Five Men and a Test Match

In The Ashes by Bill Ricquier

The Brisbane Cricket Ground (the GABBA)

All England supporters fear the worst before a Test match in Brisbane. There is the hype about the “Gabbatoir” and all the rest of it. The awful thing is, it’s true. Think back to four years ago and Mitchell Johnson.

Or Nasser Hussain’s election to field first in 2002-03. ( Len Hutton did the same thing in 1954-55, with a similar result, but England , armed with its own right-arm version of Johnson , Frank Tyson, went on to win the series.)

The thing was, for two and a half days of genuinely gripping play; this looked like being the most keenly contested Ashes Test since the first match of the 2013 series in England. For much of the fourth day England were still in a position where victory was not out of the question.

Some pundits – well, Kevin Pietersen – even forecast an England win as Australia set off on their run chase. But the final verdict, a ten-wicket win for Australia, made it seem not so much a tantalising duel as a humiliating rout.

It was a strange pitch, which contributed much to the unusual nature of much of the play.

Batsmen found it difficult to score freely until the fourth innings, and Nathan Lyon extracted considerable turn at a very early stage. There were a number of critical points in the game, but in the final analysis there were two critical differences between the sides.

Australia’s four-man attack was more varied and more threatening than England’s five-man combination. And Steve Smith stood head and shoulders above every other batsman on either side. England literally never looked like getting him out. Joe Root, with Smith one of the four or five best batsmen in the world, was out in identical fashion in both innings.

Australia would happily settle for dismissing Root for fifty one – his score in the second innings – in each knock he plays in the series. Root would end up with an average of around fifty – a remarkable achievement – and England would lose five- nil , also a remarkable achievement, but not so remarkable given that it has happened in two of England’s three most recent visits Down Under.

It was not all doom and gloom for England. On the first day there was a beautiful display of batting from James Vince, who came in under real pressure after the early dismissal of Alastair cook. He made eighty three disciplined, skilful and attractive runs before being brilliantly run out by Lyon.

This was a real plus for England because Vince was such an unusual selection. Every touring team inevitably has a spare or extra batsman, who isn’t really expected to play, save in an emergency. This squad seemed to have three batsmen eminently suited for that position – Vince, Gary Ballance, who occupied the post in 2013-14, and Dawid Malan. Ballance and Malan had done just about enough in 2017 to be worth a punt (likewise Mark Stoneman, but as he is one of two openers selected he has been more or less guaranteed a full series, like the luckless Michael Carberry in 2013-14).

Vince seemed to be the most surprising pick because after an unfulfilling Test baptism in 2016 he had been ignored by the selectors during the 2017 season. And now he found himself at number three, the pivotal batting position. It is difficult to think of a comparable selection in an Ashes side, a player so unproven at international level being asked to fulfil such a responsible role. Wayne Larkins in 1990-91? If he had gone on to make a hundred it would have been tempting to compare Vince with Colin Cowdrey, who made his Test debut on Hutton’s tour and in the third Test at Melbourne made 102 out of 191.

Vince, like Cowdrey, oozes class with his sumptuous offside stroke play. Of course as so often it is his weakness as well as his strength. In the second innings he fell early to a catch at slip but it was a snorter from Josh Hazlewood that would have got anyone.

He might have fallen in the forties in the first innings had he not been dropped behind the stumps by Tim Paine. If you are seeking a more unexpected Ashes selection than Vince’s, you don’t have to look far. Even seasoned observers were bemused by Paine’s reappearance after 78 Tests in the wilderness; he wasn’t even keeping wicket for his state, Tasmania.

He made his Test debut against Pakistan in 2010, at Lord’s of all places, replacing the injured Brad Haddin. Haddin returned, and then there was Peter Nevill, and then Matthew Wade. Both Nevill and Wade paid the price for the ultimate crime of the modern keeper: not making enough runs. Paine has been successful in the Big Bash and he looks an accomplished cricketer.

Whatever happens to his Test career in the future, he played a critical part in this game. On the third afternoon Moeen Ali was looking his silky best as England sought to build a lead. Certainly he was playing Lyon with more certainty than his fellow left-handers, Malan and Stoneman. On forty, he stretched forward to a ball from Lyon and missed it. Paine whipped off the bails and appealed for a stumping. Nobody else seemed interested. The decision went upstairs, as line decisions do, and there was an agonising wait. It turned out that perhaps the only person on the ground who reached the same conclusion as Paine was the third umpire, Chris Gaffney. Ali had to go. That left Jonny Bairstow with the tail and England subsided, again.

