England carry the fight to Australia
Being the neutral is a wonderful position in cricket watching. No matter how often we remind ourselves and how hard we try, keeping nationalism out of the equation is a near-impossible task, for the core of cricket's appeal lies in the rivalry between nations, notwithstanding its great nuances and the contests within contests. The Ashes, for obvious reasons, is a bit more special than most contests on a cricket field, and to be able to enjoy a spectacular opening to this grand contest without being weighed down by strong personal emotions is a special feeling.
It's not everyday that the reality lives up to the hype. It's been a long and breathless countdown to this day, and no hypster could have written an opening like this. Seventeen wickets in a day of non-stop action in perfect cricket conditions was only part of the story; what was more remarkable was the way the main characters played out their parts. Steve Harmison's lethality is no longer a speculation. He didn't merely take five wickets, he brought awareness of mortality to the Australian batsmen.
And Glenn McGrath didn't merely chalk up his 500th wicket, he did it exactly the way he had sketched it out, two left-handed openers opened up, balls slanting past them, catching the edge and flying to slips. He single-handedly won the battle back for Australia, but if you happened to be a neutral, did you really care about who won the day? It was a great day of Test cricket, and refreshingly, the bowlers had ruled.
Australia have collapsed before. They got bowled out cheaply thrice in their recent series against India, and twice in the same Test at Mumbai. But such things are expected to happen to them on the turning wickets in the sub-continent and the pitch at Mumbai was one of the worst in recent memory. But when did they last find themselves terrorised on a pitch that had pace, bounce and movement? England's bowling performance in the first four hours of the Test put the domination of Australian batsmen in the recent years in perspective. When did they last come up with a new-ball attack that put the fear of God into them?
Shoaib Akhtar once blasted out five Australian batsmen in the space of 15 balls in a Test in Colombo, but he had little support at the other end and little left in the tank to come back for a second crack. England today had Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones to back up Harmison's menace and the Australia batsmen had nowhere to hide. One-day cricket might have little bearing on Test cricket, but the scenes of Australian batsmen falling to English pacemen has been a familiar sight throughout this summer. Australia, it can be argued, batted a bit in the one-day mode, but in truth, they were hurried and hustled from the word go.
Harmison hit Langer flush on the elbow with the second ball of the match, and from that moment onwards, he gave no peace to the Australian batsmen. For far too long, the Australian batsmen have used the horizontal bat shots to intimidate pace bowlers around the world; today they found themselves staring at harsh reality: no batsmen like it buzzing around their heads. Without helmets, Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden could have played their last innings of this Ashes. It's for the first time in many years, Australia have found themselves facing a new-ball attack that means business, and they have flunked their first examination.
Plenty of cricket remains to be played in this series still and the Ashes aren't perhaps coming home as quickly as the English fans would have imagined after the heady first session at Lord's today. But one prediction can be hazarded: this series will buck a trend established by Australia over the last decade. Their batsmen wouldn't bully England out of the series. Test cricket has been restored as the contest it was meant to be: between the bat and the ball.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine