England struck by stage fright
I am afraid there’s no other way of looking at it: England’s cricketers and their fans suffered collective stage fright on the first day of the Ashes series.
Blame the strength-sapping heat and humidity at the Gabba. Blame us (the media) for talking up the importance of these Test matches, if you must.
But most of all blame those brilliant Australian batsmen, who we have already watched scoring thousands of runs in the past, and who look like they could carry on doing so into their dotage.
Aussie fans do not go in for banners much, but when they do, they tend to be reasonably witty.
“Our Dad’s Army – Too Old, Too Slow, Too Damn Good” was pretty much to the point.
As for England’s supporters, the ones who surged onto the bus I took from the city were in chipper mood in the morning.
One boasted to an Aussie: “It’s better if you bat first anyway mate, then we’ll win in three days.”
When the bus carrying Freddie Flintoff and co arrived, plenty of England supporters were waiting for them.
But many of the faces they saw staring back at them wore nervous, apprehensive expressions. No waves or smiles for the supporters, though Flintoff himself looked at ease.
Playing with a black armband because his wife’s grandfather had recently died, the England skipper lost the toss.
But when he came on to bowl, he looked every inch the inspirational all-rounder we remembered from the 2005 series.
He took England’s first two wickets and was in the mood for more, but Ricky Ponting stole the mantle of day’s best player from under his nose.
When the ball got old, not even Flintoff could maintain his brilliance and Ponting, with a bit of help from his Aussie friends, took over.
Australia is a great country for pulling – and I’m not talking about picking up chicks.
No other Test nation offers such consistently hard, bouncy wickets, which invariably tempt fast bowlers to pitch short in the hope of catching a batsman unawares.
When that batsman is Ponting, however, the captain of the Australian cricket team, the tactic backfires with monotonous regularity.
Five times James Anderson, who had been a hero in England’s last away Test (in Mumbai), tried to bounce Ponting, and five times he pulled him effortlessly and majestically for four.
The shot also got the 31-year-old off the mark, when Steve Harmison was at his most timid, and Matthew Hoggard, who really should have known better, was another to suffer in the same way.
But although England’s bowlers, who like to “do well as a unit” failed to apply the necessary collective pressure to gain regular wickets, it did not help that the Barmy Army were being all quiet.
It was not entirely their fault. Their forces were fragmented in little pockets around the ground and the Australian fans’ constant noisy chatter was an effective defence against any impromptu singing.
Perhaps they could scarcely believe that Harmison, so brilliant on the first day of the 2005 series, could bowl so indifferently on one of the fastest tracks in the world.
It was remarkable, certainly, that the spinners did so much work. When Kevin Pietersen began his ninth over, some wag yelled: “Come on Monty!”
Presumably, the point was that after the long debate over whether to bowl Ashley Giles or Monty Panesar, with Pietersen doing so much work perhaps both could have played.
But Friday will be another day. Tonight it is time for England to ditch those nerves and on day two they must show their lion-hearted spirit once again.