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Peter English in Cardiff
July 8, 2009
By modern standards this was not a frenetic beginning. It felt like a Test, but not a contemporary Ashes opener.
Before tea a Welsh supporter attending their first day of cricket might have fallen asleep, considered building a beer-cup snake and scribbled down Six Nations dates. Lovers of the longer game were absorbed by the swaying advantage, although they could have done without watching the spinning might of Michael Clarke and Nathan Hauritz in tandem after lunch, but there was an edge missing.
While the ground was full and the sun turned cheeks pink, there was a staring contest on in the middle rather than an attack-first policy. Like a transition stage of the Tour de France, the scenery made you wish you were on holiday, but those in the peloton were waiting for another team to make the important move.
In four years the defining moment of the day will be Kevin Pietersen's Mike Gatting moment, a sweep virtually from point which bumped his helmet and lobbed to Simon Katich at short leg. Maybe Michael Hussey's swoop to latch on to Alastair Cook's push will be recalled, or Peter Siddle's late inswinger to bowl Matt Prior, or an Andrew Flintoff straight drive. By the end it was 336 for 7, a great result for a normal Test but not one leaving a folder of mental pictures in the hippocampus.
England compiled comfortably, with intermittent surges from Pietersen and Paul Collingwood, and lifted the pace through Prior and Andrew Flintoff towards the end, turning the volume up in the stands. The batsmen rarely needed risk with Ricky Ponting's generous field settings, which donated easy runs and eased pressure. Australia's bowlers struggled with their line at times and nerves were also displayed through some fumbles. Nobody was expecting perfection, but this day happens only twice in four years and the main fireworks came between the toss and the first ball.
In past series the opening exchanges ignited the contest and were often responsible for setting up the overall victory. Steve Harmison's first-ball wide started Australia laughing as they posted 346 for 3 in Brisbane during the previous battle and in 2002-03 the hosts thumped 364 for 2 following Nasser Hussain's decision to bowl. Pietersen's sweep was comparably senseless and England wait to learn of any repercussions.
England were dismissed for 294 on the opening day in 2001 and Australia's score was already 18 after an over of Michael Slater thunder. In 2005, 17 wickets tumbled at Lord's and Australia's win was their only success of the series; eight years earlier England skipped to a 72-run first-innings lead by stumps in Birmingham, the first stage in a 3-2 loss.
The 2009 versions of Australia and England carry one great batsman each in Pietersen and Ponting, and a creaking allrounder in Andrew Flintoff, who brightened the afternoon during an 86-run partnership with Prior. For Australia, six heroes have stood down since 2006-07 and Brett Lee is out with a stomach injury. Michael Vaughan, the architect of England's 2005 triumph, was drinking in the stands.
Most of the current crop sit rungs below legend status and are learning about life in the game's oldest and most celebrated contest. This is a rebuilding series for the teams and, by extension, the Ashes. Great days will occur but after the first three sessions it is clear there won't be 25 different sword fights. That's okay. Like Test cricket in Wales, it will take a while to get used to.
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