Medium not rare: can England's seamers survive another Australian grilling?
Aborted launch to pace race leaves Joe Root banking on usual diet of seam and swing
"And so we turned up at Brisbane for the first Test - a little, you could say, under-prepared. I was getting very sceptical about our chances of ever bowling Australia out on their pitches but there was a good covering of grass on the Gabba pitch and the nets did a bit, so maybe, I thought, just maybe there might be some hope of getting early wickets."
You probably don't need much more context to work out who is speaking and what happened next, although to be fair to Nasser Hussain, he wasn't the first England captain to insert Australia at the Gabba to lolwut effect - Len Hutton pressed G for Gamble (as they didn't say at the time) in 1954 only for the hosts to rack up 601 for 8 declared. But Hutton, unlike Hussain on the 2002-03 tour, had an ace up his sleeve in Frank Tyson, who blew through Australia as England came back to win 3-1, one of a handful of post-war Ashes victories in the old enemy's backyard.
Winning Test matches, wherever you are in the world, means having the capability to take 20 wickets. Hussain, as he wrote in his autobiography, Playing with Fire, had become "so pessimistic about our chances of bowling the Aussies out twice" that he pretty much tried to will a Gabba greentop into existence. Injuries had already deprived him of Darren Gough - an England fast bowler who was genuinely threatening in Australian conditions - and Andrew Flintoff; when Simon Jones, who might credibly have staked a claim to be Hussain's Tyson, felt his knee buckle beneath while sliding in the outfield during that first Test, resulting in a ruptured ACL, England might as well have packed up and come home.
With one or two notable exceptions over the last 30 years, such tales of woe have been depressingly familiar for England captains down under. Graham Gooch's lament after a 3-0 defeat in 1990-91 that his side were like "a fart competing with thunder" was not just limited to the bowling, but several of the more symbolic moments of English ineffectiveness under the harsh glare of a southern sun have come with ball in hand - think of the 'Defrenestration' of Phil DeFreitas' first ball of the series by Michael Slater in 1994-95, or Steve Harmison's infamous Brisbane blooper a decade on.
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Even the 2013-14 whitewash, during which the demonic delight of Mitchell Johnson took centre stage as a procession of England batters lined up to toss themselves on to the barbie, bore familiar hallmarks. If George Bailey thrashing James Anderson for 28 runs in an over at Perth was akin to desecrating a national treasure, the selection of "three tall drinks waiters" in Chris Tremlett, Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin - two Tests and five wickets between them - was an expectation-versus-reality meme made flesh.
The extra pace and bounce might make visiting batters jump around, but Australia has frequently been a house of pain for English attacks trying to make their seam-and-swing stylings stick. Get your length wrong and you'll be picked apart like carrion (ominously, the Gabba has a Vulture Street End). At which point, we should probably take a quick look at Joe Root's touring party and the carefully assembled attack with which they hope to win back the urn…
It's worth saying here that right from the moment Chris Silverwood took the head coach's role in 2019, with the stated goal of winning back the Ashes in Australia, England had a blueprint in mind. Jofra Archer had roared straight into the pages of Ashes folklore by felling Steven Smith during a Lord's debut that saw him hit 96mph/154kph and, after Mark Wood reaffirmed his Test credentials in South Africa over the winter, Root was understandably chuffed. Those two genuine quicks could make a "big difference" in Australia, he suggested. "It's something that you feel you need in those conditions."
With Olly Stone, another tall, 90mph/145kph bowler, also pressing his case, England were amassing an artillery fit for Australian pitches. But it was never going to be that easy, was it? Any lingering hopes that Archer could be unleashed once again were finally scotched by the long-term impact of his elbow problem, while Stone picked up a third back stress fracture in as many years. That has left Wood as the last fast man standing - and he has only played two T20Is competitively since the Lord's Test against India in August.
