Clarke draws little comfort
So, it meandered peacefully to a draw. Without alarms, twists or any of the other drama that habitually attends the Ashes, England were comfortably denied by Australia yesterday.
An innings of effortless grandeur by Michael Clarke, at least until its final rites, and another by Marcus North that was less opulent but equally effective ensured that the third npower Test petered out by mid-afternoon. Australia will be mightily relieved that they were able to repel their opponents with less fuss than it takes to make a cup of tea but the fact remains that they are still 1-0 down with only two matches left.
To retain the urn the tourists have to win at least once, while continuing to deprive England. They have hardly looked like doing so and for the second successive match had to try to hang on after a dreadful first innings.
Clarke, who reached his 12th Test hundred with the last shot of the match, and North, who failed by four runs to acquire his third, ensured that the match ended in a draw with 13.3 overs left, by which time Australia were 262 runs ahead. Had there been a sixth day it might have been rivetting.
If there are firm indications that some individual Australians are in form — Clarke above all — the capturing of 20 wickets looks as though it will remain a conundrum, though that goes for both sides. Although England will have been disappointed not to make more inroads yesterday, the ball resolutely refusing to swing as it had in the first innings, they will regroup at Headingley tomorrow content that they have once more forced their old foes on to the back foot.
Many of the next few hours and days, as between the first and second and second and third Tests, will be taken up with concerns of the state of Andrew Flintoff's right knee. His movement in the field yesterday could hardly have been more restricted had he been bound from head to foot in chains.
Perhaps he will be picked in the squad, perhaps he can be patched up sufficiently to take his place in the team but it will be a near thing either way.
Few Ashes matches of recent years have ended as tamely as this. Of course, we have all been spoiled by 2005 and by the Australians' pre-eminence on either side of it, and throughout the Sixties when draws were almost obligatory it would have been seen as the height of excitement.
It was in any case entirely forgivable because the first four days of the match brought little more than two days' play. In effect, therefore, Australia were saving the match on the third day — and only eight per cent of all Test matches scheduled to last five days have ended that soon.
England definitely fancied their chances. Having taken two wickets overnight they were well aware that two more early on would open the match up. None came in the first hour, however, and Andrew Strauss made the mistake of expecting too much of Flintoff, rather than entrusting the ball to Jimmy Anderson, so potent in the first innings here.
Anderson was summoned only after Flintoff had toiled for seven overs and struck immediately when Shane Watson drove at a straight one. Before lunch Mike Hussey had gone in similar fashion, lured into reaching for a ball from Stuart Broad. Hussey had done enough to rediscover form, not quite sufficient to make Australia safe.
But England needed quick wickets after lunch and they never looked like coming. Clarke was splendid, his strokeplay crisp and precise. North is a more functional sort of player as five English counties will attest but he has made everything of his late call to Australia's colours.
Long before the evening session the match was realistically out of England's reach and it seemed that the day would be called not long after both men reached their second centuries of the series. North was in a rush to achieve his and plundered an over from Ravi Bopara for three successive fours, with the best three strokes of his innings — a back foot straight drive, a cover drive and a deftly placed cut.
A slashed drive at the other end off Broad seemed certain to give him his 16th four and his third Test hundred, except that Anderson, in the decidedly unconventional position of wide fly slip took off to his right and plucked a stunning catch.
Clarke was suddenly much more circumspect. Strokes which had been refined suddenly became ugly. He too might have gone on 96, the victim of another superb catch from Anderson behind the wicket, but Ravi Bopara had overstepped the popping crease and a no ball was called.
The teams shook hands on the draw as soon as Clarke pulled his 192nd ball for four, his 14th, in Bopara's next over. England had needed eight wickets in the day but they had taken only three on a benign pitch. They lacked zing if there ain't no swing.
England will be desperate to keep what they have but Headingley may not be the place to protect but to be bold. Above all, they must continue to believe they can beat Australia and some of that belief may have been drained.