First Test, Brisbane

Australia v England 2006-07

At Brisbane, November 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 2006. Australia won by 277 runs. Toss: Australia.



Ricky Ponting on the way to 196 at the Gabba © Getty Images
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Rarely can an Ashes defence have begun as bathetically as this. All the mouth-drying tension of the build-up seemed to be channelled into Harmison's opening delivery, which went straight to Flintoff at second slip and was signalled wide by umpire Bucknor. As a record Gabba crowd of nearly 40,000 roared with derision or disbelief, the two teams drew their own conclusions: Australia grinned quietly, England grimaced visibly.

The hostility of the first morning at Lord's 16 months earlier became a distant memory. By stumps, Australia were well on their way to victory in the opening match of an Ashes series for the eighth time out of ten. But just as none of the previous nine had been weighed down by the precedent of 2005, so none had descended quite as quickly into the realms of anticlimax.

Several England players explained they had been riddled with nerves, which was honest enough, but not the sort of honesty international sportsmen tend to indulge in; many outsiders felt England had simply chosen the wrong team. Most controversial was the choice of Giles, who had played only two warm-up games since a hip injury a year earlier, ahead of Panesar, the people's favourite. Anderson beat Mahmood to the fourth seamer's slot, thanks to his form in the warm-ups (such as they were), while Jones's selection in place of Read had already been announced. Australia went for the experienced seamer Clark instead of the promising swinger Mitchell Johnson, a decision that assumed the proportions of a masterstroke as the game unfurled.

The significance of Flintoff 's incorrect call at the toss soon took second place to the symbolism of Harmison's loosener. Emboldened, Australia seized their moment on a true and bouncy pitch. Harmison was flayed out of the attack by Langer after two overs costing 17; after seven overs, Australia's openers had carved out 40. Hayden nibbled Flintoff to second slip, but at lunch Langer - manic on adrenalin - had 68, and the horse had long since bolted up the Gold Coast. Australia kept their foot down between lunch and tea, adding 108 for the loss of Langer, who cut once too often, providing Pietersen with his first Ashes catch at the seventh attempt, and Martyn, who cut to slip off Giles.

But Ponting, in the form of his life, belied the pressure that had been mounting since he lost the Ashes at The Oval. He hit his ninth hundred in 12 Tests, equalling Steve Waugh's national record of 32, and added 209 with the unobtrusive Hussey. Apart from Flintoff, England's attack was on the fleshy side of toothless. Harmison bowled only 12 overs in the day, and started the second morning the same way as the first: with another off-side wide.

Hoggard briefly demonstrated that a flat pitch need not preclude guile, trapping Ponting four short of a double-hundred and then removing Gilchrist from round the wicket three balls later. But salt-in-the-wound merriment from Clark and Lee completed the rout and prompted a declaration, at 602, that allowed Australia 17 overs at England before the close. It was enough to decide the match.

Not long before, McGrath - playing his first Test since January after taking time out to be with his sick wife - had predicted he would get Strauss on the pull and Cook from round the wicket. In the space of two balls, he was proved eerily correct. When Clark had Collingwood groping to the keeper, England were 42 for three.

The following morning, things got worse. Pietersen padded up to a ball from McGrath that would have missed off stump and, in the next over, Flintoff feathered Lee to the keeper. No matter that Bell, on his way to a 162-ball fifty, was legitimising his own place; suddenly, Australians were asking themselves how they had ever lost the Ashes to this lot in the first place. Wickets fell like confetti, and Giles's swipe to point meant six wickets for McGrath, whose affected hobble towards the pavilion made light of comments about his team resembling Dad's Army.

Australia luxuriated in a first-innings lead of 445, but Ponting decided not to enforce the follow-on, reasoning that his bowlers would enjoy a breather and the pitch would become harder to bat on. Some felt he had signposted England's only possible escape route, but Langer took advantage of some resigned bowling to hit his first Test hundred since the sides met at The Oval, and Ponting, driving and pulling peerlessly, became the seventh batsman to pass 9,000 Test runs. The upshot was that England needed to score 648 to win, or to survive 172 overs to draw. It was debatable which was the less likely.

They began poorly. Strauss went early, pulling, for the second time in the match; Bell regressed when he missed Warne's slider; and Cook prodded to short leg. At 91 for three, humiliation beckoned. But Collingwood overcame another shaky start to upper-cut Lee for six, and Pietersen used his leverage and feet to take on Warne. Only the futility of the counter-attack detracted from its brilliance, and Collingwood eventually perished as he had prospered, on the charge to Warne: stumped for 96 to end an alliance of 153 in 34 overs. Flintoff slogged Warne to long-on, and England began the final day five wickets down and clinging on to optimistic forecasts of a teatime thunderstorm.

The rain never arrived, but it would not have saved England even if it had, as they folded in 90 minutes. Pietersen whipped Lee's fourth ball of the day to short midwicket without adding to his overnight 92, and the only consolation of some late-order swipes was the highest fourth-innings total in 49 Tests at Brisbane. But if one statistic summed up the difference between the sides, it was the fact that Clark's match figures of seven for 93 embarrassed England's collective effort of ten for 804, one of them a run-out.

Competition in the stands never materialised either, thanks to the officious Gabba authorities, who banned the Barmy Army's official trumpeter Bill Cooper (or at any rate, banned the trumpet) and kept the England fans scattered until the fifth morning, when empty seats allowed them to congregate and find their voice. In all, 164,727 spectators attended the match, another ground record. It was just a shame England were unable to provide them with a more compelling contest.

Man of the Match: R. T. Ponting. Attendance: 164,727.

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack