One crowded hour in Adelaide
For about 60 minutes on the first morning of every Test match at the Adelaide Oval, a famously benign pitch starts its life with delusions of a green-top. Like a teenager experimenting with wilder things before settling into sensible adulthood, the surface is briefly open to the suggestions of the fast bowlers, and far less agreeable to batsmen raised on the assumption that Adelaide is a place for harvesting runs, not edging catches.
As the crowd files onto the Scoreboard hill and the members settle in their seats on the western side, the surface retains the merest trace of freshness left by the thoughtful ground staff, allowing the ball to briefly swing and seam. The pace and bounce off the pitch is more pronounced than at any other stage of the match. Given how placid the track can become for batsmen later on, once the dry heat of South Australia's desert climate has had its way with the remaining moisture, Adelaide's opening exchanges can be more influential on the final outcome of a Test than almost anywhere else in the world - ground lost in that first hour is seldom regathered without great, and sometimes futile effort.
Michael Hussey has experienced the oval's early life as an opening batsman for Western Australia, and also been called on to repair the damage it can cause from his berth in Australia's middle order. He agrees that in Adelaide, an early stumble when the seam stands up can take days to recover from, if it is at all.
"Yes I think so [the first hour is more important in Adelaide]," Hussey said. "It certainly does do a little bit in the first morning, maybe the first session, and then generally can be a very good batting pitch for a few days, so it is very important and England certainly exposed us in that respect. We started with a run-out but after that they got other quick wickets which put us under enormous pressure and stopped us getting to a good first-innings total. So it's certainly a crucial time in the game, if the openers can get through that then good runs can be had. It's a very crucial part of the game. I think any Test match, the first hour or the first session can shape how the match is going to go as well."
As Hussey recalled, Australia were reminded of this state of things in graphic fashion last summer, when it was possible to conclude that the second Test was lost to England inside the first 13 balls of its commencement. In that time the hosts lost 3 for 2, Simon Katich's run-out followed by fretful edges into the slips by Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke at the hands of the artful fast man Jimmy Anderson. Both Ponting and Clarke pushed out firmly at deliveries that left them late, and would later stand solemnly in the field as nary another ball did quite as much for the rest of the match.
Ponting knew the importance of the first few overs of an Adelaide Test, having played so many, and at the toss before had observed: "Like Indian conditions sometimes a lot can happen late in the games here, so you have to make sure you play really well at the start of the game and keep yourself in the contest right up until the end." Australia's failure to do so after Ponting had given them first use of the pitch would haunt them for the remainder of the series, and now serves as a reminder of how important it is to be vigilant at the start of the Adelaide Test.
Initial curve and cut notwithstanding, there remains no question that the team winning the toss in Adelaide must bat. There are Englishmen who still cuss and mutter at the fateful decision made by Bob Willis in 1982-83 to insert Greg Chappell's Australians upon calling correctly. Needing a victory to regain parity in the series, Willis gambled on a surface that had shown signs of dampness in the lead-up, but watched disconsolately in the field as Chappell crafted a century and the hosts tallied 438 - the platform for an eight-wicket victory. Bowlers may have the narrowest of windows in which to strike, but with the help of decisive footwork and good early judgement the batsmen can settle themselves in for the day, or more.
Since Willis, the only other visiting captain to chance bowling first was Mohammad Azharuddin. India's arrival for the 1992 Test coincided with the first match on a relaid square, which promised to offer a little more help to those delivering the ball after a soporific sequence of six consecutive drawn Tests. Chasing a victory to keep the series alive, Azharuddin fielded, and rejoiced as Kapil Dev, Manoj Prabhakar and a young part-time seamer called Sachin Tendulkar fetched seven cheap wickets between them to rumble out an inattentive Australia for 145. This was a rare occasion on which the reverses of the first day were to be atoned for, as the hosts ground their way back into the contest and ultimately squeaked a 38-run victory.
Though the match was sullied by arguments about the respective lbw counts for both sides, and made notable by Allan Border's refusal to take the field on the final morning after learning that Geoff Marsh was to be dropped for the final Test, it was the start of a far more enticing run of results. Since then only three of 20 Adelaide Tests have been drawn, and on each occasion the offer of first morning assistance has provided a critical element to the ensuing drama. Whoever bats first in Adelaide on Tuesday will have reason to be watchful, and whoever bowls will have cause to be hopeful … for about an hour.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here