Debutant Usman Khawaja briefly lit up a gloomy first day of the fifth Ashes Test on Monday but Australia’s batting frailties and rain returned later in the day to leave the hosts wobbling on 134-4 at the close of play.
Despite their hopes of regaining the Ashes having gone, Australia could still square the series with a victory this week but England just about edged the weather-disrupted day with some stifling bowling and key wickets.
Khawaja, the first Muslim to play for Australia, opened his first Test innings with a stunning salvo but ended it for 37 runs with a looping top-edged sweep off Graeme Swann which Jonathan Trott gathered at square leg just as the rain returned.
“You never want to get out, especially with the last ball of the day, as it turned out that was,” the 24-year-old told reporters. “I had a ball out there, I was having so much fun out there I just wanted to stay out there as long as I could.”
Mike Hussey, so often Australia’s saviour in this series, was still at the crease on 12 runs with Brad Haddin about to join him when play was stopped for the day.
“It’s always good to get the first punch in... it’s definitely our day,” said Tim Bresnan, who took 2-47. “Although they played well, I think we were unlucky not to have a few more down.”
Haddin’s elevation above Steve Smith in the batting order was one of the first manifestations of the captaincy of Michael Clarke, who took charge of his country’s test side for the first time in place of the injured Ricky Ponting.
Clarke was Bresnan’s second victim, dismissed when he clipped the ball straight at James Anderson in the gully for just four runs after the first rain delay, which had swallowed up the tea break.
The 29-year-old, greeted with cheers from his home crowd and boos from the English contingent when he walked out to bat, was clearly furious with himself for another failure in a series where he has averaged just 19 runs in eight innings.
Khawaja came in straight after a lunch break precipitated by the fall of opener Phillip Hughes, who wasted a good morning’s work with a sloppy shot to be caught at slip by Paul Collingwood off the bowling of Chris Tremlett for 31.
Pakistan-born Khawaja, the first Australian to debut at number three since Justin Langer in 1993, had been forced to wait for his chance but grasped it with both hands when it came courtesy of Ponting’s injury.
Watched by his parents and an expectant nation, he sent the first ball he faced racing away for two runs before summoning up a beautiful pull shot at chest height to dispatch the second for four.
Eight balls into his Test career, he had made 15 runs and, although he then settled into the more conservative pace of his team mates, the 43,561 crowd at the SCG was buzzing.
“It was a good start and it got all the anxiety out of my system,” Khawaja said. “I was just loving being out there in the middle. I wasn’t thinking that much, I just wanted to get off the mark as soon as possible.”
Opener Shane Watson had epitomised the cautious approach, waiting 89 deliveries for his first boundary and taking more than three hours to put on 45 before he hit a Bresnan ball he should have left and was caught in the slips by Andrew Strauss.
The England skipper had decided to stick with the team that retained the Ashes with an innings and 157 run victory in Melbourne last week and his bowlers repaid his faith in them.
“We’re definitely up for this game,” Bresnan said. “Even though we’ve already effectively retained the Ashes, we want to win this series.
“We were very happy with first use of that pitch, we were going to bowl because it looks like it’s only going to get batter,” the Yorkshireman added.
Clarke won the toss and elected to bat, as Ponting would undoubtedly have done, but he put his own stamp on the captaincy by not doling out the baggy green caps to the debutants.
Khawaja received his from former captain and test opener Mark Taylor, while Shane Warne did the honours for the other - his fellow spinner and former club mate Michael Beer.
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