The last time England arrived in Australia for the Ashes, they were greeted by a ferocious Mitchell Johnson at the Gabba for the first Test. The slingy left-arm pace bowler wounded them so bad that there was no coming back in the series. The visitors lost by a massive 381 runs. More than the margin by which they lost, the scars left by Johnson resurfaced right through the series.
In 2006, the Poms were once again welcomed at the Gabba with sneers and when Harmison sprayed the first ball of the Ashes — probably the worst ever first ball in the history of Tests — to second slip, the fate of the series was sealed then and there. England lost by 277 runs after Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Stuart Clark and Shane Warne all dug into the English.
The intimidation of the Gabba, which means a “fighting arena” in the Aboriginal language, cannot be discounted. It is known for unfurling fury on the visiting English teams. It is known for softening up visitors in the first Test of a series. That England have won only four times at the venue in 20 attempts is evidence of the kind of power Aussies enjoy at the ground.
A test by fire awaits the visitors led by a newbie captain as they step out on 23 November at the Gabba to face the Aussies in the first match of yet another Ashes series.
They have an appalling record at the ground, their genius all-rounder is back home after a street brawl saw him suspended from the tour and their batting line-up has woes irreparable at least until the end of this series.
But does that mean England sit back and let things be?
If they need inspiration they needn't look too far from the Proteas. The South Africans have been among the best travellers in world cricket over the past few years, and importantly, they decimated the Australians the last time they toured Down Under.
Led by a charismatic skipper, and missing their best batsman (AB de Villiers) and strike bowler (Dale Steyn, who broke down on Day 1 of the first Test), South Africa's triumph over the Aussies was one of methodical planning and clinical execution.
Russell Domingo, the South African coach at the time says that “they (Australians) bully you into submission.”
But for every question the Australians threw at the Proteas, the visitors had answers and plenty of them.
The 2016 touring party wasn't the only South African side that succeeded in Australia in the first match of a series. In 2008, they beat the hosts by six wickets at Perth chasing a mammoth 414 for victory. Last year, at Perth again, they out-batted the hosts in the second innings and bullied them into submission; this with a virtual 10-member line-up after Steyn hobbled off the ground on day one.
“Nullify the impact of those two (Steve Smith and David Warner) and there is a good chance of getting them for under 200," Domingo says of beating the Aussies in their own backyard.
This might be a key point that England will need to look up. Neither Smith nor Warner scored hundreds in that series and as such the batting suffered. In six innings, the duo had just one half-century each and if not for Usman Khawaja's spectacular series, the Aussies would have had nothing to write home about.
“Smith is a fantastic player and, at No 4, the key is get him against the new ball,” Domingo says.
England will need to do that too. In Cameron Bancroft, they have a newbie to target at the top of the order and if they can get rid of Warner or Khawaja early and bring Smith to the crease while James Anderson and Stuart Broad are still on, they have a chance.
Broad, in particular, and Anderson have had success against the Australian captain in the past. In fact, no bowler has dismissed Smith more times than Broad in Test cricket (six times in 15 matches at an average of 12.00).
With Warner, it is about restricting his scoring options. The South Africans pestered him with a shortish length and a straight line, cutting out his cut shot and cramping him for room. The Poms can do that too but need to be as disciplined as the Proteas in execution else Warner can hurt them bad. He has a stupendous record against England at home, averaging 58.11 in five Tests with two hundreds. England need to put a leash on Warner lest he run away with the game in no time.
Another thing the Proteas did exceptionally well was using their novice spinner, Keshav Maharaj, cleverly. On the flat, bouncy wickets of Australia it is easy to forget the impact that good spinners can make and visiting teams often put over-emphasis on the seamers and miss out on what a spinner can do.
Maharaj switched between defense and attack effortlessly, playing the perfect foil to South Africa's pace battery and frustrating the Australians with his immaculate lines and economical bowling.
England have an equally adept spinner, tried and tested on the quicker wickets back home, in Moeen Ali and if the Surrey all-rounder can don a similar role with the ball in hand, they wouldn't be missing the dynamism of Ben Stokes.
Australia are likely to have three left-handers (Warner, Khawaja and Shaun Marsh) in their top seven and Ali, who turns the ball away from the lefties and also drifts it back in, will be a vital component of the attack if used right.
More than the batting, Australia's bowling attack appears more indomitable with Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon lining up. But unlike common perception, Domingo feels that Hazlewood is more of a threat than Starc, who presents more scoring opportunities.
A lot of pre-match talk has been about Starc and Cummins and the sheer pace in the Aussie bowling ranks. Little has been talked about Hazlewood who boasts of a much better record than Starc in this format of the game. Relentless with his channels and lengths, Hazlewood is a game-changer and if England’s plan is to try and score off him while resisting against Starc, they couldn't be more wrong.
Hazlewood was the top wicket-taker in that South African series, picking up 17 in three Tests at an average of 22.05 and an economy of 2.95. Starc, on the other hand, bowled eye-catching opening spells but the visitors scored off him at nearly four runs per over, a factor that enabled them to dominate the hosts with the bat.
If it is a template England are looking at in beating the Australians in their backyard, there really is no better benchmark than that set by the Proteas. The Faf du Plessis-led South Africans showed the way last year by hitting the Aussies where it hurts and landing telling blows all through the series. Interestingly, the Ashes visitors have similar kinds of resources available at their disposal and if they use them right, there is no reason that the Gabba wouldn't witness an upset.
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