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Wake up and smell the Gabba

Do we need reminding that England have not had a pretty time of it at the start of series down under in recent times - or even further back?

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
The four that launched 25 more: Michael Slater on the way to his boundary-studded 176 at the Gabba  •  Getty Images

The four that launched 25 more: Michael Slater on the way to his boundary-studded 176 at the Gabba  •  Getty Images

Phillip DeFreitas ran in to bowl at Michael Slater, the first ball of the 68th Ashes. The ball pitched short, a tad outside off stump, and Slater thrashed it past point for four. Five hours and 24 minutes later, Slater was dismissed for 176 by a combination of two men whose age added up to 78 - Graham Gooch bowled and Mike Gatting caught - more than three times that of their victim. Mark Waugh went on to score 140 in 20 balls fewer than faced by Slater, though Waugh's tally of 14 fours and a six paled alongside the opener's mind-blowing 25 boundaries. England lost by 184 runs.
Shane Warne took 8 for 71 in the second innings, having snared three for not many in the first. He was, by now, a global phenomenon, ripping out his legbreaks and pulling up plenty of trees elsewhere. In that second innings I sat on the television gantry above the sightscreen with Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart - both of them outfoxed by Warne a short while earlier - trying to unravel this magical bowler as Graeme Hick and Gooch and another Graham, Thorpe, hung on bravely and with great skill in the hope of saving the match. When stumps were drawn on the fourth evening, England 211 for 2, that hope was turning gently to expectation. Ha! Hardly. Warne got all three in the end.
But before then, on the fifth morning, I strolled around what was once the dog track that surrounded the field with two masters of their own art, Barry Richards and Greg Chappell. Barry thought right-handers had the best chance of coping if they stayed leg side of the ball and looked to hit with the legspin through the off side; Greg thought it safer to hit into the spin - a view also held by Martin Crowe (it might well have come from Greg, in whom Martin put so much store). Neither reckoned too much of England's chances, especially when Warne went round the wicket and landed it into the fifth-day rough. Given Richards and Chappell G are two of the greatest batsmen to have played the game, you get the problem. Game over, they decided. And not long after our perambulation, they were right.
That was just the third time I had watched Ashes cricket in Australia. The first was soon out of school, when I flew across the world to enter the cinematic dreams that had occupied most of my young life. These began with John Snow bowling out Ian Chappell's team, soon after Bill Lawry had been cruelly sacked. Anyone who could outdo Chappelli was good enough for me. Even Snow rarely got him out in the little back garden in London: especially as I was collar up, gum-chewing Chappell, and my best mate, who wasn't much of a quick bowler, was Snow. Then, when I got the chance to be Snow, we knocked everyone over.
In Sydney in 1978-79, I saw Rodney Hogg traumatise an out of sorts Geoffrey Boycott. Not that it mattered: England waltzed home against the Packer-ravaged Australian team. Eight years later, on the 1986-87 tour, I saw every ball of Australia's consolation win at the same arena: the game in which Dean Jones made an unbeaten 184 and the unheard-of Peter Taylor took a bunch of wickets with his offbreaks. In their minds, having won the series a week earlier in Melbourne, Ian Botham and company were still partying with Elton John at the Sebel Townhouse.
From that first Slater shot to the last wicket that fell two years ago at The Oval, I haven't missed a live moment of Ashes cricket. That is 71 matches and some privilege. It will therefore be a great thrill to tune in again on Tuesday at midnight, albeit from 12,000 miles away. Arguably the first session at the Gabba is the most important of the series. All the clichés apply again this time, much as they have ever done - the bounce and pace of the pitch, the light, the heat and humidity, the lack of hard match practice. It is a tough place to play, a stronghold for the Australians, as Twickenham is to the England rugby players.
In this 27-year period of seven Ashes series down under, England have drawn twice in Brisbane - an electric storm saved them in 1998 - and lost on every other occasion. The second and most honourably gained draw came when England batted first in 2010 but still had to fight like lions to save the match. Remember that herculean effort by Alastair Cook - 235 not out he was, across two days of defensive batting that made the commentating Lawry salivate. This was the game in which Andrew Strauss won the toss and chose to bat. Overhyped, he swatted his third ball into the hands of gully and walked off looking like his life had ended. At least he had made the right choice to bat.
In 2002, Nasser Hussain followed Len Hutton's example from 1954 by choosing to bowl. I was by the boundary edge with Atherton and when the coin came down in England's favour, we exclaimed "Yes!" Then we heard "We'll have a bowl." Ye gods. England lost by 384 that year and by an innings and 154 under Hutton. (This an old one but for the heck of it: At the post-match press conference Hutton was asked if he had read the pitch wrong. "Pitches are like wives," he said, "you know never quite know how they'll turn out.") England won the series, mind, as they did in 2010.
Taking guard first in this period, Australia have made totals of - in sequence, since 1994 - 426, 485, 492, 602 for 9 declared, 295 (but 401 in their second innings) Last time, in 2017-18, England, batting first, made 302 and were on an even first-innings keel until they collapsed in the third innings for just 195. So, if the first innings of the game isn't the most important (which it is) the third surely must be. In other words, if you bat first, you have two opportunities to swing the game firmly in your favour, because, obviously enough, batting first on a fresh pitch allows you to claim the initiative and batting third is invariably more straightforward than last on a worn fifth-day pitch.
