So much for the “Blue Monster”. The soubriquet attributed to the Gabba pitch by the Brisbane Courier-Mail before the first Test match turned out to be more like Exhibit A in the case for the Flat Earth Society, and as for the “Gabbatoir”, the nickname attached to the ground itself by just about every Australian newspaper – presumably in an attempt to convince timid English lambs that they were about to led bleating from their pens to be turned into chump chops – the blood that flowed in Brisbane was mainly of the Australian variety. And we’re not talking about a nick from a razor here, more like the severing of a major artery.
This might seem an overly confident assessment of the way England began their quest to win a Test series in Australia for the first time in the thick end of a quarter of a century, but in many ways you could scarcely have wished for a better way to draw the match. Firstly, get yourself into a position in which the Australia media were one minute gleefully drawing on their bottomless well of “Pitiful Pom” headlines, and the next, clambering into a bowling line-up that doesn’t appear to have the ammunition required to take 20 wickets against the Toowoomba Girl Guides XI, never mind an England team that for once is not about to have a sudden attack of incontinence at the sight of a baggy green cap.
Back in 1986-87, when Mike Gatting’s side became the last England team to win in Australia, the Brisbane Test ended in what might be described as a controlled explosion at the home team’s press conference/post mortem. The first question directed at Allan Border, the Australian captain, was “how do you feel AB”? to which AB replied, after a long period in which his mouth moved up and down like a goldfish freshly removed from its bowl, “how do I feel? How… do… I … feel? How the **** do you think I feel”. Ricky Ponting handled himself a little more calmly – after all, Australia hadn’t actually lost – but here sat a man forced by protocol to describe his bowlers as “not quite at their best”, when what he would actually have said had he been sitting on a pub bar stool addressing one of his chums would have been more along the lines of: “Put it this way, if I was a cow, and our lot came at me with a banjo, I don’t think my arse would be in too much danger”.
Cor blimey, o’Riley. When the scientists, as they surely will, finally discover how to keep us all alive until we’re at least a thousand years old, it still won’t be a long enough life span to ever again see a scoreboard with England 517 for 1 on it, but this Australian attack is so hopeless that you left Brisbane wondering whether Matt Prior’s golden duck would be the only ball he ever got the chance to face in this series. And as for KP, he must be regretting not volunteering to bat at No. 3 when he had the chance. KP is about to shave off the moustache he grew for charity, but at No. 4 he could easily grow another one waiting for the second wicket to fall.
When Cook and Trott were compiling the biggest ever English partnership on Australian soil, Ponting’s vain quest to “make something happen” as modern sportsmen are wont to say, at one stage involved placing himself at silly mid-on. Which produced the rare instance of an Australian cricket captain being sledged by one of his own team’s supporters – quite an achievement in any event, but even more so on a final day in which Ponting’s tormentor was quite possibly the only Australian inside a sparsely populated Gabba. “Good thinking, Ricky! ” someone shouted, with a voice straight from Crocodile Dundee. “The last catch in a Test match at silly mid-on was a hundred ****ing years ago! Still, there’s bound to be another one soon!”
In an attack as bad as Australia’s at the Gabba, it was quite an achievement to stand out as head and shoulders worse than anyone else, but Mitchell Johnson somehow managed it. Even standing 20 yards back, Brad Haddin was hurling himself around like a goalie in a penalty shoot-out, and one delivery to Trott from around the wicket started – courtesy of Johnson’s round arm slinger action – from round about mid off, and whistled through for four byes through wide leg slip territory.
During the 1986-87 series, when Australia at least had one decent bowler in Bruce Reid, the general feeling that they were picking the wrong side eventually culminated in a crowd banner reading: “Aussie Selectors Couldn’t Pick Bill Lawry’s Nose”. This time, though, the feeling is that there’s no one much better available. In Brisbane, Hilfenhaus and Siddle were two first change bowlers operating with the new ball, and Johnson, a so-called strike bowler, came on first change. Their ninth specialist spinner since Warne retired in 2007, Xavier Doherty, has a first-class average close to 50, and looks less like a specialist spinner than a batsman being asked to contribute a few overs of part-time twirl before the new ball is due.
After the game, some Australian cricket writers called for their team to doctor the remaining Test pitches as the only way of getting a result, as at least one non-draw is required for Australia to regain the Ashes. Even then, to a complete lack of surprise to all of us who have long since regarded the Australian media as a close relative of Pravda, they couldn’t resist adding that it was perfectly okay to do this as the Poms shamelessly started the dark and dubious practice at The Oval in 2009.
That’s certainly an option if they want to lose 4-0, and it’s hard to see Australia bowling England out twice even if they were allowed to exchange the Kookaburra ball for a hand grenade. In Johnson’s case, however, it would most likely detonate directly underneath Simon Katich’s trousers at short leg.
If there is one small area of concern, it’s England’s preparation. In 1986-87, they hit upon a formula that was closer to “Anymore For The Skylark” than a military operation, allowing the three musketeers – Botham, Lamb and Gower – to tour Australia on a diet of champagne, casino visits, and private parties in Elton John’s hotel suite. This lot seem to be taking it all very seriously, which is a radical departure from the last successful blueprint, and we’ll just have to wait and see whether – like Doug Bollinger’s hair – it actually comes off.