The truism that a league or a political election cannot be won in the first exchanges, but can be lost applies equally aptly to cricket (regardless of the form). And it is hard to imagine how England could have made a worse start to their attempt to regain the Ashes. It took Mitchell Starc just one ball in the first Ashes test to shatter Rory Burns’ stump as the left-arm quick bowled the England opener behind his legs to get England’s campaign off to a historically bad start.
The delivery was fast and swung late, but it was one that a test-match opener should have been able to fend off and Burns will know that. Fortunately for his hopes of retaining a place in the squad (and to be clear that should not be in any real danger), but unfortunately for England fans, Burns was not the only England batter to find himself back in the shed far sooner than he would have liked. His captain Joe Root, the #1 test batter in the world, was also out for a duck. The talismanic Ben Stokes made just five.
The only contributions of any real note came from Haseeb Hameed, who made a battling 25 in the morning session only to fall almost immediately after lunch, and the middle-order trio of Ollie Pope (35), Jos Buttler (39) and Chris Woakes (21). But, in truth, not one of England’s batters, with the possible exception of Buttler, ever really looked like passing 50 as England limped to 147 all out before tea. It was a performance that only served to cement the perception that this is amongst the most fragile batting line-ups ever sent to Australia by England.
That does not bode well considering the quality of the attack they are facing. Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, who took his first Ashes five-fer in his first match as Australian captain, are surely the most formidable pair of fast bowlers currently operating in the game. Both combine genuine pace with the accuracy that was once the preserve of English medium pacers. The effect is to make them, at their best, almost unplayable and one suspects they have gears still to go through.
Nathan Lyon may not have had much of an impact on England’s innings, but the crafty off-spinner’s time will surely come in this series. Starc, meanwhile, may not be in Hazlewood and Cummins’ class, but he can bowl with fearsome pace and swing, and will also have a point to prove after the doubts cast over his place in the team from some quarters in Australia. Cameron Green was also in the wickets, with Pope his first victim at this level. That will surely boost his confidence after a wicketless summer last year against India.
England will hope to strike back tomorrow and they do not lack quality in their own seam attack, having missed out on the chance to make inroads after the final session was washed out. Woakes has worked hard to improve his returns with the Kookaburra ball and Mark Wood can exceed even Starc’s pace. Ollie Robinson has attracted numerous comparisons with Josh Hazlewood, though his relative lack of pace compared with the ‘Bendemeer Express’ does, at least in theory, make him a less threatening prospect than his Australian counterpart.
The main problem for England is that the Australian batting line-up seems unlikely to fold quite so quickly. Question marks certainly remain, with Marcus Harris yet to convince at test-match level and Travis Head, despite an average of 47 in Australia, in a similar boat. David Warner, meanwhile, was tormented by the English bowlers (admittedly principally the rested Stuart Broad) in England two years ago and hardly featured last summer against India.
But Warner is far more comfortable on home turf than he has ever been in England, whilst Australia also possess two genuinely world-class batters in Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith, both of whom boast averages north of 60. Smith, in particular, seems to relish coming up against England, averaging a fearsome 63.90 against Australia’s oldest foe. The Australian batting line-up will also have the luxury of being able to play, relatively, pressure free after England’s miserable first innings return.
Which returns us to the question: have England already lost the Ashes? To answer in the affirmative would be premature, Australia may look stronger on paper than their rivals, but there is mental fragility in this team and they are a long way short of the all-conquering Australian teams that once ruled test cricket. The potential prospect of two day-night tests will also surely be an encouraging one for England given the pink-ball’s propensity to swing and seam.
But England were underdogs coming into this series and will surely have been the worse affected by the disruption to their preparations. This is, after all, home turf for the Australians, and the Gabba is a fortress that has been breached only once in the last forty-odd years and that by a much-better team than England look to be. Of course, if England can skittle Australia tomorrow, the situation will look very different. But if Australia can build a big first innings lead… well it will look like a long way back already for the English.
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