England's Ashes horror shows in Brisbane

A habit of making false starts at the Gabba threatened to undermine England once again

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Rory Burns was bowled leg stump first ball  •  Getty Images

Rory Burns was bowled leg stump first ball  •  Getty Images

England lost a wicket on the first ball of the opening day of Ashes 2021-22 on the way to being dismissed for 147 at the Gabba - in keeping with their dismal record at the ground over the last 30 years. Here are some of the lowlights.
Quarantine is a relatively modern word in cricket parlance, although it was all the rage on Mike Atherton's 1994-95 tour, which - then as now - had begun with England hoping to unleash fast-bowling fury on their hosts, only for circumstances to change the team dynamic somewhat. Devon Malcolm had wrecked South Africa with figures of 9 for 57 in his previous Test at The Oval. Now, he was laid low with chickenpox, so a different game plan was called for. Keep it tight, line and length, offer nothing to get Michael Slater's juices flowing … cue Phil DeFreitas' first-ball long-hop, carved with glee through the covers. By the close, Slater had romped to 176 in a first-day total of 329 for 4.
Nasser Hussain's fateful call at the toss has taken on mythical proportions in the past two decades - as well it might with Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting on hand to clatter Australia to 364 for 2 by the close. And while the reasoning at the time might have had some merit - there was a green tinge to that first-day Gabba pitch, and Andrew Caddick, Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones had the skills to exploit it - the decision reeked of defeatism, a fundamental lack of faith from Hussain in his batting, which quickly permeated the entire performance. The most devastating blow came midway through the morning, when Jones - with the wicket of Justin Langer with his ninth ball - ruptured his knee ligaments in a gruesome fielding injury. After that, the spark went out of the attack.
One delivery doesn't set the tone for a series … does it? There's been enough evidence in this particular contest down the years to suggest that it just might. And certainly in 2006-07, the only way was down after Steve Harmison's infamous radar malfunction, all the way to a 5-0 whitewash. Two years earlier at Lord's, Harmison had been the man of the morning with his savage spell to Langer and Ponting, whom he left bloodied with a bouncer straight into the grille. Now, with that 2005 team stripped of so many key names, and with his best mate Andrew Flintoff leading a patched-up outfit in a hugely hyped rematch, his response was a wide whang of a first ball, straight into the skipper's hands at second slip. "Only four players turned up," Harmison told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the last Ashes tour. "And of the three or four senior players who didn't turn up, I was probably top of the tree."
Just to prove that there can be salvation, even in the bleakest of circumstances, the 2010-11 Gabba Test stands out as a beacon of optimism for any Englishman planning to still be cracking on through the night come day five. England had the team, and the preparation, to surmount all circumstances on that particular trip, but Brisbane has an ability in inveigle its way into the most solid of mindsets. Andrew Strauss, England's captain, discovered that on a ferocious first morning. His eagerness to feel bat on ball in Ben Hilfenhaus' first over translated into an over-ambitious prod to the gully, where Michael Hussey clung on with glee. Before the end of the day, Peter Siddle had deepened their gloom with a birthday hat-trick. And yet, second-time-around, life proved rather more serene… 517 for 1 and all that.
It took an unusual length of time for the wheels to come off on England's last two visits to the Gabba - Stuart Broad's five-for in 2013-14 and James Vince's what-might-have-been 83 four years later saw to that. But as if to make up for lost time, England's start this time around might yet trump the lot. Both teams were as raw as red meat coming into this contest, which made Joe Root's correct call at the toss something of a Hobson's choice, and certainly Rory Burns didn't seem ideally aligned as he walked across his first ball from Mitchell Starc, a late-swinging half-volley, to lose his leg stump for only the second series first-baller in Ashes history. Dawid Malan poked loosely to the keeper three overs later, and when Root himself followed up his annus mirabilis with the second duck of the morning, England were 11 for 3 inside the Powerplay first six overs, and sinking fast. Penny for Nasser's thoughts in such circumstances?

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket