For the first three days of the first Ashes Test at the Gabba the contest was on an absolute knifes edge. But on the back of a Captain’s innings from Steve Smith Australia recorded a comprehensive 10-wicket win. Before the two team’s reconvene in Adelaide to do it all over again, let’s take a look at what we Learned, Liked and Disliked from the opening exchange in the battle for world cricket’s most coveted prize.
STEVE SMITH COULD BE THE BEST SINCE BRADMAN
Who honestly thought that the Steve Smith named to make his Test Match debut against Pakistan in 2010, a 21-year-old leg spinner picked to bat eight, would become the very best batsman in the world? Good luck convincing anyone, even after it becoming true it is a story almost impossible to believe.
With his team struggling in response to England’s first innings total of 302, Smith strode to the crease and once again illustrated how far he had come from that first test in 2010. Ably assisted by Shaun Marsh initially, and then Pat Cummins, Smith produced a century up there with the very best of his career.
His 141 not out has moved the Aussie skipper to 941 ranking points in the Test batting rankings. The tally places him in rare company with only Don Bradman, Len Hutton, Jack Hobbs, and Ricky Ponting to have achieved a higher ranking. If he can produce another strong performance in Adelaide, a likely occurance given his average of 76.41 over the last 12 months, he could well move past Ponting, Hobbs, and Hutton, into all-time second place. An incredible achievement for anyone, let alone for a man who was first selected to curb opposition batsman rather than terrorise their bowlers.
STOKES LEAVES A BIG HOLE
One of the world’s best all-rounders Ben Stokes’ absence was expected to be keenly felt, but just how much might have been a little underestimated.
Without Stokes in the line up, England looked to Moeen Ali to fill the breach at number six. With respect to Ali, his move up the order left the team weakened at six and also at his usual position of eight.
While it is a small sample size, with a number of other factors in play, it is perhaps this weakening of the batting line ups that played a decisive role in the match. From 5/246 in the first innings England fell to be all out for 302 a similar collapse in the second saw them all out for 195 after being 5/113. Steve Smith’s ability to bat with the tail ensured that Australia added 153 runs for their last five wickets while in both innings combined England could only produce 138.
SELECTORS FAITH IN BANCROFT APPEARS WELL PLACED
In the early rounds of the Sheffield Shield season, Cameron Bancroft produced the kind of numbers that demand selectors attention. Despite the undoubted form of the Western Australian opener, there still must have been some trepidation amongst the National Selection Panel when they decided to omit incumbent Matt Renshaw to allow Bancroft his chance in the Baggy Green.
From the very first ball of the match Bancroft looked like a man who belonged on the Test stage. Whether fielding at short leg, a first innings failure, or getting hit by a James Anderson throw to the keeper, the 25-year-old remained completely unflustered. In Australia’s second innings run chase Bancroft illustrated just what he can bring to the team with the bat.
An unbeaten 82 in an unbroken 170 run stand with David Warner helped completed Australia’s 10-wicket victory. In doing so he emulated the feats of fellow Western Australian Adam Gilchrist, whose 81 on Test Debut also came at the Gabba after he replaced a Queenslander looking to play a home Test. What Australia would give for Bancroft to similarly continue to emulate the former Australian Vice-Captain.
LARGE CROWDS FLOCK TO FORTRESS GABBA
With it’s place on the Test Match calendar under threat next year, it was heartening to see a large crowd turn out to see Australia extend it’s proud unbeaten record at the Gabba. At the conclusion of Day 4, Queensland Cricket announced that 124,511 spectators had filed into the ground surpassing the crowd for the Ashes Test in 2013.
An iconic part of the Australian cricketing summer, it was pleasing to see strong crowds again in Brisbane after the success of last years Day/Night Test. While we will not learn the venues for next years Tests against India for some time to come, the fans in the Sunshine State gave themselves the best possible chance by attending in large numbers.
The fact that Australia hasn’t lost there in 30 years can’t hurt either, can it?
