Fiery Cummins sparks Australia

23 November 2017

Two big wickets from the pace ace sandwiched a bit of Nathan Lyon brilliance in the field

Magellan Ashes 2017-18, First Test


Throughout a prickly preamble to the Magellan Ashes that seemed to fill a time span almost as long as the urn’s own lengthy history, a few oft-repeated assumptions came to be taken up as facts.

In no particular order, they deemed England’s top three to be flaky, Australia’s fast bowlers to run rampant and the most difficult period in which to bat at the Gabba would be the first few hours, doubly so if the low cloud that had hovered over Brisbane for the past week remained in situ.

After one day’s play of a series that has been analysed and anticipated almost from the moment the previous Ashes chapter closed in 2015 all three of those assessments have been called into question, thus throwing the remainder of the widely held perceptions into question.

An end of day scoresheet reading 4-196 would suggest more than the hour and quarter lost to rain after lunch had curtailed playing time, if conventional thinking and contemporary scoring rates were applied.

But from the moment England won the coin toss and their skipper Joe Root took the batting option, which is what rival skipper Steve Smith claimed he would also have taken, the script that so many had written and recited stubbornly refused to play out.

The batter that loomed as the glue most likely to hold together an unproved England top three – former captain Alastair Cook who boasts a proud pedigree in Australia – lost his wicket just 16 balls into the campaign in a manner that suggested his influence might be on the wane.

Cook becomes first victim of Ashes summer

The prolific left-hander, fresh from a Test double-century during the endless English summer, was pushed back in his crease by the express pace that was supposed to prove Australia’s trump card and was duly caught at slip pushing the bat half-heartedly in front of his body.

But by that stage the Gabba pitch had already betrayed some signs that suggested this was not the same sort of feisty deck that curator Kevin Mitchell Jr had prepared across his previous 27 seasons in charge, and that his swansong had yielded something altogether unforeseen.

Where opening pitches of summers past sported sufficient grass cover to facilitate seam movement, inherent hardness beneath the residual first morning tackiness to ensure the ball routinely flew chest high to the keeper and movement through the air to keep the slips cordon alert, today yielded none of the above.

Despite its green tinges around the edges, Australia’s pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins were rarely able to get the ball to deviate past England’s bats.

The clouds that cloaked the ground during the pre-match anthems parted shortly after the coin toss to reveal bright sunshine, which seemed to put paid to any notion that the ball might wobble through the air.

And the looping, ‘tennis ball’ bounce that can be a feature in the first hour or three of a Gabba Test was so pronounced throughout the entire day that the harder the quicks banged into the soft surface, the more benignly it sat up which made timing tough for batters and life even more frustrating for bowlers.

Except for Australia’s sole spinner Nathan Lyon, who gained so much purchase on the spongy surface he presented as potent a threat as did the pace battery that was supposed to cause England so much grief.

The fact that he ended the day without a wicket likely due to the fact he gained too much purchase and turn.

Vince survives as Paine puts down chance

Indeed, if the pitch had been served up on the subcontinent or the United Kingdom, it would have invited conspiratorial whispers that it had been deliberately doctored to nullify Australia’s fast bowling complement.

But if Australia’s pace threat proved far less than foreshadowed, then England’s top-order batting came as a revelation on a day that brought adjectives such as “gritty” and “patient” but not an abundance of stopped-in-your-tracks highlights.

Certainly the reputations that recently installed opener Mark Stoneman and under-performed number three James Vince had hoped to enhance in the glare of Ashes battle were forged in part through England’s most productive Test partnership in Australia for any wicket since their triumph of 2010-11.

Stoneman gets Ashes rolling with opening fifty

The nature of the pitch might not have made for fluent strokeplay, but the England pair who had been identified as weaknesses ahead of a middle-order that loomed as the tourists’ strength played with flawless judgement and temperament.

Realising that short-pitched bowling was unlikely to cause an issue due to the sluggish bounce and with little in the way of seam or swing movement to generate concern, they routinely offered no strokes to the many deliveries that did not directly threaten their stumps and steadfastly defended those that did.

A lunchtime scoreline of 1-59 from 29 overs underscored their prudence, and any suspicion that the 75 minutes lost to rain after that interval might enliven the pitch were put to rest over the next hour as the pair doggedly took the total past 100.

Vince gets summer off to strong start

With Australia’s slips cordon effectively redundant and the England pair too canny to play forcing strokes that might bring catches in front of the wicket as the ball ‘stuck’ in the surface, the only chances to emerge were a couple of half options that dropped agonisingly close to a fielder at bat-pad.

The sole blatant miss came from recalled keeper Tim Paine who, when Vince had notched his maiden Test half-century and progressed to 68, fumbled the outside edge that came when Lyon got a delivery to jump from a length but turn less than expected before it struck the keeper near his wrists.

On a day that produced so few errors from batters, the moment was replayed endlessly on the Gabba’s big screens but learned judges deemed that Paine – playing his first Test since 2010 – had his gloves in the right position and it was more a matter of good fortune as to whether it ultimately stuck.

It was clearly going to require some special moments to dislodge the unlikely pair who instilled great hope in the England dressing room, and Cummins proved the first to find one.

Cummins claims first home scalp with a seed

His change to bowling around the wicket at Stoneman brought an exaggerated line into the left-hander who was trapped neither back nor forward and was done for pace into the bargain, with his middle stump tilted back.

Five overs later, Vince fell to a lapse in judgement that was as unexpected as the piece of intuitive fielding from Lyon that claimed the wicket was irresistible.

Within 17 runs of an inaugural Test century that would have been as deserved as it would be celebrated, Vince – who had begun to blossom into an array of crisp strokes as the bowlers tired – pushed Hazlewood to cover point and set off for an instinctive single.

Prowling Lyon removes Vince with direct hit

As soon as Lyon angled his run at the bouncing ball and whipped an underarm throw immediately upon seizing it in his right hand, Vince knew he was in strife but was more than a metre short of his crease when the direct throw smashed the stumps.

At that point, England’s solid (if not yet safe) 1-127 had become 3-145, and when Root fell to the day’s first DRS review – and the first under the ICC’s revised protocols for Test matches in Australia – Australia felt they were back in the contest with the scoreboard showing 4-163.

Cummins thunderbolt claims the England captain

The clear advantage to be gained in the first of five Tests will rest on the productivity of England’s middle-order – touted as their batting strong suit coming into the series – on day two when the Gabba pitch is supposed to quicken up and be at its best for stroke-making.

At least, that’s what the pundits have been telling us.

2017-18 International Fixtures:

Magellan Ashes Series

First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets

Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets

Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Buy tickets

Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets

Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets

Gillette ODI Series v England

First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets

Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets

Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets

Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets

Fifth ODI Perth TBC, January 28. Join the ACF

Prime Minister's XI

PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets

Gillette T20 INTL Series

First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets

Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets

Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets

Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 13

Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16

Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18

Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21