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England fear nothing about the challenge that awaits them on this tour. The only way they'll be beaten is on the field, not in the head
November 29, 2010
Analysis : Cheer up Australia, there's always the North star
News : Cooking the books
Report : England break records in high-scoring draw
Features : Records galore
Players/Officials: Alastair Cook
Matches: Australia v England at Brisbane
Series/Tournaments: England tour of Australia
Australia's formidable unbeaten run at the Gabba remains intact for another year, but that was one of just a handful of records that withstood England's flood of runs on the final day of the Brisbane Test. With Alastair Cook eclipsing Bradman as the highest individual scorer on the ground, and Australia's own triple-century stand being knocked off its perch by Cook's 329-run partnership with Jonathan Trott, England secured themselves a moral victory as invaluable, if not more so, than their last-ditch escape at Cardiff in 2009.
Cardiff was uplifting for England, without a shadow of a doubt, but the game still finished with questions in almost every department. The spinners had been ineffective, Andrew Flintoff's knee was a cause for concern, and while the elation of their last-ditch let-off was real, it could not disguise the fact that England's tenth-wicket pairing had been forced to save the day at a venue where Australia had themselves racked up 674 for 6, the highest total in post-war Ashes history.
Sixteen months later, and the scenario is very different. After conceding a scarcely credible 517 for 1 in the third innings of the match, Australia's immediate reaction to a day of deep humiliation was to call not one, but two fast bowlers into their squad for Adelaide. It was an instant admission that, for all the jubilation that surrounded Peter Siddle's hat-trick on an emotionally charged first afternoon, there was only one team in this match that ever looked capable of claiming 20 wickets.
"One for 500 is a pretty demanding scorecard," admitted Ricky Ponting at the close. "I felt I exhausted all options in terms of trying different things with the field, but we couldn't break their top three or four players. I thought they played exceptionally well against the new ball, and it was hard work for our boys. If we get another flat wicket in Adelaide, we've got to make sure we're a whole lot better than we were in this game."
Had this match been taking place in Ahmedabad or Lahore, the focus at the end would surely have been on the pitch - a dreadful slab of tarmac that got flatter as the match wore on, and later caused Ponting to remark that he'd never known it slower. And while inquests are to be encouraged, because such benign surfaces are a blight on Test cricket as a whole, the immense scale of England's achievement cannot be overlooked. This is the Ashes, the longest and most storied Test series in the game, and right at this moment, they're writing a major chapter.
England's captain, Andrew Strauss, was his usual cautious self after the match, as he sidestepped leading questions about "all this momentum chat", and settled for reiterating the deep well of confidence within the squad. But the contrast between the frazzled emotions of day one and the insolent contentment of their batting on the final day could scarcely have been more stark.
"At the end of day three it wasn't looking good, so to come back and draw [gives us] a lot of belief we can go on and win the series from here," said Strauss. "We'll have a spring in our step going to Adelaide, but we have to transfer that to the pitch. It's all very well strutting about in the hotel lobby feeling good about yourself. You need to make sure that turns into runs and wickets."
There's no doubt, however, that the Gabba experience will have emboldened the squad far more than he was letting on. Ashes openers are contests in which England have habitually been slaughtered. In 11 series spanning the past 21 years, they've succumbed to eight thumping defeats and two losing draws, and only once in that time, at home in 1997, did they manage to buck the trend with an astonishingly unlikely win. The team in those days was too fragmented to capitalise, however, and Australia roared back with three wins in the next four games.
Do the Australians of 2010 possess the necessary bouncebackability? It's hard to see how they can cultivate a winning feeling overnight, especially against an England side who've settled into their Australia tour with such ease that they were able to treat the last day of the Test match as an extension of their warm-up itinerary. After two wins and an impressive draw at Perth, Adelaide and Hobart, they were able to batter their Test opponents against an echoingly empty backdrop, before electing to have a two-hour bowling work-out, just to see what they could do. Not a whole lot, as it happens, but at such a late stage of a previously tumultuous game, that wasn't really the issue anymore.
What was far more relevant was the quashing of preconceptions, particularly those that abounded about the Gabba, a venue whose reputation had been built up so ferociously before a ball had been bowled, England might have been forgiven for thinking they were playing the Test in a mediaeval dungeon, with buckets of burning oil being poured down from the stands for good measure.
For the first day in particular, that really did seem the case, and the wall of sound that greeted Strauss's duck was incredible. But the final day echoed only to the chants of the Barmy Army, with English fans making up more than 80% of a paltry 7088 crowd. "I forgot where I was at one stage today, it was like being back at The Oval," said Ponting. He said it with a smile, but the grimace was hard to suppress. With the Melbourne and Sydney Tests sure to be similarly colonised, regardless of the weakness of the pound, this was Australia's banker venue, as it always has been. And between the performance and the support, they blew it.
Whatever happens in the remainder of the series, England will not be as racked with anxiety as they were in the opening stages of this match, a fact that Cook - whose first-innings 67 was arguably the most crucial of his twin contributions - was keen to point out. "The night before I was probably the most nervous I've been," he said. "The drive into the ground, the hype, the national anthems… it's a very nerve-racking time. I was very disappointed after getting out for 67, and I was ultra-determined to make it count if I got in again. But getting through the first couple of hours gave me a lot of confidence because I hadn't done it in an Ashes series."
On Tuesday the team relocate to Adelaide, a ground that harbours arguably the most painful Ashes memories of England's recent past, following the nature of their final-day capitulation back in 2006. As it happens, the fifth day at the Gabba had dawned with one or two references to that match, seeing as the lead at the start of play had been 88 with nine wickets standing, compared to the 97 and nine that ebbed away four years ago.
But the comparisons were shelved almost before they were raised. England fear nothing about the challenge that awaits them on this tour. The only way they'll be beaten is on the field, not in the head.
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