LYON PUTS ENGLAND IN A SPIN
The scorecard doesn’t tell the full story of how important Nathan Lyon was in Australia’s first Test victory. While far from outrageous figures, 2/78 & 3/67 don’t reflect just how well Lyon bowled.
Extracting the kind of prodigious turn and bounce that opposite tweaker Moeen Ali could only dream of, Lyon consistently tied down an end for skipper Steve Smith. Not content to just keep things tight while Australia’s pace strike force recovered, Lyon caused the England batting lineup no end of trouble.
Having moved into seventh place on Australia’s leading wicket takers list, the 30-year-old is in the form of his career and is within touching distance of the 300 wicket milestone. It is hard to believe that just 12 months ago Lyon’s position in the team was in serious jeopardy. If he continues his Gabba form, it will remain the case for a long, long time to come.
VINCE TAKES HIS CHANCE
James Vince, recalled to the England team for the first time since September 2016, strode to the crease at the Gabba with more than a little pressure on his shoulders. Having failed to crack fifty in his previous eleven Test innings, there were plenty of question marks as to whether he could prosper in the Ashes cauldron.
Called into action early as a result of the dismissal of Alastair Cook for two, Vince and fellow greenhorn Mark Stoneman, built a solid century stand for the second wicket. Joined in the middle by Captain Joe Root, Vince continued his watchful knock in the face of Australia’s pace barrage.
Unfortunately for the 26-year-old, disaster struck just as a maiden Test Match century seemed within reach. On 83, he called for a tight run but was beaten to his ground by a spectacular piece of fielding by Nathan Lyon. It was a disappointing way for his nearly four hour vigil at the crease to end, but the unflappable way he went about his business bodes well for the rest of the series.
BAIRSTOW’S SECOND INNINGS BRAIN SNAP
With England at 7/194 and struggling to build a competitive target for Australia to chase, their hopes rested largely with Bairstow who had fought his way to 42. What followed next was equal parts baffling as it was frustrating.
Faced with a Mitchell Starc delivery pitched short and wide outside off-stump, Bairstow played a deft ramp shot which, although clear of the slips cordon, flew gently to Peter Hanscomb at third man. It was a dismissal as meek as any you will see in Test cricket made all the more disappointing by responsibility upon Bairstow’s shoulders given the state of the match.
Another key moment in England’s second innings collapse was the dismissal of Moeen Ali. Tim Paine’s smart working in catching Ali out of his ground, lost amidst a maelstrom of discontent over a crease that appeared wider in some sections than others.
Rather than focus on the fact that it appears that the third umpire may well have adjudicated a very tight call correctly, many pundits cried foul over the apparent inconsistent width of the crease. Forgetting for a moment that much of the inconsistency can be explained by the angle of the camera and the differing levels of the ground upon which the line is painted, and that not one of the players, umpires or officials, spoke of any such discrepancy at ground level, it simply isn’t important. When push comes to shove, it is a condition that existed for both sides and was just as likely to save a batsman running wide as it was to catch a batsman short. What on earth has the world come to that sees us discussing the width of line?
KHAWAJA’s UNHAPPY RETURN
The Sportress is one of Usman Khawaja’s biggest fans and have been extremely vocal in our displeasure at the selectors treatment of him. In the last two years at home Khawaja has averaged over 70 with the bat, form which hasn’t been enough to save him from the selection axe twice in the same period of time.
To put this lack of faith from the selectors into perspective, Shaun Marsh average 18.75 in his last four test matches prior to this summer and was able to force his way back into the team with a shield average of 39. Could you imagine the selectors ever leaving Marsh out if he averaged 70 in the last two Australian summers? It’s a crazy question, they don’t like leaving him out regardless.
If the selectors want true consistency in their teams performance, it is players like Khawaja that they should be bestowing their faith. Their lack of faith has already seen Khawaja fielding questions from the media as to whether he fears for his place in the side. If you ever wanted the proof of how badly the NSP have managed their selection process there you have it, a man who has averaged 70 in the last two Australian summers has been asked if his place is in jeopardy after one failure. Crazy.