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December 2, 2010
England have arrived in Adelaide with the same uncompromising outlook with which they departed Brisbane last week. Any sense of jubilation at their powerful finale to the first Test has been firmly tempered by the realisation that, for the first three days of the series, they were worryingly off the pace. After all, it's not often that a side can post 260 in its first innings, as England did at the Gabba, and expect to ease to safety four days later by racking up 1 for 517 at the second time of asking.
"For us to be jumping up and down and congratulating each other would be a long way off the mark," said England's captain, Andrew Strauss. "We are nil-all in the series and we are going to have to improve our performance. We showed a lot of resilience to come back and draw in Brisbane, which is great, but you can't afford to be behind in cricket matches too often because eventually the other team will convert that."
That principle is especially true at the Adelaide Oval, one of the most picturesque places of execution in the world game. Australia's record at the venue is not quite as formidable as the one it boasts at the Gabba, but given that the ground bears an unfair reputation as a bowler's graveyard, it is impressive nonetheless. In 19 Tests dating back to 1992, they have emerged with 13 victories and just three defeats, the most recent of which came against India in 2003, when Ponting's highest Test score of 242 wasn't enough to ensure against defeat.
Of all those Adelaide victories, however, none has filled Australia with more pleasure - or caused England more agonised months of recrimination - than the heist they performed on the last Ashes tour in 2006. In losing an unloseable Test match, England more or less confirmed, even before the series had been surrendered, that they would depart Australia bearing the scars of the first 5-0 Ashes whitewash since 1920-21.
Never mind 260. England made more than twice that figure in their first innings in 2006 - 6 for 551 declared, in fact, thanks to a 310-run stand between Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen - only to suffer a catastrophic final-day capitulation at the hands of Shane Warne. "Like medieval royals with syphilis, they went suddenly mad," wrote Greg Baum in The Age the following morning, after England had shipped their nine remaining second-innings wickets for 70 in 54 overs, to lose a stunning contest by six wickets in the final hour of the day.
"In the last Ashes, the Test win here was probably the best Test win I've been involved with," recalled Ponting, who top-scored for Australia with 142. "It was an amazing game of cricket, from both teams really, but we grabbed the initiative really late in the game, and we were good enough to get over the line. There are some fond memories for a few of the guys who played in that game, a fair bit of success - Michael Clarke got a hundred, Mike Hussey got 91 - so hopefully some of those good memories will be good signs this week."
Strauss, unsurprisingly, was rather less willing to recall the events of that match, except to say that forewarned will be forearmed in the coming encounter, much as Jonathan Trott admitted had been the case up in Brisbane last week. In that match, England had effectively begun the final day of the first Test on 1 for 88 in their second innings, a position that was nine runs worse off than had been the case at Adelaide four years ago.
"It was obviously a bit of a kick in the teeth at the time but a lot of things have moved on since then," said Strauss. "But what it proved to us is that anything is possible in the game of cricket. Australia sniffed a chance of victory and took that chance, but we kind of conspired in our downfall really.
"You need to learn from those sort of experiences and I think we have learnt from it, but to expect the match to go in a similar way this time would be wrong really. It's a very different set of players and once you have been through that, you will be making sure you don't get in that situation again."
The most obvious lesson to be taken from that game is that no first-innings total is big enough on this ground. Andrew Flintoff declared on 551 for 6, when hindsight decrees that he should have pushed on to 700, just as Australia's 556 in 2003 was also insufficient. "It's not very often you come to Adelaide and it's not a bat-first pitch," said Ponting. "It does look particularly good and ready to go. The sun's out and I'd be very surprised if whoever wins the toss tomorrow doesn't bat first."
As if to reinforce the point, only once in the past 27 Tests has the team winning the toss chosen to bowl first at the Adelaide Oval, and on that occasion, Mohammad Azharuddin's faith in his bowlers was briefly justified, as Australia were bowled out for 145 shortly after tea on the first day, before recovering for a 38-run win.
On the flip side, however, the dangers if you misfire at the first attempt are plain to see. In six of the last eight Tests at Adelaide dating back to 2000, the team batting first has gone on to lose the match, despite two of those first-innings totals being in excess of 500, and only one of them (New Zealand's 270 in 2008) being less than 342.
"We've got all sorts of stats on the Adelaide Oval," said Strauss, who sounded like a man who'd been swotting up on the need for a powerful start. "Generally, it's a bat-first wicket - because it gives you control of the game. But there have been plenty of instances of the side batting first getting a big score and that being counter-acted by another big score batting second - so I don't think it's one of those wickets where the toss is massively important."
Given the selection issues that Australia have to contend with on Friday, Ponting was very happy for England to be aware of the pitfalls of first-innings failures. "If that's one thing they are conscious of then good," he said, "because it's another thing for them to be thinking about tomorrow or Saturday, or whenever they get to bat.
"If you look through the history of games here, you need to make big first-innings scores. It's generally a pretty good place to bat, and I guess that's the way all around Australia. But they played well in the second innings in Brisbane, and we have to make sure we don't give them the same opportunities."
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