After all the ridiculous bluster that dominated the build-up to this Ashes series, the cricket finally got underway. The Australians had spent most of their time in the days leading up to this match talking about how their fast bowlers were unleashing rockets in the nets that were so quick they were flying into orbit. They were going to rip through England as they had in the 2013-14 Ashes with searing pace. It was like they had forgotten that Mitchell Johnson had retired.
Having won the toss England chose to bat and lost Alastair Cook early when he poked at a ball from Mitchell Starc through to Peter Handscomb at first slip. Perhaps the Australians were right, England were to be ripped apart. In fact, it wasn’t until the evening session that Australia’s seamers came anywhere close to matching the hype.
Cook’s was the only wicket to fall before the lunch interval as Mark Stoneman and James Vince took England to 59 for 1 at the break. The Gabba pitch gave the much-vaunted Australian seamers very little, despite it having a decent covering of grass. It had tennis ball bounce that meant short balls caused very few alarms in the morning session.
Rather than it being the fast bowlers that caused England problems on the first day, it was the spin of Nathan Lyon that was the biggest concern. It was slow turn, but turn nonetheless, that the off-spinner extracted from the Brisbane pitch.
The next biggest worry for England was the fear that was created every time the 26-year-old played a cover drive. Like a superhero from a Marvel comic book series, Vince's greatest strength is also his biggest weakness, and his driving is both brilliant and suspect. This was his most accomplished Test innings by a distance, but even as he complied his career-best score he had the odd flash at a wide one.
Vince’s issue has always been attempting shots through the off side that found their way into the waiting slip cordon. Here every drive he attempted came off as he carved the ball to the boundary with relative ease. And if he did have a rare waft he missed.
Going into this series Vince’s Test average was less than 20. As he and Stoneman put together a solid partnership he looked a significantly better player than that, but he has always looked great. No one has ever doubted his ability; this innings was perhaps the first time it appeared that he had the temperament to succeed in Test cricket.
No matter how long he is England’s Test team there will always be the chance that Vince will pop a simple catch into the hands of a man in the covers at any time. But before he does that he will look superb.
That Australian bowling attack, a source of so much pride for Nathan Lyon when he was talking about ending Test careers, looked pretty toothless in the first two sessions as they struggled to find a line and length that would trouble the English top order. What was needed was attritional bowling that waited for a batsman to make a mistake. Instead it seemed that the Australians were looking for magic balls that didn’t materalise.
In fact, the closest Australia came to a breakthrough during the stand between Vince and Stoneman was when Lyon took the edge of Vince’s bat and Tim Paine, the wicket-keeper who was controversially selected ahead of Peter Nevill, put down a simple chance.
The 125 runs that the duo put on for the second wicket was the highest partnership for England in Australia since the Sydney Test in 2011. Former Aussie opener Matthew Hayden was quoted as saying he didn’t know most of the England team. He may well be more familiar with these two now.
It was one of those fabled thunderbolts that broke the stand, as Pat Cummins brought one back into the left-handed Stoneman, bowling him for a career-best 53 with a ball that reversed at pace. After 55 overs of looking for a wonder delivery the Australians found one.
Vince looked set for a maiden Test hundred when he set off for a sharp single and that man Lyon brilliantly ran him out. It was a sad end to what could be a career defining innings for the Hampshire batsman. There was so much negativity around his selection, a lot of it justified because of his Test match career to date and his poor season in county cricket, but this was the Vince that England had been hoping would emerge. He attacked when the moment was right, defending solidly when he needed to.
In the evening session both Joe Root and Dawid Malan were put under the microscope by the best period of Australian bowling of the day. Cummins looked to be giving Malan the hurry up and Lyon continued to beat the edge of the bat. When Cummins sent down a quick ball on a full length to Root he had him plumb LBW. It was given not out but an almost instantaneous review from Steve Smith meant the correct call was made in the end.
England finished the day on 196 for 4 and the team and their supporters probably would have taken that when the game got underway. Australia’s pre-series chat has put themselves under serious pressure to blow England away, and as a result all the visitors needed to do was not get bowled out on day one to be ahead in the mind games stakes.
This match is still in the balance, England’s slow scoring rate means they are not in front, but as first days in Australia go, England have had one of the better ones. But a first hour tomorrow where Australia claim three wickets and England are in serious bother.