australia slipped to 134 for four.
That England could claim to be in a promising position owed much to the fact that they removed the day’s most accomplished batsman, Usman Khawaja, with what proved to be the final ball.
It was one of three wickets to fall just before stoppages - the other came shortly after a resumption - and left Australia cursing the fitful nature of an ultimately unfulfilling day.
The interruptions, as is often the case in these situations, favoured the bowlers. They once again performed with the sort of discipline which has become commonplace on this tour - on a pitch offering bounce and lateral movement all day, though not excessive.
Chris Tremlett was unfortunate not to collect more than Phil Hughes’ wicket, on the stroke of lunch, for his new-ball excellence; Tim Bresnan struck either side of an hour-and-a-half stoppage that encompassed tea; and Graeme Swann, as is his wont, accounted for Khawaja in the first over of his second spell moments before the rain returned for good.
Khawaja’s innings may have been worth only 37 but, in demonstrating a reliable technique, positive attitude and - at least until he top-edged an ill-judged sweep - an equable temperament, he showed himself to be a possible long-term successor to Ricky Ponting at number three.
The same could hardly be said of Michael Clarke, whose first game as captain of the Test side ended with another measly contribution.
Already an unpopular choice in many quarters, Clarke now faces the prospect of ever-dwindling support if he oversees the defeat which hands England a 3-1 series win.
Despite the loss of three wickets for 29 runs to bring the day to a conclusion, Clarke can be encouraged by the diligent manner in which his top-order colleagues played, providing initial justification for his decision to bat first on a surface laced with green.
England encountered stubborn early resistance from Hughes and Shane Watson, both of whom batted with uncharacteristic watchfulness.
Attacking strokes of authority were few and far between this morning, although Hughes followed up an early on-drive at Tremlett's expense with successive off-side boundaries off Bresnan.
He also cut Swann’s second ball for four to bring up the half-century stand, but England’s control - aided by Australia’s new-found reticence - saw them concede just five runs off the next eight overs.
Their reward was the wicket of Hughes, who edged head high to Paul Collingwood at third slip as he played back to a delivery slanted across him.
Hughes’ demise for 31 may have served to puncture Australia’s optimism so late in the morning, but he and Watson, in adding 55, had at least helped the hosts avoid the sort of top-order collapse that has plagued their series.
Whereas it took Watson an entire session - and 89 balls - to score his first boundary, the left-handed Khawaja needed just two.
He signalled his arrival in Test cricket with an emphatic pull off Tremlett (shades of David Gower on debut), and helped instil in Watson the confidence to dish out similar treatment to James Anderson in the following over.
They continued to score with more freedom than Australia managed this morning, but Watson perished for 45 under the floodlights following a brief stoppage for bad light.
Drawn forward by a beauty from Bresnan that held its line, he succeeded merely in edging to the dependable Andrew Strauss at first slip.
It was Watson’s sixth score between 36 and 57 in nine innings this series - a century continues to elude him - and did little to pacify those who have criticised his failure to convert promising starts into sizeable scores.
One suspects Clarke would gladly take Watson’s record. His dismissal for four, shortly after the longest stoppage of the day, left him with a paltry 152 runs in eight innings this series.
That he looked untroubled before cutting Bresnan straight to Anderson at gully will not temper his disappointment.
Given the measured way in which Khawaja approached his innings - he defended stoutly, worked the ball adroitly off his legs and cut and pulled when opportunity allowed - it came as something of a surprise when, with rain looming, he attempted to sweep Swann.
A back-pedalling Jonathan Trott did the rest at square-leg and the clouds duly burst as Khawaja left the field. The same could be said of Australia’s spirits.