Unlikely partners a perfect match

LIKE his equine namesake, Mister Ed Cowan will talk until his voice is hoarse. He writes books and columns, he tweets, he is on confidential terms with the scribes, and he didn't seem to mind a word with his opponents during his long innings at the Gabba.

He also has the other Mister Ed's gift for timing. A year ago, after the death of his coach, the Fairfax cricket writer Peter Roebuck, Cowan made a first-class century just as an opening position in the national team fell vacant. On Monday, he commemorated the anniversary of Roebuck's death by scoring his first hundred in Tests. He wiped clean some dark doubts about his own and his team's capabilities. He is not your average cricketer.

This Test match has shrivelled towards a batsmen's stalemate, but make no mistake, it was no such thing when Cowan and Michael Clarke had to survive the new ball 410 runs behind South Africa on Sunday night. Nor was it easy on Monday morning. In this decisive period of the match, Clarke played the role of Wilbur, jittery and prone to mishap. When he moved forward to balls rising into his stomach, he twice popped leading edges over the infield, and once he gloved a bouncer into the space between himself and the wicketkeeper.

Cowan was the only person out there who could hear him. He provided a calming word, and the pair soon outwitted their opponents. A dangerous lull settled on them in the second hour, but both batsmen scratched their way through and rediscovered their fluency, Cowan coming out of his shell with a cover-drive for three and a late-cut boundary in Dale Steyn's 16th over to move to the brink of lunch and a century.

He had to visit the feed bin first, and then, fittingly, he passed the milestone with a pull shot. Eight times did he pull the ball to the boundary, but it seemed like many more. In the modern style, Cowan does not play the short ball off the back foot, instead pressing forward and then pivoting with the pace of the ball. The slowness of the wicket enabled him to shorten it to negate Vernon Philander's sideways movement, and when he hit his stride, Cowan was even pulling Steyn from in front of the popping crease.

A lot of hooey is spoken about batting and bowling in partnerships, but Cowan and Clarke, while not featuring in a Hayden-Langer buddy flick, drew common strength from their shared steady course.

The Test hung in the balance for three hours, and one wicket could have brought a clatter. Clarke showed more of what is now a customary maturity, and was ever-positive. An early on-drive off Steyn was the shot of the match so far. There was a trio of leg-glance, upper-cut and cover-drive in one Morne Morkel over; later, another cover-drive, on-drive combo against the same bowler.

Clarke must be uncommonly clear-headed at the crease. He is capable of following the most ungainly swat with the most perfect strokeplay. He embodies Grace's axiom that there is no such thing as a crisis, only the next ball. The longer he was there, the better he got, and his confidence spread to Michael Hussey late in the day.

South Africa's attack had not slipped from world's best to park bowlers overnight. With the second new ball, Morkel nearly decapitated Clarke. Steyn and Philander obtained movement at pace. This was a compelling fight between bat and ball, and bat won. South Africa lost its grip on this game when it rained all Saturday and failed to adapt on Sunday. The bowlers regained it on Sunday, but it was taken away from them by Cowan and Clarke. So the first man-made reversal of momentum in the series has gone Australia's way.

It will be noted that this was Cowan's first century as a father, and Clarke's first as a husband (his marriage was attended by a horse). The virtues of domesticity are well known, but in the middle, this pair shared an uncanny understanding. Clarke's attributes are well known, and he continues in his improvement from a very good Test batsman into a champion.

Cowan's talents had been less obvious to the untrained eye, something of a backyard secret. Some more innings like this and he'll get his own show.

This story Unlikely partners a perfect match first appeared on WA Today.