The build-up to this years Ashes contest was more boxing than test cricket.
The word ‘intimidating’ became the most overused verb of recent times during the last few weeks. The Australian press, and a fair few of their players, were eager to point out that they’ve got three incredibly fast, nasty bowlers who are capable of bowling fast, nasty bouncers. And the Aussie conditions are also very fast and nasty. Especially in Brisbane. And you know what happened last time with Mitchell Johnson on a long leash. He intimidated. The England batsmen were scared. That’s going to happen again with the current, younger crop of pacemen. It was all very macho and tough-guy talk.
Meanwhile, those people who were actually focusing on the cricket in the build up to the first test were pondering the burning questions of the series. Can the England batting lineup, with three inexperienced players in their top five, knuckle down and post scores of any note? Will Anderson, Broad and co extract anything from the Australian conditions to cause problems for the Australian batting lineup, who have an equal number of inexperienced souls on the teamsheet. And perhaps most saliently, is this much-vaunted Aussie pace attack the real thing, or is their bark worse than their bite?
Based on the first day of the first test at the Gabba, I would suggest all the hot air in the build-up could just be that – hot air. Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins still look deadly on occasion. Cummins’ setup for the wicket of Joe Root with a couple of outswingers followed by an in-ducker that caught him plumb in front was magic. They’ve both got the potential to blow England away when they hit top gear. But in between a few beauties here and there, they failed to capture the imagination of the Brisbane usually effervesant home supporters. James Vince and Mark Stoneman put on 125 for the second wicket in 51.4 largely untroubled overs. They seemed to be batting coolly in an atmosphere that was supposed to be red hot. Where was the intimidation, the snarl, the mongrel, that we heard so much about in the build up? It was noticeably absent. The biggest danger of the day came when the off-spinner Nathan Lyon had the ball, which for a Day 1 Brisbane pitch is surely a first.
The problem is, we never really believed all the Aussie nastiness in the first place. They all seem a bit nice for it. Starc and Cummins seem like genuinely nice blokes who I can imagine are quite fun away from the pitch. Lillee and Thomson they aint. The talk of scaring and intimidating England off the park in the build-up all seemed rather manufactured, like they’d be given a script to follow in a team meeting and they had their sound bites rehearsed for the press. When you’re getting Nathan Lyon to pretend he’d like to end careers of his fellow professionals, you know you’re forcing it a bit.
That said, there is a huge caveat here. The Brisbane pitch fell way below expectations of the 40,000 Queenslanders at the ‘Gabbatoir’. The rain in Brisbane over the past week or two has clearly had a dampening effect on the wicket, and the few short pitched ball delivered by Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins were usually taken at ankle height by Tim Paine behind the stumps. This was certainly not in the script for the start of the series. The Aussies pride themselves on their record in Brisbane, in no small part to the fact that most teams arrive to the ‘fastest pitch in the world’ under-cooked and over-awed. The conditions usually play a significant part in that. The wicket today was, by Gabba standards, completely lifeless.
So before we write off the Australian pace trio just yet, let’s see what they can do when the sun comes out tomorrow (as is expected), and their short stuff may actually bring the fear their fans are all hoping for.
The test as it stands is on a knife edge after an absorbing first day. Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood (in particular) were at best underwhelming, at worse worryingly docile for Australia.
But if the Gabba pitch wakes up tomorrow under a hot Queensland sun, expect the crowd to wake up along with it. Then we’ll find out what this England middle order is really made of.
All to play for.