And so it is that England's Ashes hopes once again rest with the old firm. Anderson and Stuart Broad are taking part in their fifth and fourth Ashes tours respectively, and both know the feeling of silencing - however briefly - the jeers of an Australian crowd. They will be backed up by the shock potential of Wood, as well as three seam-bowling thoroughbreds in Ollie Robinson, Chris Woakes and Craig Overton. Ben Stokes' impact with the ball could be significant, too. But can a switch in focus from pace to "supreme accuracy" work for England, or will it be death by right-arm medium?
It may sound obvious, but for things to go well one of aforementioned names will likely have to have a stormer. Since the early 20th century, England victories in Australia have almost invariably been led by totemic fast-bowling performances - from the bodyline battering inflicted by Harold Larwood, through "Typhoon" Tyson to John Snow in 1970-71, the combination of Ian Botham, Bob Willis and Mike Hendrick ('78-79), right up to Anderson's 24 wickets at 26.04 in 2010-11.
But if Anderson is to lead the way again, he will be battling history as much as the opposition. Among specialist "pace bowlers", only Tom Emmett - who was 40 on England's 1881-82 tour - has played Test cricket in Australia at an older age than Anderson will be (39 year and 131 days) when the series starts on Wednesday. If Anderson manages to take a five-wicket haul, as he did at Adelaide four years ago, he will pass Sydney Barnes' record as the oldest fast bowler to do so in Tests in Australia (though some of the categorisations going back in time are a little sketchy - Barnes, for instance, described himself as a spinner of the ball - and Freddie Brown did claim 5 for 49 at Melbourne in 1951, aged 40, bowling what Wisden described as "medium pace throughout").
Anderson is already one of only seven seamers (again, a term to be applied loosely) aged 35 and above to have taken more than 10 Test wickets in Australia; a list that Broad will join should go he go even halfway to matching his best overseas Ashes haul of 21 wickets in 2013-14.
The fear, of course, is that in the past is where the best of Broad and Anderson will remain - and although rewriting records has been standard practice during careers that have reaped a combined tally of 1156 Test wickets, both currently average the top side of 35 in Australia.
Root's other options are either short on experience of bowling in Australian conditions - Wood has never played first-class cricket there - or still looking to prove themselves. While Woakes is generally held to have improved on underwhelming early showings with the Kookaburra ball, he averaged 49.50 from four Tests in 2017-18; Overton toiled hard for eight wickets at 41.62 after making his debut on the same tour.
Perhaps the likeliest star in the ascendant is Robinson, who has been compared to Australia's Josh Hazlewood (albeit minus a few mph). Robinson's impact during the English summer was such that he already seems inked into the first XI, and he has enjoyed himself in Australia before as part of the 2019-20 Lions tour - which he credited for teaching him the "discipline" needed to succeed. The fact that Robinson and Overton shared 13 wickets with the pink ball against Australia A at the MCG adds a layer of intrigue to suggestions that the fifth Test could yet be converted to another day-nighter in Melbourne.
After all, Australia are not invulnerable on home ground, as India have shown across two of the last three southern summers. Broad and Wood, in recent days, have both referenced the success India's seamers had - particularly in 2020-21 by bowling straight to leg-side fields. You could certainly do worse than follow the example set by Jasprit Bumrah, one of only three visiting fast bowlers this century to have taken 20 wickets at an average of less than 30 in Australia (the other two? Dale Steyn and Tremlett). But then Bumrah is a sphynx delivering riddles at 90mph/145kph, while England's attack is rather more orthodox than outside the box.
There is still the template of 2010-11, of course, when England dropped their fastest bowler, Finn, in favour of the strangulating control offered by Tremlett and Tim Bresnan. Matt Prior, England's wicketkeeper on that triumphant tour, recently suggested to ESPNcricinfo that a similar approach could serve them well again - but there was another small factor to bear in mind. "The key will be," Prior said, "can England score enough runs to give the bowlers an opportunity to take 20 wickets?"
And that's another head-scratcher for Root entirely - never mind what he should do if he wins the toss come the first morning at the Gabba.
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick