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November 25, 2010
The hype, as Ricky Ponting remarked, gets bigger every year, but the action somehow keeps living up to its billing. In a slaughterhouse atmosphere that throbbed like a 21st-Century Sabina Park, England diced with disaster on the opening day of the Ashes and on two astounding occasions suffered moments of meltdown that would have scuppered any one of their predecessors of the past 20 years. It remains to be seen whether the same fate awaits the class of 2010, but by the close England were bloodied and chastened, living up to their own pre-series assertions that their serene start to the tour would count for diddly-squat.
England's aim on this first day of the series was to drain the occasion of its emotion, to confront the ghastly Gabbatoir with a shrug in their shoulders and a spring in their steps, in precisely the manner that Steve Harmison, and before him Nasser Hussain, had failed to do on their previous two visits. Unfortunately for them, they were confronted by an Australian side who had mainlined their adrenalin straight from their defeat of 2009, and in the man of the moment, Peter Siddle, they confronted a bowler who knows no other way but up and at 'em.
Siddle's intercession, on his 26th birthday and in his first Test appearance since a back injury in January, was the stand-out performance of a pulsating day, as he justified the omission of Australia's form bowler Doug Bollinger with a cut-throat display of pace, aggression, and wicket-to-wicket skill. He, like every one of the ten Australians who had played in the decisive Oval Test in 2009, sucked up the pain of that defeat and blew it back into the fray at the earliest opportunity.
"[That defeat] was a massive part of it," said Siddle. "You never want to lose any game, let alone the Ashes. I can remember it now, the last wicket falling of the Oval test, going out on the field for the presentations, seeing the boys going up onto the stand, yahooing and cheering and getting handed the urn, it's something you don't want to see, and it's definitely something you don't want to see again. It's played a big part, and obviously this is a good start, but there's still 24 days to go and anything can happen in that time."
Despite Australia's enviable position at the close, Siddle's caution was justified, because there were signs amid the mayhem that England aren't dead yet. In terms of the cut-and-thrust on display, this first day's action was the spiritual successor to Lord's 2005, another game which started with first-over dramatics, when Harmison's second-ball snorter clattered into Justin Langer's elbow. Then as now, England finished the day on the canvas after being stunned by a spectacular full-length spell from Glenn McGrath, and on that occasion, they couldn't get back up before the bell.
Nevertheless, the agenda of the series was set there and then, and while England's aim on that occasion had been to pump themselves up rather than calm themselves down, there were enough moments of serenity in their performance today to believe they can fare considerably better further down the line. Alastair Cook's vigil was invaluable to the cause, as he blocked up an end for four-and-three-quarter hours and let his time at the crease act as a sponge for the excess atmospherics, while Kevin Pietersen's strut was back in evidence before he got a fine delivery from Siddle that nipped half-a-bat's width and was snicked through to Ponting at second slip.
No-one, however, looked more assured in their performance than the under-estimated Ian Bell, who oozed composure throughout his stay, and whose 76 might, in the circumstances, qualify as his finest Test innings yet.
"I want to get stuck in through this series, and get some knocks under some real pressure," said Bell. "I'm full of confidence, and I feel in good form, and it was nice to go out and play fluently. I'd much prefer to be 120 not out, but these are the days you enjoy playing Test cricket. Going out in front of a full house at the Gabba is pretty special, and the noise that can be generated out here is incredible. If we can get some wickets it'll be buzzing again tomorrow."
In the not-so-distant past, this was precisely the sort of occasion on which Bell would surely have crumbled - a fervent, baying atmosphere, and England's innings on the line after the back-to-back dismissals of Pietersen and Paul Collingwood. But something about his cricket has clicked into place in the past 12 months, starting with his starring role on the tour of South Africa, and to watch him talking to the media afterwards, with a steely resolve in his otherwise relaxed demeanour, was sufficient confirmation that his time has finally come.
"It was a nice day," he said, without a trace of irony, before responding to a question about whether England's fans should start panicking just yet. "Of course not," he added. "This is probably a better first day than we had last time we were here, and we're going to come out scrapping tomorrow morning. We know we're under-par, but we're not a million miles away from a par score."
It could well be true. Up in the Channel Nine commentary box, Shane Warne couldn't resist revisiting his old "Sherminator" jibe, but Bell has grown beyond recognition since 2006. Whether England as a unit can claim likewise will depend entirely on how they react with the ball, but if they are half the side that their recent record would claim them to be, they'll not let the lessons of a dramatic first day go unheeded.
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Plays of the Day from second ODI between South Africa and Pakistan, in Port Elizabeth
Plays of the Day from the third ODI between India and West Indies, in Kanpur