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There was a remarkable role reversal on day one at the Gabba as Australia resembled the tentative under-prepared team that is usually the tourists
November 21, 2013
By Australia's proud and repeated assertion, Brisbane is supposed to be their fortress. Many an overseas Test side have arrived at the Gabba still shaking off jetlag from a trip halfway around the world and a rudimentary preparation, their captain hearing the coin toss hit the hard, grassy pitch with a percussive sound unfamiliar to players from just about anywhere but South Africa.
Sometimes they bat and get rolled, others they field and get pummelled. Always they get lost in the catacombs beneath 40,000 seats. Not once in 25 years have they won.
By the time their Test match is finished, touring teams are just about ready to play in Brisbane: second innings revivals are not uncommon. But instead they are leaving town, headed south or west, invariably 1-0 down in the series and with indignant headlines ringing in their ears.
As a cricket ground, the Gabba has been something like Australia's surprise weapon, seldom offering anything other than a decided advantage to the hosts through their far greater familiarity with the place.
But on day one of the Ashes a strange dynamic held sway over proceedings. Australia's batsmen played largely with the fidgeting insecurity of nervous visitors, while Stuart Broad homed in on his quarry in a manner befitting of the Lillee, McDermott, McGrath lineage. James Anderson and Chris Tremlett were similarly confident of their roles and best avenues of attack on a ground offering rich rewards for pacemen with precision. It was possible for a moment to ignore the colour of the caps, the identity of the badges and presume this was an Australian team bowling to a touring side. The men in baggy green were strangers in their own land.
All the usual sights were there. An opening batsman, Chris Rogers, surprised by the extra bounce early and lobbing a catch to gully. A No. 3 in Shane Watson fencing at a ball he should have left in the minutes before lunch, tempted into the stroke by Broad's teasing line and exclaiming "oh no" even before Graeme Swann took the catch. Michael Clarke looked every inch the hunted and haunted visiting captain of the 1990s or early 2000s, psyched out by an intimidatory field setting and a bowler knowing exactly how to unsettle him.
David Warner and Steve Smith offered hints of resistance in their contrasting ways, but also perished to the bounce. George Bailey's first innings was not memorable - few touring debutants in Brisbane have been. And while Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson fought with commendable application and good sense to repair some of the earlier damage, Clarke's team still ended the day looking likely to fall well short of a total commensurate with the quality of the pitch.
Johnson pleased to be back
So how was it that Australia's top six looked so out of synch with a ground they have professed such profound affection for? Unless they were satisfied with the simple notion that England are an older, better and more confident team than Australia, most of the 34,889 spectators in attendance puzzled over this question across the day.
The answer probably lies in the conflagration of numerous circumstances, both deliberate and accidental, but all related to the summer schedule. Seldom, if ever, can the two Test teams have arrived in Brisbane ahead of the Test match without a single player on either side having played a match there so far in the summer. A resurfacing of the entire ground, the first since 2000, kept Queensland's domestic fixtures away from the Gabba, meaning the Bulls, Tasmania and New South Wales all played their matches at Allan Border Field, a surface of far less bounce.
Aware of this, Cricket Australia were keen to move the Blues' match against Queensland last week to the Gabba by way of preparation for as many as seven members of the Test side. Logistical difficulties ensured that the match remained at AB Field, and meant that no Australian player visited the Gabba until Tuesday morning, two days out from the Test.
This is not to say a lack of cricket is to blame. CA chief executive James Sutherland's declaration that the nation's players would reach the Gabba having played plenty of cricket requires a qualifying question. What kind? Before the Shield began, the scheduling of an ODI tour to India in October meant that Watson, Johnson, Bailey and Haddin all entered the Brisbane Test with somewhere between zero and two first-class fixtures behind them.
They might have had more, but CA also decided to play the domestic limited-overs competition as a carnival style event in Sydney across three weeks to start the season. The tournament made a stuttering start on a poor pitch at Bankstown, then spluttered into life in later matches at the small and similarly slow North Sydney Oval. Exempted from India, Warner and Smith gained confidence from scoring runs but not the experience of riding the bounce on swifter four-day surfaces.
Paradoxically, the greatest casualty of the schedule may actually have been Bailey, the man who bounded into the Test team off the back of his elephantine scoring feats in ODIs on the subcontinent. Anyone watching at the Gabba knew instantly how little these runs meant, scored as they were on flat pitches against amiable bowling under fielding restrictions that left the opposing captain MS Dhoni powerless to plug Bailey's favoured scoring zones. On his return he played on low pitches at Allan Border Field and at Bellerive in Hobart, never going beyond handy starts in four innings.
As he faced up to Anderson in a spell of swing and accuracy at a high enough speed to punish any error, Bailey must have wondered how better his preparation time might have been spent. As several balls whizzed past his outside edge before finally kissing it on the way into the slips, he had cause to question whether he had been set up to fail. Brisbane might be considered Australia's fortress, but it is nothing like any of the places he, and most of the top six, have been batting on for the past two months.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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