The worst Gabba Test for an Englishman was 2006-07, particularly an Englishman in an Australian commentary box. Licking wounds from the summer of 2005 in England, Ricky Ponting's team set about Andrew Flintoff's band of men like a pack of wild dogs. Ponting made 196 in one of the great series set-ups; Glenn McGrath took six wickets in England's first innings; Stuart Clark and Warne, four each in the second. It was mainly carnage, though Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen did put on 153 together second time round. England lost the series 5-0, the first time this had happened since the "Big Ship" Warwick Armstrong strong-armed Australia to such a margin in 1921.
The first ball of the 2006 match was bowled by Steve Harmison and was no less inglorious than the one bowled by DeFreitas. In fact, it was rather more so because it missed the return crease line outside Justin Langer's off stump by a yard and was taken at first slip by Flintoff. Apparently, on Sky TV, David Lloyd said, "Usually, when the first ball of the match goes to slip, the bat's involved." Certainly, in the newspapers, Martin Johnson wrote something like, "England's plan to get the ball to Flintoff as quickly as possible worked perfectly."
In 2013 at the Gabbatoir, as the more nationalistic Australians like to call the modernised ground, the EngIish were bounced out and nicked off for fun. Jonathan Trott was in mental turmoil; the sight of an organised and successful cricketer so at sea - humiliated almost - was painful indeed. Within 24 hours of the end of the match he was gone, back to the UK, brain frazzled by the rigours of international cricket and fried by the left-arm seriously quick Mitchell Johnson. At the other end was the perfect foil, Ryan Harris, who nipped the ball around like a Yorkshire seamer at Headingley in April but with a lick or two more of pace. The aforementioned Hogg suggested that Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in 1975 would have been no more formidable or frightening a pair than Johnson and Harris that Australian summer. Trott himself later wrote, "They circled like hyenas round a dying zebra."
So there you have it - packs of dogs, circling hyenas, whatever, the Australians at the Gabba are some proposition. England are well underdone - blue, actually. And yet, Australia lost to India the last time they played there, which was early this year. What's more, they scored 369 batting first and lost.
Names such as Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal, Rishabh Pant, Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj, young cricketers unfettered by the baggage of the past, simply took on the Aussies in the deciding match of an unforgettable series, a series in which India had been bowled out for 36 in the second innings of the first Test, in Adelaide. Thirty-six one day, the Border/Gavaskar trophy the next! No fear, you see; just ambition. This performance proved that you can do anything in sport if you want to do it badly enough, but you cannot, absolutely cannot, fear failure. Even the hint of it scuppers you. You have to believe and you have to play without hesitation. You blink, you're gone.
Joe Root is up for this. For one thing it is probably his last chance to win in Australia as captain. Analysts and reporters say the wet weather helps his cause. Players such Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler are up for it; Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad too, at a distant guess, for both are in the saloon of last chances. These five are the powerbrokers but are they the influencers, or are those the young? How heavy will the baggage of two previous tours and ten matches be, of which nine have been lost and one drawn on the flattest Melbourne pitch remembered?
In Australia you have to stick to the basics. You must make decisions based on fact not funk; you must see off the new ball - both Slater and Cook methods work - and bat long against the old one; you should use the new Kookaburra wisely by pitching up and making the batsmen play, and employ the old one with patience and guile. Pick a spinner, come what may. You have to concentrate in the field, however steamy the conditions, because chances come your way infrequently and they must be taken. Think hard and know what you are about towards the end of the day: things happen in Australia nearest the witching hour, so don't drift off in the assumption that the day is done: many a Test match down under is won by the weirdest events in the day's final half-hour. Finally, make darn sure you look your opponent in the eye and don't blink.
The whisper is that England may find advantage in Australia's rookie captain, Pat Cummins. Don't buy that: he is a smart man, old-fashioned in many ways, which is no bad thing. The basics are his go-to, hard graft his bywords. Steve Smith will be by his side, ensuring that Cummins uses his own bowling to its maximum effect and that fielders are placed at the correct angles and distance for the task to hand. Cummins can do the rest. If the best captains create teams in their own image, expect the one created by Cummins to be a little kinder than those recently past but no less competitive. There are few better men in cricket than Root and his newly appointed opposite number. From them should come a fair and attractive series in which Australia start favourites. The men in charge would do well to look for a smile on everyone's face as a reminder that playing the game, especially at this time, is an even greater privilege than watching it.
Come midnight in London on Tuesday, I shall smell and feel the thick Brisbane air from the comfort of the homestead, hear the roar of the crowd as the players take the field, and wonder if this England team can do as none other since Mike Gatting's team of "Can't bat, can't bowl, can't field" no-hopers arrived at the Gabba in 1986. To cut a long story very short, Lord Botham smashed Merv Hughes round the paddock and England got up by seven wickets.
Oh, by the way, Allan Border won that toss and chose to bowl first. England made 456. Enough said.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator