With the scorecard reading 6-132 half way through day one of the first Ashes Test, the Australian cricketing public were, once again, reeling.
TV remotes were thrown, couches physically abused and innocent bystanders verbally scolded – all brought on by the confronting but familiar sense ofdeja vu.
Another long summer appeared inevitable.
Queue Mitchell Johnson and Brad Haddin. The two veterans combined for a vital 114 run stand and eased Australia to, according to Johnson, a “par” score of 295 for the first innings.
Remotes were fished out of sinks and apologies produced, but what was yet to come would rattle both Australian and English supporters even more, in completely different ways.
This year Australia had previously failed to win a match over nine games. The thrashing of the Poms (by 381 runs) with a day to spare certainly came as a welcome relief for the Australians. It was almost too good to be true.
Mitchell Johnson, and his new ‘mo, was clearly the standout vehicle driving Australia’s success at the Gabba. Johnson bowled with malevolence, taking four wickets in the first innings rout, and another five in the second; plus he scored 98 runs for the match. It appears our former spearhead has been reborn. The challenge now for Johnson is to continue with his consistent and spiteful 150km thunderbolts for the rest of the tour; the flatter deck of Adelaide is shaping up as a good test for all the Aussie quicks.
Captain Clarke, or now rather Captain Grumpy mark two, again showed his class with a signature 113 runs in his second innings dig; he combined with David Warner beautifully. Warner also correlated his brilliant lead up form into a big score (124) to consign England to, at the very least, a miraculous draw. However despite a lead of 560 runs, when Ian Chappell starts pondering “the manner in which England will lose,” the incandescent warning lights do switch on. Lucky for Chaps’, his prophetic enquiry, this time, was warranted.
The skepticism of Clarke’s ability against the short ball proved to be ill founded. Whether it be more of a falsified myth supplied and fed by the media – there are many floating around – or an actual planned form of attack against Clarke; two pull shots to the boundary appeared to dispel any queries, and the perfume ball to Clarke was largely put away thereafter. Surely if this was an actual tactic, the English would have weathered a few boundaries and persisted. Alastair Cook is of the conservative type however, and his tactics against Clarke will be an interesting element to observe in Adelaide.
Nathan Lyon also deserves a mention. It still wasn’t the bag or the real clean up job that is so desperately desired of Australian spinners, yet, Gaz certainly took the honours this test match in the spin bowling department, clinically out-bowling his opposite – the crafty, Graeme Swann.
Lyon’s wickets were pivotal. Bell in the first innings – our roadblock in England – and following tea taking Cook, so crucial to the English resistance, an even bigger scalp. After being overlooked for the first game of the previous Ashes series in England, Lyon looks to be slowly, but surely cementing himself as Australia’s number one spinner. The former Adelaide groundsman knows the Oval track well, as one that is more conducive to turners and he will be looking to build on his output and performance in game two.
The English appeared a little flatter than usual, possibly wearied by some very harsh, verging on ridiculous tactics from the Australian tabloid press, which combined with the rabid Australian outfit, saw them outplayed in every facet this encounter. Their confidence might be slightly tarnished; doubts of facing Johnson and Harris for the next four games may have started to ripple. Still the biggest concerns were spawned off the field.
Jonathan Trott’s decision to leave the tour immediately due to a recurrence of a ‘stress related illness’ shocked many. After a miserly summer, averaging 30 in England’s home triumph, Trott was subject to severe criticism after playing an abhorrent shot in the delicate final stages of day three in Brisbane. Before the barbs could simmer and be dissected by the wider cricket fraternity, England’s phlegmatic first drop was heading home, understandably exiting the high-strung media blender that Ashes series entail.
So England head to Alice Springs without one of their pillars of strength, humbled by a poor performance and in desperate search to find some rhythm and consistency before Adelaide, and Mitchell Johnson’s top lip rears itself again.
Besides the need to find some real performance traction, England must find the right man for the vacant and critical No 3 position. Despite his recent poor form, Trott, the 2011 Wisden Cricketer of the year, has been an integral force in England’s surge to the top of the test world cricket rankings, and leaves a substantial chasm to fill. The journey to the red centre will be an interesting one for the squad, with no one fringe batsman demanding inclusion.
It’s difficult to see a batsman newly selected and inserted directly at No 3; a batting order reshuffle appears the more probable scenario. The Sherminator, Ian Bell, looks to be the front-runner, he’s stated in the past that he’d love a crack at the coveted position, but Flower may be reluctant to tinker and lose his middle order anchor. Former opener, Joe Root is also an option with experience against the quicks, and the prodigious-erratic Kevin Pietersen could also easily do the job as well, yet would probably be against a move from his suited No 4 slot. Obviously the possibilities are numerous, the suggestion of a Root and Carberry opening stanza and a Cook demotion also springs to mind.
So what are Flower’s options for inclusion?
Jonny Bairstow, the wicket keeper batsman who’s played 12 tests at an average of 30, is real a consideration. He looks a steely customer, but largely failed to make a significant impact in England’s series win against Australia.
Yorkshire batsman, Garry Balance has also been mentioned around the traps. The Zimbabwe-born left-hander was the leading run-scorer in Division One of the County Championship this summer but has scores of 0 and 4 from the tour matches. Balance has another chance in Alice Springs to finally barge his way in.
Others are arguing for the inclusion of an all-rounder to provide England with more options and flexibility. Twenty-two year-old Ben Stokes fits that bill and is another who is yet to make his test debut; he’s impressed with both bat and ball scoring 3,172 first-class runs at an average of 35.64, while taking 110 wickets at 28.24.
Whoever does get Flower’s endorsement should feel relieved that they’re flying south, not west, for their first encounter on the test arena. A probable docile drop-in wicket is expected to greet them in Adelaide and it is a ground where recent happy memories abound for the tourists; three years ago they won by an innings and 71 runs. Who could forget Simon Katich being run out without facing a ball? What about Pietersen pillaging a double ton? That utterly tormented Australia to the resignation of defeat. However it appears the wheels of change, to a minor extent, are in motion in the English camp. It is by and large the same nucleus with just a few fresh faces, but against what looks to be, if Brisbane is any indicator, a more stubborn opposition.
With the high level of anticipation, charged by the fever pitch, all-encompassing media saturation for this series, there was a sense of completion as the first ball was bowled, the end to hype and speculation, and the beginning of facts and numeration. Now with one test down and the content and narrative neatly provided, the known knowns have been acknowledged, Australia dominated at the Gabba and lead the 2013/14 Ashes series 1-0, but, it’s time for the predictions, prophecies and propaganda to start again, until the next instalment.
However, one more known known, previously unmentioned, is that this English team is a champion one, not to be taken lightly in any scenario. The men that wear the three lions expect to win when they head onto the cricket pitch, and when they walk onto Adelaide Oval their conviction will not have wavered. Australia has taken the gloves off. Despite suffering the opening test defeat, and the return home of a statesman, and other changes afoot, nothing really changes: Australia are still the challengers, England are still the champions. Whatever is to come, just hold onto your remotes.