The focus ahead of Thursday’s First Test in Brisbane is understandably on Australia’s famously formidable and England’s famously feeble record at the venue. The home side display such ruthless brutality at the so-called ‘Gabbatoir’ that in terms of compassion the reputation of actual slaughterhouses is tarnished by association.
The ground also has a special place in English nightmares for being the one where an esteemed captain won the toss then absurdly put the home side in, only to see them rack up a huge total and a crushing win. To compound matters, forty-eight years after this suicidal invitation by Len Hutton in 1954, one of his successors as national skipper, Nasser Hussain, made a similarly catastrophic error. Hutton’s side, though, actually went on to win the Ashes 3-1, airbrushing over the ignominy of his decision. Hussain had no such luck.
England now arrive with another one of Hutton’s Yorkshire brethren at the helm, but the bleak truth is that Joe Root and his side have to overcome not just England’s appalling history in Brisbane, but their shocking record in the first three matches of the last seven away Ashes, which currently stands at: LLD...LLD...DLL...LLL...LLL...DWL...LLL (latest defeats last).
To survive Brisbane is merely to survive Jabba the Hutt’s Great Pit of Carkoon only to find the entire Empire — often in the form of Shane Warne or Mitchell Johnson — waiting for you with their Death Stars fully operational in Adelaide and Perth. The inclusion of a Day/Night game on the traditional featherbed plains where the second Test will be held at least offers a new hope and a new dynamic for the visiting side.
England’s cause is not lost, but they are constrained both by the cuffs of history and their own limitations, not least in the shape of their top order. Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan have done little either spectacularly right or spectacularly wrong since coming into the Test side in their home summer and so both probably deserve their chances here. This possibly cannot be said about the recalled number three James Vince, whose selection remains one of the greatest leaps of faith since Icarus set off without his Factor 50.
Indeed, you have to go back to 1986/87 to find an English batsman fewer than ten games into his Test career who rocked up in Australia and scored over 300 runs in the series: Chris Broad, with 487 at 69.57 with three centuries. That’s one rookie batsman in 31 years who has truly fired in an away Ashes.
England go into this series with three greenhorns in their top five. Sport is there to slap predictions in the face, but it will be a mighty blow indeed if England’s No 2, 3 and 5 can somehow find a way to confound expectations. At the same time they need their No 1 and their captain, Alastair Cook and Root respectively, to live up to them.
Further down the order, however, England can feel that, even without the inclusion of Ben Stokes, they have a crux of three cricketers that no side in the world would wish to see approaching the crease if (and it’s a big one here) the top order has put at least some runs on the board. Jonny Bairstow, Stokes’s partner in crime during their ransacking of Cape Town, can plunder through conventionality, as can, to a lesser degree, Chris Woakes.
Yet wedged between them is the batting auteur who may well be third on Australia’s hit list in the prized wicket stakes, Moeen Ali. There has been some superb and forensic stuff written about how South Africa’s series win in Australia in 2016 can be a template for England this year. On a more emotive level, England can hope to dream of Ali coming up with the sort of southpaw counterpunching that Quinton de Kock managed to such crucial effect in the first two Tests of that series. If he can rest on whether the perception of his weakness against the short ball is either dispelled or raised to the status of fact in the next six weeks. More generally, how much faith you place in the sheer notion of Bairstow, Ali and Woakes as both men and cricketers might go a long way to deciding just how much you feel England can compete.
The overarching theme, however, is that all English batsmen must prepare for the blitz from Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.
For the entire side it will be the equivalent of having their heads and upper bodies intermittently tasered, while in the meantime defending their toes and stumps from inswinging arrows, while simultaneously keeping enough poise to counter metronomic sorties on their fourth and fifth stumps.
There has inevitably been talk of work done in the nets to prepare for the short stuff and, while the 2013-14 Ashes rather dented the reputation of Graham Gooch and his dog-thrower sessions as a batting coach, this series certainly offers the chance for current incumbent Mark Ramprakash to burnish his own. The problem with “work in the nets” is that, while doubtless diligent and analytically approached, it is often the set-up for a punchline to the kidneys. Four years ago, for instance, England spoke knowingly of taking Tymal Mills and Henry Gurney around with them to help prepare for the onslaught of Mitchell Johnson. “It could be fairly reported that they were not entirely successful in their mission,” noted Stephen Brenkley rather dryly in The Independent.
