On paper coming into the First Ashes Test, the Australian batting line-up looked notably stronger than their English counterparts. There were two major question marks, however, in the form of opener Marcus Harris and no.5 Travis Head, who had been chosen ahead of Usman Khawaja shortly before the match began. Harris was unable to do anything to further cement his claim to a place in the team, edging one to the slips to fall for a very disappointing three.
Head, in contrast, has surely at least secured his spot for the rest of the series after a sparkling century which looks to have broken the back of English resistance. It shouldn’t be overlooked that Head was given a platform to launch this assault by a determined stand between David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne worth 156 runs, ending only when Labuschagne tried to hit one shot too many against the off-spin of Jack Leach and spooned a simple catch to Mark Wood.
England were already trailing by that point, despite some excellent bowling in the morning session which had seen Warner in particular ride his luck at times. The long-serving opener was bowled off a Ben Stokes’ no-ball on 17 and dropped on 48 by Rory Burns, before Haseeb Hameed missed a simple run-out chance with Warner prone on the wicket, his bat beyond his reach. Labuschagne gave up fewer chances, but did nick one that fell just short of Joe Root in the slips.
It will doubtless be a source of real frustration to both that they were not able to cash in and score an Ashes century, but their efforts did go a long way to denting English belief, especially in the case of Leach who may well have been hit out of the series so dismissive was Australia’s assault against him. The wicket of Labuschagne may be some consolation for the spinner, but his figures of 1-95 in just 11 over do not make for pretty reading.
England will also surely be troubled by the injury picked up by Ben Stokes and Ollie Robinson’s struggle with cramp late in the day. The all-rounder’s value to this team cannot be overstated, whilst Robinson, who took three wickets, was England’s most threatening bowler on the day, despite too often bowling a fraction too short. In truth, though, this match is surely lost. After scoring just 147 in the first innings, there is little reason to believe that England can overcome a deficit that already stands at 196 runs.
Especially after the Australian bowling attack displayed such a masterful control of line and length on day one. The English seamers, bowling in relatively unfamiliar conditions, could not match them in that regard, regularly beating the bat without mustering the same consistent threat. Bad luck also played a part, but it would be doing England an undeserved kindness to suggest that bad luck is the main reason they find themselves in this predicament.
One suspects their aim for the remaining three days of this test match will be to limit the damage inflicted by Australia. There are still four matches to play and it is essential if England are to maintain a chance of winning (or even drawing this series) that they do not suffer too bruising a defeat at the Gabba. There are also some small causes for optimism, including Steve Smith’s uncertain, scratchy innings of 12 and the failure of Cam Green and Alex Carey to offer a meaningful contribution.
Stuart Broad will also no doubt have enjoyed watching David Warner struggle with deliveries that came over the wicket. Wood, meanwhile, bowled well and probably deserved more reward than his one wicket, even if it was a big scalp in Smith. But if those are silver linings, they are no more than a faint outline against dark clouds on what was a dominant day for Australia. Indeed, at the end of day one England were facing a very steep climb up a very tall mountain.
That climb is all the steeper now and the mountain that much higher. Especially if Head can maintain the sort of form he displayed on day two for the rest of the series. The no.5 spot has been a problem area for Australia for some time. But if Head, whose talent has never been in doubt but whose mental application at his level has much to be desired in the past, can provide the answer then England will be facing another problem in a series where they have yet to produce any real answers.
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