A chess match, not a bullfight
Ultimately the Gabba Test petered out into a boring draw. It was a curious match. Every day seemed like an eternity, not because the play lacked sparkle but rather due to the nature of the feats performed. It was a large match that seemed to last an epoch. Although it produced several apparently terminal mood swings, it was hardly the sort of cliffhanger observed in past series, the type of unforgettable contest that whets the appetite.
In so far as sport is a human journey the match fulfilled expectations. Statisticians had a field day. Andrew Strauss almost had a stinker, came within a whisker of recording a pair, yet eventually emerged as the happier captain. After a false start his second innings was replete with robust strokes indicating high skill as well as sporting courage. Cleary he had not come to preside over tame defeat.
Strauss's defiance reinforced impressions that England, or at any rate a team bearing that name, is well led and resilient. Nor did his counterpart let his side down. Ricky Ponting arrived in Brisbane with more headaches than a rugby team on tour but he managed to hold his side together and spent the last hour making statements of his own, stepping down the pitch to hit a six and hooking and pulling the ball between a deep-set field placed to pounce on error. Australia, too, intend to stand tall.
It was a batsman's match. Of the four wielders coming into the series with points to prove (a concept almost as popular in sports writing as "proving the critics wrong"), two scored commanding hundreds and another was denied the opportunity to do so because he was rapidly running out of partners.
Alastair Cook deserves pride of place because he batted twice and played the longest innings. When he arrived Cook was regarded by locals as a splendid fellow but a possible weak link in the batting order. A previous visit had been unproductive, and a habit of hanging his bat out to dry had been observed. As a rule batsmen prepared to reach away from their bodies and play with an angled bat do not prosper on bouncier antipodean pinches. Accordingly the hosts felt they could breach the opening partnership and expose the middle order to the new ball
Instead Cook resembled a rock. His first-innings contribution was crucial. Strauss's decision to bat was correct but the execution was flawed. Cook alone occupied the crease for a long period, keeping the Australians at bay for four or so hours. It was a disciplined innings, founded upon patience and determination. In truth he still looked limited but no longer lightweight.
Cook's second innings was reward for his first effort. It's no small thing to take guard after spending days in the field and after watching your team's hopes of victory evaporate. England had fallen 221 behind and could easily have disintegrated. Cook refused to let any negativity enter his brain, rejected the calls of defeat and exhaustion and instead applied himself to the task of saving the match. Australia could not shift him. Until he finally tired towards the end he did not look like getting out. He played the game on his own terms and earned the plaudits assigned to him
Ian Bell was the other England batsman to enhance his reputation. In previous Ashes series he had seemed frail, as if intimidated by the force of character pitted against him. Now he appeared composed and consummate. In terms of strokeplay his innings was the best of the match. A glide past mid-on's right hand was the shot of the match. Bell watched Peter Siddle's hat-trick unfold from the bowler's end and knew that time was running out. Accordingly he fell short of the hundred he craved, but surely he knew that he had converted a cricketing community.
Not that England scored all the runs. Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin also surpassed themselves. Hussey was almost out for a duck on the second day and again on the third morning. Otherwise he was superb, cutting and driving through extra cover for the entire world as if his form had been impeccable and his place was not in jeopardy.
Hussey has packed a lot of cricketing experience into a few years. It is normal for a batsman to start his international career brightly, endure a bad patch, regroup and come again. Most of the Australians of recent vintage have endured these ups and downs. Many broke into the team whilst still wet behind the ears, were dumped and returned wiser. Hussey is a late starter and so could ill afford the same rollercoaster ride, but had it anyhow because that is cricket. At once he was a novice and a seasoned campaigner; fresh and eager and yet also grey-haired. It's a difficult combination to survive.
Hussey might have been ditched at any time in the last 12 months but was saved by his record. Perhaps he has finally come to terms with the sudden Bradmanesque rush of his first year, the consequent decline in his second season as he tried to maintain a standard beyond mere mortals, and the inner panic that set in once the runs dried up. His game relies on balance at the crease and finding the right tempo in his mind
Haddin played the innings of his life. If his vibrant first hundred in Adelaide made him realise that he really did belong in this company and need not constantly compare himself to Adam Gilchrist, a legend of the game, then this calmly constructed effort at the Gabba confirmed that he can think and play like a specialist batsman - and a top-class one at that.
In every respect Haddin's innings was a revelation. Few had expected to see him bat with such restraint for so long a period. Few had supposed he had such a secure technique. Part of the reason adventurers go for their shots is that they suspect their tenure at the crease might be brief. Hitherto Haddin had relied on instinct as opposed to bricks and mortar. Now he resembled a batsman from the old school, settling in, building his innings, widening his range of shots as the position improved
These were the leading figures of the game. Significantly they were all batsmen. Amongst the flingers, Peter Siddle took a thunderous hat-trick and pounded away with characteristic commitment. James Anderson produced a scintillating spell poorly served by fortune, and Steven Finn took most wickets and sensibly observed later that they came too late to matter.
Otherwise the bowlers toiled in vain. Two wickets fell on the last two days of a Gabba Test. The pitch was the slowest seen in 25 years. Doubtless the drought-ending rains were a factor. Twelve months ago half Australia was thirsty as the Big Dry continued. Now the rivers are flowing and towns are flooding. Such is the nature of a raw continent. Evidently the pitch did not harden as much as is predecessors.
Perhaps, too, the low scores recorded in Shied matches this season were another factor. Curators fear early finishes more than stalemates, an outlook shared with television companies and officials. Whatever the reason, Brisbane provided its most insipid pitch in decades and a dull match ensued
And it was dull. Despite all the twists and turns the match was doomed to a draw long before the captains shook hands. Cricket cannot afford many triumphs of this sort. Stalemates and sterility hurt the game more even than controversy.
But it was not only the pitch. Two other truths were revealed. Ancients insist that the standard of bowling in Test cricket has fallen to its lowest level in living memory. During the match a TV station listed the top wicket-takers in 2010 and compared them with their equivalents in 2000, 1990 and 1980. The disparity was telling. One commentator was asked to name the world-class bowlers currently running around, reached three and then ground to a halt - and one of them is likely to be banned for years.
The disciplined approach taken by the batsmen was another reason wickets were few and far between. Both sides came into the match with a plan and both plans were essentially defensive. England had studied past series played on these shores and realised that local bowlers, and Mitchell Johnson in particular, depended on batsmen playing at deliveries that could be left alone. Accordingly the think tank instructed batsmen to allow anything off line to pass by. And it worked. Edges were few and far between and Johnson was rendered ineffective.
Australia knew that England relied on four bowlers and set out to wear them down. From Shane Watson onwards the batsmen tried to occupy the crease as long as possible. It was not only a question of the Gabba Test. Five Tests will be played in six weeks. The series ends on January 7.
Both tactics are soundly based. Both exploit weaknesses observed in the opposing ranks. Neither will set pulses racing. If the Gabba is anything to go by this series is going to be more like a chess match than a bullfight. Maybe firmer pitches or weary bodies will force the combatants to reconsider their strategies. If not it is going to be a slow-moving campaign calculated to appeal to aficionados and supporters but not likely to convince sceptics that Test cricket is in the pink of health.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It. This piece has been reproduced with permission from the Sydney Morning Herald.