There is more solace for the away side to be found in the pop-up line-up of Australia. Nathan Lyon may well have chest-thumped this week about Australia’s bowlers “ending careers” but it was Tim Paine, Australia’s first choice T20 and now surprise first choice Test ‘keeper who said after his recall that he had been “very close” to retiring from First Class cricket. “I had pretty much accepted a job at Kookaburra and was going to move over,” he said. “I’m pretty happy right now that I didn’t.”
Tim Paine has only two First Class centuries in his career, but it is still one as resplendent as the peroxide highlights he sported in his younger days based on his accepted, peerless glovework. Yet if you back, however optimistically, England’s strike bowlers to make inroads at the top of this unsettled Australian order, then his role as a shepherd of the lower order will be in the spotlight. Starc showed his admirable qualities as a willowy nuisance in India and Cummins for some time now has produced knocks in T20 that mark him out as a cut above tailender status, but how Paine can combine with them in any period of batting crisis will be intriguing.
All the talk has been of Peter Nevill and Matthew Wade being discarded, but the most relevant ‘keeper to reference in this series is perhaps Brad Haddin, who repeatedly backed up his tongue and made up for his occasionally lumpy hands with late order Ashes knocks that splintered English resolve. Is it really likely Paine, with his limited First Class record, can do the same?
So what of the batsmen ahead of Australia’s resurrected gloveman? Out has gone Glenn Maxwell, four Tests after his ton against an Indian spin pair they said couldn't be tamed. And in comes again, to much consternation, Shaun Marsh. Lyon spoke of wanting to see Root dropped, and with the famously porous palmed Marsh in the slips he may well get his wish.
With bat in hand, however, the older brother of Mitchell remains as mercurial as ever. Will it be the towering Count of Kandy and Colombo who turns up or the man who averaged 2.83 in a series at home to India? At number three Usman Khawaja has gently offered some quiet dignity amid the raucous pre-series digs but his influence can be expected to be more than noticeable. Opening with Warner will be Cameron Bancroft, whose Shield efforts this year warrant respect, but whose Test-level inexperience clearly warrants inspection.
With all the talk of Australia’s trifecta of pace, there’s been little room for discussion of one of the most effective Test new ball partnerships of recent times, Stuart Broad and James Anderson. The former has never quite clicked in Australia but against them he has an enviable record of both wickets and wit. At Trent Bridge in 2013 he chose not to walk. At The Gabba a few months later he chose to walk into his press conference after talking a five-for with The Courier Mail — the paper which had stalked him like a weird, creepy ex for his breach of the spirit of cricket — under his arm. His series, perhaps not surprisingly, petered out after that initial, screw-you burst. This time round England need at least two, probably three, of his notorious, magical spells he normally reserves for Australia or South Africa, even if he then recedes back into his Malfoy shadows.
Anderson himself has had an odd time in Australia, with his record in 2013-14 - though not without new ball strikes — paling in comparison next to his efforts four years previous. Back then, when he claimed 24 wickets in the series, Australia had a batting line-up including Simon Katich, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey — not particularly weak — so why was he so much more effective? Of course, bowlers like all sportsman have their fluctuations of form, but one interesting thing to note if you compare Anderson’s Hawkeye beehives for his most successful innings when he caused havoc then compared to his relative struggles four years later is how more compact they were in 2013-14. He seemed to use both the short and the wide enticer ball more in 2010-11, admittedly not usually a tactic typically associated with success.
Regarding the judiciously used short stuff, in England’s victorious series this was obviously not employed in a Johnson juggernaut manner — his lower pace precludes wholesale intimidation — but just in a gentle “Get back in your crease, Sir” way from time-to-time.
This isn't rocket science nor something Anderson doesn’t use at home, where keeping a batsman in the same place back on his crease to then manipulate him with his in-in-out or out-out-in swing set-ups is a norm. It's just odd he didn't use the short ball in 2013-14 as often as four years before and ditto the slightly wider lines he threw in from time to time. With the pink ball likely to hoop in Adelaide he can revert to type. Without it, it will be interesting which Anderson template, 2010/11 or 2013/14, he follows.
Cook, Root, Warner, Smith. These are now the batting totems of Test cricket’s oldest and yet conversely increasingly more frequent marquee series. Draped around them is an uneven fabric woven of silk in places and sackcloth in others. There are holes to be picked in both these batting line-ups, but in a series between two flawed sides the adage of batsmen saving matches and bowlers winning them will possibly never prove truer. England will try to bat long and, mistakenly perhaps, bowl dry, but it is surely the hosts who will again bowl short and batter their guests into submission. Common sense surely says Australia to win. But then it also said that back in 1954. Roll on the toss in Brisbane.