Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane, 1st day

Australia strangers in their own land

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

Daniel Brettig in Brisbane

November 21, 2013

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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

  • Mitchell Johnson believes his hard-earned 64 in a rearguard stand of 114 with Brad Haddin has eased his Ashes nerves and can set him on the path to a staunch bowling display in the first Test in Brisbane.
  • Admitting to feeling very tense at the start of the day, Johnson worked his way into the game while helping Haddin ensure the hosts will have some sort of total to bowl at.
  • "Runs definitely help, especially this morning when I rocked up and the nerves start kicking in standing out there in front of a big crowd and singing the national anthem," Johnson said. "It was quite nerve-racking and quite nice to be able to get out there and bat, I got all the nerves out of my system.
  • "I definitely feel I've had that confidence in myself over the last 12 months, so hopefully that turns into a good bowling performance as well. The wicket's definitely going to quicken up, there's definitely swing out there.
  • "I've had a lot of experience bowling at the Gabba and I'm looking forward to bowling with the group of bowlers that we've got. We've got experience and it's really exciting to be part of a Test match at the Gabba again."

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 here

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Posted by   on (November 22, 2013, 10:30 GMT)

Heh. Funny game isn't it.

Posted by ScottStevo on (November 22, 2013, 9:00 GMT)

@swervin, that comment makes no sense whatsoever, we need to strengthen our batting - by bringing in a bowling all rounder....seriously?!

@Brettig, we looked right at home today, mate.

Posted by   on (November 22, 2013, 8:52 GMT)

Not a very insightful article was it Dan? Australia has played the conditions twice as well as the English and will win the Test match.

Posted by Digimont on (November 22, 2013, 8:04 GMT)

Not looking so bad 24 hours later, are they Mr Brettig?

Posted by Gizza on (November 22, 2013, 7:55 GMT)

This article was written a tad prematurely. So many people already have eggs on their faces.

Posted by MinusZero on (November 22, 2013, 0:07 GMT)

I think Doolan would have been a better option than Bailey. Bailey has a poor first class record. This isnt an ODI

Posted by DickCam on (November 22, 2013, 0:01 GMT)

Clarkes dismissal was absolutely dreadful. Steve Waugh would have let the ball hit him, said to the bowler 'is that all you got', and then gone to make a nice big hundred. The short ball sorts the men from the boys.

Posted by swervin on (November 21, 2013, 23:42 GMT)

it's so simple - australia have a weak batting team therefore when you make changes you need to strengthen the batting not weaken it - that's why faulkner has to be picked in some of these upcoming tests...

Posted by espncricinfomobile on (November 21, 2013, 23:39 GMT)

Aus were also a significantly better side 12 years ago.

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Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.
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