Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 1st day December 5, 2013

England fail to grasp advantage

On a day littered with self-inflicted mistakes, England dropped three catches and missed the opportunity to gain anything more than a foothold in the match

If England fail to retain the Ashes, they may well reflect on the first day of this match and conclude it was the moment they let a golden opportunity slip through their hands.

Or perhaps that should be three moments. For, on a day full of self-inflicted injury from both sides, it was England's three dropped chances that could prove most costly. Had even one of them been taken, they would be in the dominant position in this match.

The frustrating aspect from England's perspective is that they did so much right. For the second time in three Tests, England picked two specialist spinners and a young allrounder to bolster the middle-order batting and the seam bowling. For a side that have often seemed reluctant to stray from their tried and tested formula, it was a brave decision.

It had not worked on the previous occasion, at The Oval in August. Simon Kerrigan endured a tough start to his Test career and Chris Woakes lacked the penetration required for a third seamer. And, when England lost the toss here, they must have cursed their fortune.

It was the correct decision, though. On an unusually dry pitch, England reasoned not only that the wicket would offer some assistance to spinners and reverse-swinging seamers, but that the control offered by Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar would exploit Australia's greatest weakness.

That weakness? Their overwhelming desire for revenge and their determination - their desperation, even - to attack England at every opportunity. So often has Darren Lehmann reiterated the desire to play attacking cricket, that any period of scorelessness is seen as a failure.

It worked, too. With Panesar conceding only two an over for much of the day - a modest post-tea spell proved more expensive - and Swann little more, England had support for the reliable James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

That led to mounting frustration for the Australia batsmen and probably contributed to the attacking strokes that led to the downfall of David Warner, Shane Watson and George Bailey.

It should have been better for England, though. Had Panesar held a relatively straightforward return chance offered by Bailey on 10, Australia would have been 5 for 190 and have lost 4 for 45. Michael Clarke survived a tougher chance to Joe Root when he had 18 and Brad Haddin a much easier one to Michael Carberry when he had 5. To drop one catch might be considered unfortunate, but to drop three, as Oscar Wilde so almost said, makes it very hard to win Test matches.

For much of the first day, though, it seemed each nation was trying to outdo the other for self harm. Quite apart from that tweet sent by Cricket Australia, England were also presented with the sort of pitch that Andy Flower might have ordered in his dreams and some soft wickets that may prove crucial.

Australians can be a hospitable bunch. After seeing England struggle amid the pace of Brisbane, they prepared a pitch for this game that was strikingly similar to those on which the Ashes series in England was contested: dry, slow and likely to offer little encouragement to Mitchell Johnson and co. Had the same track been produced in England, there would have been cries of 'doctoring'.

It looked full of runs for the first couple of hours. Indeed, Chris Rogers admitted Australia thought a total of 500 was in order. But, after the introduction of the spinners, such predictions were downgraded sharply. Swann later reasoned that England needed to "keep Australia below" 350 if they were to remain in the game. More pertinently, England will then have to build a total far in excess of that and then see their bowlers exploit conditions that are likely to deteriorate markedly as the game progresses. Batting fourth could prove difficult.

"We are disappointed, but we are not angry," Swann said afterwards. "That's cricket. You do drop catches. We've fielded exceptionally well so far and taken some belters. It's just a shame today was the day that a couple went down."

Panesar last played for England in March. His troubles since then have been well documented and it is, in some ways, remarkable to see him back in international cricket so soon. It is not so long ago he was dropped, then suspended and then released by his county, Sussex.

And while he was not at his best - he dropped short more often than he would have liked and seemed to struggle to maintain the pressure as the day wore on - he did the job he was asked to do and was rewarded with the wicket of Steven Smith, who played a decent ball poorly.

"Monty's Monty," Swann said. "He's always been a bit leftfield and a bit different to everyone else and that's one of the reasons we love him so much. We don't care what's happened in the last 12 months off the field: he's one of the boys and we embrace him as ever. We love seeing him do well.

"I thought his bowling was excellent. It's never easy coming back in to a team because a lot of the spotlight goes on you. But I thought he applied himself really well. He did the job we wanted him to do and that's all he ever does."

The same might be said about England's bowling attack. Over the last couple of years they have masked faults in the batting line-up time after time. Once again, despite some fallibility from the fielders, they have earned England a foothold in this game. If England's batsman can, at last, find some form, there is a way back into this series.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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