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November 27, 2006
The hype has been dissipated and normality has been restored. The Poms are Down Under and they are getting pummelled, just as they have been in every series in Australia for the past 20 years. Forget about 2005, because the locals most certainly have. The Gabba today was an empty shell of a stadium, echoing only to the defiant last stand of a re-enfranchised Barmy Army who had come, it seems, full circle. It was at this venue, in 1994-95, that their legend was born, once again in ridiculously futile circumstances.
That match, in fact, was an eerie precursor to this fixture. It featured, then as now, a woeful first delivery of the series (Phil DeFreitas's long-hop versus Steve Harmison's double-wide); a dismal first England innings (167 plays 157 - CJ McDermott 6 for 53, GD McGrath 6 for 50); a surprise Australian refusal to enforce the follow-on (Mark Taylor was the innovative captain back then); and a spirited late rally from England's batting (Hick and Thorpe added 160 for the third wicket; Collingwood and Pietersen 153 for the fourth).
And had Shane Warne not been usurped by Stuart Clark in this morning's final session, he might well have equalled or bettered the 8 for 71 he took to condemn England to defeat on that distant occasion. It's a familiar tale unfolding, and one that the Gabbatoir, to give it its worthy nickname, is fond of recounting. Australia are unbeaten at this venue since West Indies visited, at the height of their powers, in 1988-89. In the 18 Tests since then, there have now been five draws and 13 wins - four by an innings, three by 10 wickets, and the rest by margins in excess of 100 runs.
It's a record as chilling as the task that now awaits England. For much of the year, they have been coasting through all their other engagements, keeping their powder dry for this, the grand rematch. Australia, on the other hand, have regrouped with menace allied to the mass mobilisation of every Green-and-Gold aficionado in the country. It's little wonder that Steve Harmison "froze" on the big occasion, as he candidly admitted in his Mail on Sunday column. Men of far sturdier temperaments might have found the occasion a touch overawing.
Where do England go from here? As everyone knows - not least the Australians - England suffered a similar drubbing at Lord's in 2005, but on that occasion they had time on their side and home comforts to turn to. Andrew Flintoff, for instance, fled for a week to the South of France with his family and returned reinvigorated to produce the match of his life at Edgbaston. Tonight, however, the team faces one last night in Brisbane before flying down to Adelaide tomorrow morning. Flintoff might not have been wrong when he said that getting on with the next Test was the best thing his team could possibly do, but that's only because the alternative would be to sit, wait and brood.
Harmison has clearly done quite enough brooding already. His first-ball wide is sure to enter into folklore, not least because of the dramatic counterpoint it provided to the 2005 experience - especially to Justin Langer, who faced up to Harmison at his very best on the one occasion, and his very worst on the other. "I can't but wondering about the stark contrast," he said after his century on Sunday night. "That first ball at Lord's flew off a perfect length, the second hit me on the elbow, and it was very clear from the body language of the England team, they were all over us.
"I've said it for 16 months," Langer added, "but the thing that stuck in my mind, even though we won the first Test, were those first two balls. I knew England were up for it then. I'm not saying they aren't up for it now, but I wonder if, in six weeks time, that won't be significant."
Without labouring the point, the magnitude of Harmison's missed opportunity in this first Test is staggering in its proportions. After all, Langer is a man who, in April, was felled first-ball by Makhaya Ntini, a blow so sickening that his career was thought to be over. Even a character as experienced as this might have baulked at the prospect of a flare-nostrilled Harmison baring down on him in his first big match for seven months. "The best players in the world are the best because they have the faith and trust in themselves," Langer added. It might have been a dig and a big-me-up all in one statement.
Kevin Pietersen's performance ensured that there are positives to be gleaned from England's performance, but it will be a worried bunch of players that take the trip to South Australia tomorrow. Ashley Giles admitted on Thursday that the team bus had been a quiet place on the way to the Gabba, and for all his on-field exhortations, Andrew Flintoff is not the most rabble-rousing of characters. Nor is Duncan Fletcher, whose anonymity has surpassed all previous records in this match.
There's only one thing for it. The Barmy Army, with a chance to congregate on the hill at the scoreboard end, will have to do what countless team-mates, psychologists, bowling coaches and pundits have failed to do, and coax a certain enigmatic spearhead into the sort of furious passion that England so desperately need. Without him, and without a correct call at the toss, England could well be sunk before the mid-point of the tour.
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