For three and a bit days and at an important stage in my studies, this test kept me up. The slowest scoring Ashes test match since 1994, the cautious optimism of Thursday through Saturday gave way to a crushing if faintly nostalgic Sunday. Strange, strange Englishmen who turned up at the Gabba on Monday morning to see Bancroft and Warner knock off the remaining 66 runs for an Australian victory.
You could tell England’s position in the match by the varying ferocity of Mitchell Starc’s moustache. Two and a half overs in when Cook edged to Handscomb at first slip, it was ostentatiously reminiscent of Dennis Lillee. By Friday, with David Malan and Moeen Ali looking set, Starc was kicking the dirt with all the frustrated petulance of Yosemite Sam.
This was when England ought to have pushed on and made 400. Cook’s early dismissal aside, it had been a positive opening day for England, in one sense of the word only. To open an Ashes series at the Gabba in only your fourth test is a big ask, but Stoneman stonewalled for nearly four hours, offering nothing to the new ball bowlers nor the BT Sport highlights team, scoring at two an over for his 53. James Vince was more generous at the other end, driving outside the off stump in a way that suggested another death in the 20s but achieving his as-yet highest Test score before setting off on an unrealistic single on 83.
83 is a typical Ian Bell score, a decent knock but not a match-winner, and anyone else and one might have pointed this out. But it was such a relief to see Stoneman, Vince and Malan, who looked reasonably comfortable for his 56, stand up to the much-vaunted Australian pace trio that perhaps we turned a blind eye to what was, in fact, a par position at best.
The slow scoring implied a stability that was subsequently revealed to be an illusion. Geoffrey Boycott is fond of reminding us to mentally add two wickets to the score because two so often fall in quick succession. Two might have been salvageable, but when England fell from 246-4 with the partnership between Malan and Ali nearing a hundred, to 250-7 — with a notoriously weak tail to follow —, this looked like the moment when the match had been lost.
It’s always nice to see Stuart Broad get stuck in at the end of the innings — what a poignant surprise it is every time the on-screen graphic reminds us of his wonderful 169 against the Pakistanis seven years ago —, but a first-innings score of 302 all out, on an unusually slow pitch in Brisbane, did not seem enough.
Still, England would not let me sleep. Broad had Bancroft caught behind, bringing Khawaja to the crease, who was soon trapped LBW by Moeen Ali. Ali bowled poorly all match, failing to extract the turn and bounce of Nathan Lyon, but Khawaja has now been dismissed 12 times in 39 innings from off-spin, and Moeen could have bowled him with an orange.
The big positive for England was Jake Ball’s dismissal of David Warner, who scooped the ball to Malan at short midwicket. When Anderson reduced Australia to 76/4, successfully reviewing a ball shown to be hitting Handscomb’s leg stump, England had a second chance in the match to push on and assume an unbeatable position.
There was, however, the small matter of on Steve Smith to contend with. From memory, Smith mistimed one pull shot, but otherwise gave England nothing. An initial plan to bowl wide of the off-stump and tempt him to waft at it was eventually shelved when it became clear that he wasn’t going to — although anything dropped a tad short was dispatched to the boundary.
England should learn an important lesson here: when your strike bowlers are bowling around 85mph, short bowling will not work. Australia’s quicks get it up around 90 and it can be intimidating, but Anderson and Broad are craftsmen more than enforcers and they will not do the Aussies for pace.
When three wickets fell in quick succession on Saturday morning, again England might have clinched it. Marsh spooned Broad to Anderson at mid-off, then Anderson had Paine caught behind with a new ball beauty. Broad’s caught and bowled to dismiss Starc brought Cummins to the crease with the score 209-7, trailing England by 93.
The difference in this series will be the difference between the qualities of the tails; Cummins alone faced more deliveries than England’s 8, 9, 10 and 11 across both innings. Joe Root’s decision not to keep Anderson bowling at this point was crucial and catastrophic.
Cummins hung around for two hours, providing back-up for Smith as he steadily compiled an unbeaten 141. When Australia crept past the England total at tea-time, you sensed the game was lost. A difficult 16 overs under the lights at the end of the day, in which Cook and Vince departed for 7 and 2 respectively, more or less confirmed it.
Hazlewood and Lyon did the initial damage and Starc finished off the tail, 195 all out setting Australia’s target at 170. Andy Zaltzman is correct to point out that cricketicians are far too obsessed with highest fourth-innings chase statistics — the record would have indicated some potential trouble for the Aussies. The reality was quite different.
The next test is a pink ball day-nighter at the Adelaide Oval, in what are likely going to be the best conditions the English attack can hope for. The Australian strategy at the moment will be to see off Anderson and Broad and cash in on poor bowling with an old Kookaburra from Woakes, Ball and Moeen.
We do not yet know for sure how the pink ball will age but England must have a contingency plan for the possibility that it doesn’t reverse. As the seniors, one of Root and Cook must make a big Smith-style knock. It doesn’t look like there’ll be a draw in this series – if England win in Adelaide, it’s game on, but it will require taking twenty wickets and scoring 400 in the first innings. If Australia go 2-0 up — whitewash.