Australia continue to make England suffer at The Oval
AUSTRALIA broke free from the shackles of defeat today. With every sinew of their aggressive fibre they seemed to be saying to England that you might beat us 3-0 but never, ever will we let it be four.
The sterling manner in which they performed on the second day of the final Test was a declaration of principles for the winter ahead as much as a statement of intent to prevent further damage here and now. Rain postponed proceedings until early afternoon at which point the tourists came out blazing.
In his 23rd Test innings, Steve Smith reached a vigorous maiden century and was unbeaten on 138no when his side declared at 492 for nine. They raced along merrily at almost five runs an over for the 38.5 they batted, which became nearly nine an over in a buccaneering assault in the afternoon.
England responded with less brio in the evening, relieved when bad light at last intervened at 7.25pm, but having survived intact. The pitch is still splendid for batting but the home side are 460 runs behind and dreams of winning four matches for the first time in a home series have dwindled.
As for Australia, there was nothing to lose any longer and therefore nothing to fear. But they were thinking well beyond this match and what an emphatic victory in it might mean when these teams meet again at Brisbane in November with the Ashes live once more.
Dead matches are tricky blighters. England won enough of them, home and away, during Australia's long period of dominance throughout most of two decades from 1989 to know that they did not count for much.
There is a difference here. It is nothing like Nasser Hussain assessing the state of his team after their token victory at Sydney in 2003 to make it a mere 4-1 in the series. The imminent rematch starting at the Gabba in late November would leave Australia with a spring in their step if they can press home their advantage at the Kia Oval.
Of course, if they fail to do so the doubts which have overwhelmed them throughout this trip when they have created a strong platform will continue to linger. None of this occurred to Smith today.
He had begun his innings with a flat-footed swish on the first afternoon which came within a whisker of his bat edge. There were few mistakes afterwards and if he never looked settled that is because he never looks settled.
Seven Smiths before him have made Test hundreds - of the 29 members of that extended worldwide family to have played - but none can have fidgeted as he does. He is obsessive in stroking the top of his pads, touching his helmet, almost as if conducting forensic search for clues to something.
Eventually, he manages to be still at the crease but he waves his bat in a high backlift until he is ready to bring it down. There is the air of the swashbuckler about him and his third forename is Devereux, a family monicker, which somehow suggests something of the dashing gambler on a New Orleans riverboat. But he took 199 balls over his hundred which showed that he is prepared to be patient.
He pulls and cuts crisply and is quick on the drive. Perhaps he had been fortunate to survive the cull of Australian batsmen this summer. Ed Cowan, Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja have all been banished but Smith who was not selected in the original party has played all five Tests.
This was the third time in the series that he has passed fifty and once before, at Old Trafford, he had been in sight of a hundred. The prospect of it daunted him then. Not now.
England had turned to the occasional seam of Jonathan Trott rather than risk the front-line spin of Simon Kerrigan and Smith, on 94, took one look, stepped down the track and drove over long on for his second six. Better for it to happen to Trott than Kerrigan.
Of the 128.5 overs that Australia faced in their first innings, Kerrigan was permitted to bowl only eight. He must have felt it yesterday, keenly aware that he was not to be trusted, and it can only be hoped that he has another bash in the second innings.
While the total does not necessarily reflect it there was some seam and swing to encourage the home side at the start of proceedings. Jimmy Anderson, hurrah, had reclaimed his zip, Stuart Broad was slightly unfortunate though it was one of those days when he could not quite measure his length.
Australia got a move on immediately and were not much constricted by the moving ball. In the first session they added 90 for the loss of two wickets from 27 overs, in the second 95 for three from 11.5.
Anderson produced a beauty to remove the nightwatchman Peter Siddle, trimming the top of off stump in the classical manner. Brad Haddin gave Trott his fifth Test wicket, bowled off an inside edge trying to run the ball to third man.
The rest perished in the cause of swift runs. James Faulkner, who relished the Test arena for the first time rather than being frozen by it, Mitchell Starc and Ryan Harris all threw the bat. Smith joined in, a fully paid up member of the Test club by now.
It permitted Chris Woakes, praise be, to claim his first Test wicket, Faulkner caught on the square leg boundary, and Anderson to increase his series haul to something deserving of his skills.
In the cause of Cricket United Day tomorrow, which is aimed at raising awareness and funds for three cricketing charities, England will wear specially minted shirts bearing a blue logo. By the end it is to be trusted they are not feeling blue as well.