As a pitiless 43-degree sun beat down on the WACA Ground, 22,000 valiant spectators might have thought that they were seeing a series of mirages. Shimmering in the first was a batting team tying itself in tangle-footed knots, taking panicky swipes at bouncers and generally frittering away wickets.
Confusingly, these cats on this hot tin roof were not English, but Australian. One ran himself out before the match was two overs old. Another played a one-handed hook and was caught. Shane Watson surrendered his wicket, again. Only Dave Warner, playing a simplified game of drive and pull, bucked the trend, but when he shaped to cut Graeme Swann, he was limply caught at backward point.
In truth, this was not a case of seeing things, but seeing things as they are. All through the northern summer, Australia's Achilles heel was its brittle batting. In first innings in this series, Australia variously has been 6/132, 4/174 and on Friday, 5/143.
Then, as the day wore on and the crowd either thinned on the grassy banks or seeped through them, another image manifested, rising out of the first. This was recognisably latter-day Australia, batting deep and strong. The constant is Brad Haddin, the variation on a theme this day Steve Smith. Ruffled early, Haddin bided his time and selected his shots and made another half-century; to him now belongs the unlikely epithet "ever dependable".
Like Warner, Smith has discovered the virtue of standing stock still until the ball is delivered, then leaving, defending or pouncing according to its trajectory.
Alone of the specialists, he hit upon the right tempo on Friday. To open his scoring, he drove Swann for six, and continued to drive the off-spinner handsomely throughout. For the seamers, it was drive, pull, face of the bat or none at all.
The three balls from Ben Stokes that sped him to 100 spoke for all others: on-drive for four, meaty block, thumping pull for four. Next to sun-, it was the most telling stroke of the day. This innings ought to be the making of Smith. With he as fulcrum, Australia made 1/183 in this second imagining.
Ah, Western Australia. Big sky, big country, big bouncing wicket. The cricket always is different here, and in any given summer, the series never quite the same afterwards. The bowling is faster, the bounce higher, the sun fiercer, the light brighter, the game larger in all its dimensions. Friday's twist was that it seemed initially to surprise the Australians as much as the English. Then again, there were no native West Australians in this team. One year, there were seven, and the local paper editorialised its disgust that two others had been overlooked.
From the start, the runs came at a gallivanting rush, five an over or more, and would abate only slightly. Once hit to the outfield, the ball was like a runaway train. Nine balls in, Chris Rogers was 11, an hour or more's worth another day. Giddy, he ran himself out. Captain Michael Clarke clipped the first ball he faced from Swann directly to his counterpart, Alastair Cook. On the face of it, this was reckless. But Australia owes itself powerful position in this series to its subjugation of Swann. Calculated risk is risk none the less; Clarke's dismissal can be put down to occupational hazard.
Not so Watson. Yet again, he batted to deceive. Yet again, he drove at ball not full enough for the shot, and was caught in slips. Except for the century he made against an experimental England attack in the last, dead rubber at The Oval in August, Watson has averaged 20 against England this year. It is time to revise the standard thesis that he has underperformed, and conclude instead that he, too, is an optical illusion.
As for George Bailey, he will look back on his unequal battle with Stuart Broad and wish to start it again. Twice, short balls whistled over his shoulder, loosening his resolve and his method. When a third came, he flung one hand at it and was caught in the deep. As a newbie, his grasp on a Test place is tenuous enough to need two hands.
For England, this day must have felt like the Nullabor Plain, endless, hot and sapping, implying from the start the certainty that no matter how strong the spirit stayed, the flesh would weaken. For half a day, it forestalled fate. Though the ball swung little, conventionally or reverse, the bowlers struck a WACA Ground length and stuck to it. The catchable catches all were held. A plan was hatched to wear down Haddin and at length it worked. And still the game ran away from Cook and his men.
By the end of a broiling afternoon, the Barmy Army could raise no more than a single plaintive verse at a time, and even the beach balls were plopping back to earth as if they couldn't be fagged, and the Ashes that felt so substantial in English hands in August now were a chimera.