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England’s Opening-Day Foray Against Australia

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Australia may be beginning a new Gabba chapter, but as far as the Ashes is concerned, it’s already business as usual “Is it cowardly to pray for rain?” Self-evidently not, because otherwise, the Guardian would not have named their compilation of live-blog entries from the 2005 Ashes after one of the more craven pieces of correspondence that came their way that summer, midway through the agonies of that fifth-Test draw at The Oval. In a similar spirit, we’re one day down out of 25 in the 2021-22 campaign, and England’s day genuinely did not get better than the moment – shortly after the fall of their tenth wicket on the stroke of tea – when the gruesome grey skies that have been stalking the team throughout their month in Queensland rolled over the Gabba to terminal effect.

“The worst possible start…” is a hackneyed old phrase in cricket’s lexicon, but to lose your senior opener to the very first ball of the series – only the second time it has ever happened in an Ashes campaign – was about as unequivocal as such definitions get. It set the scene for an opening gambit fit to rival any of the Brisbane stinkers that England have endured since Ian Botham’s last hurrah at the ground, way back in November 1986. But the irony is that Rory Burns’ detonation from the crease – bowled round his legs to a first-ball swinging half-volley from Mitchell Starc – was a self-inflicted setback, insofar as there was no need for him to be out there in the first place. Joe Root won the toss, after all, and would have been well within his rights to duck his troops out of the firing line this early in the series, given their abject lack of game-time in the lead-up, and the expectation that the conditions in this cold, damp start to Australia’s summer were always likely to favor the bowlers on both teams.

But there was, of course, an awkward precedent lurking in the back of Root’s mind as he stepped up to make his call. Nasser Hussain’s infamous decision to bowl first on this ground in 2002-03 has gone down in legend as one of the worst toss decisions of all time – although that trial by hindsight does overlook the fact that Simon Jones, the sparkiest bowler in their line-up, wrecked his knee on the sandy Gabba outfield on the first morning of the match, and was stretchered out of the series. Hindsight may yet decree that Root’s call is the flip-side of Hussain’s choice 19 years ago. Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, and Nathan Lyon undoubtedly make for a formidable line-up on the opening day of an Ashes, but Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie, and Andy Bichel were about as daunting as it has ever got in this rivalry – and so they proved in the second innings of that 2002 match when England’s 79 all out in 28.2 overs made it seem as though they’d loitered with massive intent in reaching 147 in 50.1 today. As Nathan Leamon, England’s former analyst, notes in Hitting Against the Spin, Hussain’s decision was fundamentally a recognition that his team was out of its depth – and though the 4-1 series scoreline ultimately backed up that suspicion, much of the criticism he attracted centered around the timid message that bowling first sent out to his opponents. And yet, in running simulations of that contest, based on the statistics of the players involved, Leamon found that England’s chances of victory would never have risen above 4% whether they had batted first or second. However, their hopes of escaping with a draw more than trebled (from 3% to 10%) thanks to his decision to give Australia first use. And that’s where Root’s decision this time around feels rather self-defeating. Every other decision in England’s build-up to the Gabba appears to have been made with the bigger picture in mind – most particularly the resting of James Anderson with a view to throwing everything he’s got at next week’s pink-ball game at Adelaide – a contest in which he claimed his first five-for in Australia four years ago.

Given the weather, and the potential addition of a second day-night Test in January in place of the canceled Perth Test – a massive fillip to England’s prospects, both given the propensity of the pink ball to swing, and given how often they have been outgunned in Australia’s Wild West – then surely the onus this week was to escape from Brisbane unscathed, irrespective of whether it looked as though they’d pulled their punches. That is, after all, the route they took to glory in 2010-11 when their senior opener (and captain) Andrew Strauss lasted three balls rather than one in making a first-over duck. He fared rather better in the second innings, of course, making the first of England’s three centuries in that preposterous 517 for 1 scoreline. But up until that turnaround, it had been business as usual at the Gabbatoir, even for the best England tourists since Ray Illingworth’s team in 1970-71. So what are the bones to pick out of England’s opening-day casseroling? There’s the knowledge that ducks are an occupational hazard for Burns – he’s made six in 16 innings in 2021 alone, but he’s also interspersed those with a century, four fifties, and a 49, for an overall presence not dissimilar to his Surrey stable-mate, Jason Roy, in England’s white-ball team – he may not be the best player in the line-up, but he’s unquestionably one of the most important. There was something over-eager about Burns’ footwork for that fateful first delivery, lots of proactive striding as he sought to align himself to the swinging ball and ended up second-guessing himself, but the Gabba has that effect on people. There’s the sense that Haseeb Hameed, whose “low hands” had been written off for Australia’s hard bouncy pitches, has displayed sufficient ticker to fight another day – not least in showcasing an impressive leave in the fraught early exchanges when a wicket a minute seemed to be tumbling at the other end. As Alastair Cook demonstrated on that 2010-11 tour, if you know where your off-stump is in Australia, that’s half the battle won. The fact that Hameed mislaid it again during the 40-minute lunch break need not distract from the quiet progress he made in his first Test innings against any team bar India.

The best that England could offer came from Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler – two contrasting innings, neither of which endured for nearly long enough to dig England out of their hole, but both of which dropped hints that they’ve got the measure of their basic methods for this series. In the absence of any meaningful lead-in time, it seemed Pope might be squeezed out to give Jonny Bairstow first dibs in the middle order. However, Pope averages nearly 100 in first-class cricket on the firm, broad acreage of Surrey’s home ground at The Oval, including an 81 in his last Test against India in the summer. Sure enough, he channeled that innate faith in his surroundings into a gritty 35, full of taps into the gaps for strike-rotating singles and a surefootedness square of the wicket. It was insubstantial in the grander scheme of a deeply underwhelming day, of course, but it was also quite a long way short of being a failure. As for Buttler, he had spoken in the build-up about how he intended to throw off the pressure that has often accompanied his Test game, and just plays as if he had “nothing to lose”. At 60 for 5 in the first over after lunch, he could scarcely have wished for a more literal scenario. But he batted like a man who had used his mental preparation time wisely, channeling the belligerence of his astonishing 71 not out from 32 balls against Australia at the T20 World Cup, and launching himself into Australia’s bowler of the morning, Hazlewood, with an alacrity that briefly required Cummins to ponder a response on an otherwise charming first day as Australia captain. All told, Hazlewood leaked six from 47 balls against five different England batters. Buttler, by contrast, took him for 21 in 19 balls, with seven lusty scoring shots. It was slim pickings, no question. And having been denied the chance to challenge Australia’s techniques in the dense cloud-cover of the first evening, it could be slimmer still when play resumes on day two, with the natural juice having left the deck a touch, and with Australia’s dominant bowling display already likely to limit Root’s ability to counter with all-out attacking fields. It may have been 11 months since Australia’s last Test, and they may be beginning a new Gabba chapter after the end of their 32-year unbeaten run at the venue. But as far as the Ashes is concerned, it’s already business as usual. Even down to England’s fans turning their thoughts to the heavens.

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