Paine was one of two Australian debutants in that Lord’s Test. The other was Smith, who was picked as a leg spinner and batted at number eight. In his second Test, at Headingley, he made 77. In the 2010-11 Ashes he played three Tests. It was reported that he had been brought in largely to liven up a dark and brooding dressing room with a few gags. (Well, that gambit may have worked; on the fourth day of this Brisbane Test Mitchell Starc was quoted as saying he’d “rather be in our changing room than theirs” : but it probably wasn’t just the jokes. )

By the 2013 Ashes he had moved up to number six. In a newspaper article in the middle of the summer I picked a team of Smiths – there is a surprising amount of competition – and I chose him: how prescient is that? At The Oval he made his first Test hundred, reaching the landmark with a six.

Since then he hasn’t looked back. As captain, his record is astonishing, averaging around seventy. He gets runs in all conditions and he makes them when it matters. Australia were really struggling at Brisbane. England bowled very well. That is another reason they should not abandon all hope. Smith admitted that he had rarely, if ever, had to work so hard for his runs.

He is a genuine oddity, a constant fidget with jerky movements, like, as Gideon Haigh has observed, a puppet on a string. Yet he always seems to get himself in precisely the right place to play the ball. He also held four slip catches in England’s second innings. The law of averages – in life, not cricket – suggests that, some time, he will have a bad day. Will it be before early January?

Smith couldn’t do it all on his own. Someone had to stay with him. Of the recognised batsmen Shaun Marsh, on his ninth recall to the side made a handsome half century, but it was fast bowler Pat Cummins who caught the eye and made the difference. Cummins joined Smith on 234 for seven, with England still apparently on course for a significant first innings lead. Smith clearly had complete faith in Cummins’ ability to hold an end up , and more , and that faith was more than justified. The partnership took the game away from England and they never got it back.

Cummins made his Test debut against South Africa at The Wanderers in 2011-12, aged eighteen; it was his fourth first-class match. He made a sensational start, taking six wickets in South Africa’s second innings and then hitting a boundary to win the match for his side. Since then, however, he has been dogged by injury. Remarkably, the Brisbane Test was his first on home soil. He got back into the side on the tour of India early in 2017 and showed there that he had lost none of his pace. At Brisbane he bowled with real fire, roughing Stoneman up on the third evening. If he stays fit, Cummins will be a key figure in the series.

What were England lacking? Runs from Alastair Cook would have helped. The injury to Ali’s spinning finger was a real handicap; he had nothing like the impact of Lyon. But the big thing that was missing can be summed up in two words: Ben Stokes. There were two, well, three – phases when his absence really manifested itself.

One was during the Smith – Cummins partnership. Root’s captaincy couldn’t be faulted; he just lacked the wherewithal to make a breakthrough, particularly when James Anderson and Stuart Broad were ” resting”. Stokes provides that extra indefinable quality. It is not just a matter of technical skill. He is one of those special players, like Ian Botham and Shane Warne, who can produce something out of nothing, who makes things happen. It is a matter of temperament as much as ability and no doubt partly explains his current predicament. That is not an excuse, just a statement of fact.

The other situation was in the second part of each England innings. Stokes, Bairstow and Ali have been a real powerhouse in the lower middle order. Now with Chris Woakes at eight followed by the bowlers, the set-up was very different. In both Innings Bairstow got himself out and the last four wickets fell in an ignominious heap. Stokes’ batting has developed out of all recognition since his hundred in Perth in 2013-14. A disciplined batsman who is capable of demolishing an attack in half a session is of incalculable value.

But Stokes was not there and it doesn’t look as though he’s coming. England will have to “regroup” [ Uh..? Ed. ] for Adelaide. On the fourth and fifth days at Brisbane in 2010-11, Cook, Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott ground the Australian bowlers’ noses into the dust and earned a draw that felt like a win, before trouncing the hosts in the second Test at Adelaide. This time, when veteran tearaway David Warner and nerveless debutant Cameron Bancroft treated England’s first choice attack like net bowlers, it didn’t just feel like a win.

Bill Ricquier. The article was published in Scoreline Asia:

Share this Post