Right in the mix
Alastair Cook's revelatory form could prove the difference in a fascinatingly tight fifth Test, says Bob Willis.
Last Updated: 05/01/11 3:16pm
The standard of play may not always be of the highest calibre, but this Ashes series remains compulsive viewing!
Day two in Sydney was a case in point as the momentum fluctuated back and forth between Australia and England to leave the Test fascinatingly poised.
On the whole the pitch proved much better for batting than bowling and the run-scoring was helped by some fairly indifferent spells from both attacks.
England began the day well enough, building up pressure with some excellent in-fielding, and they earned a real bonus when Paul Collingwood picked up the wicket of Mike Hussey just before the new ball was due.
At that point bowling Australia out for around 220 looked a real possibility.
But as so often happens in Test cricket the new ball disappeared at a rate of knots; this time it was England who failed to find the right length and Mitchell Johnson gorged himself on some wayward bowling.
Andrew Strauss must take some of the blame for England's failure to finish off Australia's tail as quickly as they would have liked; he offered Johnson too many runs too early in an effort to bowl at Ben Hilfenhaus, who chanced his arm with good success.
In the context of the game Australia's ninth-wicket partnership of 76 could prove to be very valuable indeed.
As frustrating as that lower-order rally was for England, the stand showcased the fascinating unpredictability of Test cricket and the added dimensions it possesses in comparison to the one-day game.
I suppose Michael Clarke was trying to stamp his character on the captaincy by giving Johnson the new ball at the start of England's reply but his decision backfired.
Australia's skipper might have taken his erratic left-armer off after two overs rather than three but it would have mattered little as Strauss had already got the innings off to a flyer.
Alastair Cook was more than happy to go about his own business as his captain helped himself to 18 off 12 balls and in comparison his own innings was the epitome of composure.
The one blemish came when Cook was caught off a Michael Beer no-ball - an unforgivable error for a spinner, particularly when your first Test wicket is at stake.
It was a huge slice of luck for Cook but one he deserves because he's worked so hard to iron out the faults in his game.
Last summer he was on the move before the ball had been delivered but now his trigger movements are much more precise, which has made a huge difference to his footwork and position at the crease.
No longer is he toppling over and playing across his front pad and these days he seems unable to do any wrong at all.
The ability to concentrate for long periods and grind down the opposition is a huge part of Test match batting and both Cook and Jonathan Trott have those qualities in spades.
It can't all be about flamboyance and hitting boundaries.
In comparison to Shane Watson, who plays some devastating shots but can't seem to keep the scoreboard moving, Cook is able to manoeuvre the ball around and rotate the strike.
His form on this tour has been nothing short of a revelation and if he can get stuck in again tomorrow then another hundred beckons.