The Ashes 2013
It was worth the wait. Warranted the hype. And the banter was suitably witty, yet measured, as the combatants traded their opening blows.
The Ashes 2013, the prequel to the sequel has arrived. And day one was the box office hit the publicity trail anticipated. Keep the popcorn handy. It’s screening in a lounge room near you between now and August 13. 34 days of sleep deprivation with a few chances for catch-up along the way. Suck it up princess. Your nation needs your support.
Through bleary eyes, analysis is never easy. It could be tougher though. My keyboard is oceans away from the overcast Nottingham sky. A cloudy covering that had even the flattest Trent Bridge straw bed sprouting opening day demons. Those were tough working conditions for the willow-wielding talisman of our code.
As they say in the classics, this was a good toss to lose. Nerves were given a chance to settle. Australia bowled first. It never hurts to start with a picture card in the big tournaments. In Pattinson and Starc, the tourists threw down some royal brass.
Ball one missed the felt. Never a good look in front of the dealer. The Pattinson radar was askew. Not quite a Harmison moment but history only records the transaction as a “wide.” How far is only included in the punchlines.
But the signs, eventually, were good. The Duke was swinging. The Aussie quicks have been awaiting the chance to sink their teeth into this fabled northern hemisphere delicacy. The English cherry can have a mind of its own. Just add cloud cover and you have fast bowling porn.
Pattinson banged it in. He gave the full strip a necessary workout. Starc got it to hoop. Then Peter Siddle did what he does better than them all. Found the best length of the fire-breathing trio and let the six-stitches do the rest. King, Queen and Jack, the pecking order is still being assessed. It’s likely to change from test to test.
Siddle staked an early claim to the throne. When he knocked over Joe Root, social media went into innuendo frenzy. The subtlety of variation was his weapon of choice. Slightly back of a length had Kevin Pietersen trying to unleash that booming cover drive. Edgy stuff. KP was furious. Wider, fuller and a slice of luck worked over Jonathan Trott. And you thought Pietersen was angry. Meticulous lines did a job on Ian Bell. His three-card trick had trumped England’s famed middle-order. Not bad for openers.
But we’ve come to expect that from Siddle. He gave us what we know. It’s the potential of Starc that could shape Australia’s campaign. And his final spell delivered. It will be what has the Australian camp, especially bowling coach Ali de Winter, most enthused about as the first 10 English wickets were safely locked away. It was quick and threatening. Rookie Jonny Bairstow did plenty wrong in his dismissal but it took cunning execution of a lost bowling art – left-arm swing – to bring about his undoing. The perfect in-swinging Yorker cannoning into the stumps. Left-arm fast-bowling 101. A tertiary student of the master craftsman himself, Wasim Akram, Starc showed off the skill set the Pakistan legend has helped arm him with.
That was merely an entrée to the main course feast about to be plated up by the English spearhead. In home conditions, Jimmy Anderson is peerless. And the Australian batsmen found the heat uncomfortably steamy in his kitchen.
After a series of looseners were dispatched by Shane Watson, Steven Finn did a statistical number on the Aussie top-order. Watson nicked to slip. Ed Cowan uncharacteristically flayed at a delivery, the sort he’d leave even in a T20 bout. Ashes pressure. It gets to even the most analytical thinkers.
With England’s Ace releasing the ball like a yo-yo whiz-kid, Anderson best trick-shot would come with Australia’s own Ace 22 yards away in front of him. With Michael Clarke still yet to score, Anderson produced the delivery of the series. Yep. The series. It won’t be beaten. Day one. Session three. Lock it in now. Not quite the Warne ball. But 20 years on, the landscape has changed. A searing thunderbolt which angled into the Australian captain, straightened and clipped the top of off. England reminded us they too can make pace-bowling porn. We knew that though. They’ve been propping up the industry for the best part of a decade. Clarke did nothing wrong. His feet were perfectly aligned. His bat couldn’t have been straighter. Sometimes, your opponent just throws down a better hand.
Australia will now rely on three jokers in their pack. Steve Smith has never enjoyed a charmed run in the school of public opinion. To be fair, it’s unfair. Ostracised for his loose technique on debut three years ago, key changes have been made. He’s no longer the teenage leg-spinner who could bat a bit down the order. Smith is a legitimate test batsman with an ability to find runs in areas others don’t. Busy at the crease. Fidgety by nature. Michael Atherton called his technique “idiosyncratic” in commentary. It’s certainly unique but all the elements match up with the textbook when it matters most. Crucially, lately, it’s worked. He was Australia’s best-performed player in the concluding stages of the tour of India. He was the star of the recent “A” Tour. Last night, he played a lone hand. For some reason. Some are still surprised.
I interviewed Smith in the change rooms of Hyderabad after New South Wales had won the inaugural Champions League T20 tournament in 2009. He was barely out of his teens. He looked like he still belonged in a school uniform. That night, he produced a fighting rescue act to save the Blues. In his words, post-match: “It’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s the best day of my life. I can’t believe this. It’s the best game of cricket I’ve ever been a part of.” Australian cricket can only hope that’s about to be superseded.
He’ll start day two with Phil Hughes for company. Two men harpooned throughout their young careers for technical flaws. Let’s cut them some slack. Genius never sticks to the rules. Every magical moment needs a platform to spring from. Unorthodox may just be the best weapon against the English onslaught.
Runs will set it up for the newest addition to the Australian pack. Ashton Agar. He may prove to be the lasting legacy of the Mickey Arthur era. Plucked from relative obscurity, Arthur liked his style. A tall over the top left-arm spinner. Almost a clone of Paul Harris, the slow-bowling option in Arthur’s dominant South African squad, pre-Aussie experiment. This wicket will wear. It is England, but surely this cloud cover will pass. When the wicket crumbles, Agar’s time will come. And he’ll be needed against an English line-up stacked with right-handers. He may not have runs to bowl at. Field settings will be crucial but without the security of a sizeable lead, Clarke’s handling of the teenage debutante may be his greatest second-innings challenge.
Day one was enthralling. 14 wickets. 290 runs. Plenty to digest. This epic knows no immediate ending though. The script is a work in progress. Who will be the story on day two? One significant partnership with the bat will go a long way towards determining that. Australia, through Smith and Hughes, and eventually Brad Haddin, have first crack. One thing is certain, neither team will be keeping their cards close to their chest as the match prepares to take shape. Brace for twists along the way.