Siddle storm blows England away
How did you celebrate your last birthday - a slice of cake, perhaps, or a long lie-in followed by a nice meal and a few relaxing beverages with friends and family?
Maybe on his next birthday, Peter Siddle will do the same. For his 26th, he'll have to be content with a Test hat-trick, the adoration of 40,000 pumped-up Aussies at the Gabba and blowing a six-wicket hole in England's Ashes hopes.
England probably thought there could be no moment more calamitous than the dismissal of captain Andrew Strauss for a duck to the third ball of the day. They were wrong.
Having already accounted for a bristling Kevin Pietersen and shuffling Paul Collingwood, the man nicknamed Sid Vicious blitzed through Alastair Cook, Matt Prior and Stuart Broad with consecutive deliveries. God save the Queen indeed.
Peter Siddle acknowledges the applause of Aussie fans at the Gabba - photo: AP
It was only the fifth Ashes hat-trick by an Australian, the first in this old ding-dong since Darren Gough's for England 12 years ago and just Australia's 11th in all Tests against any opposition.
The last Australian to bag one in an Ashes series was Shane Warne back in 1994. But while he accounted for three tail-enders, one of whom was Devon Malcolm, Siddle's lit a powder-keg under the middle of England's innings.
And he wasn't finished there. When he had Graeme Swann trapped plumb lbw shortly afterwards, he had claimed four wickets for 10 runs in three overs. England, cruising at 117-2, had lost six wickets for 63 runs in 11 overs.
It was an astonishing burst in a day that looked to be defined by cautious sparring rather than knock-out blows.
That it was Siddle who was the destroyer, rather than the more hyped Mitchell Johnson or wannabe Glen McGrath Ben Hilfenhaus, was stunning vindication of the selectors' decision to bring him back in place of local favourite Doug Bollinger.
Over the past year Doug the Rug has become something of a nascent folk hero to Australian cricket fans, a Merv Hughes in the making - uncomplicated, big-hearted, with a comical attitude to hair and a serious talent for taking big wickets.
Most of the locals who poured in to the Gabba on a warm, sunny morning would have preferred to see him steaming in from the Vulture Street End rather than Siddle, who had an inferior Test record and hadn't featured for his country since January.
When they poured out into the suburban streets of Woolloongabba eight hours later, there was only one name being chanted. The song of choice? Happy birthday.
As a young man growing up in Victoria, Siddle was a promising competitive woodchopper. If that sounds quaintly 19th century, there was something old-fashioned about his virtues here.
Snarling, aggressive, he bowled fast and full and made the batsmen play. If they missed, he hit. If he occasionally found late movement, the pitch was in the main pretty placid. His main weapons were pace and placement.
He has been responsible for an England collapse before, taking 5-21 in the crushing win at Headingley last summer. He finished that series with 20 wickets. But few were expecting he would fell so many English oaks at the Gabbatoir this week.
At the start of this year he was crippled by a stress fracture to his back, any thought of Ashes heroism buried beneath the more prosaic aim of just being able to bowl again.
Like many born in Melbourne, he is a big Aussie Rules Football fan, and it was with local club Carlton that he regained his fitness, working on strengthening his legs and rebuilding his core. Here was the happy payback for all those hard hours.
After the dread horror of that worst possible start, this was a sobering day of what ifs and oh no's for the toiling tourists.
Tantaliser-in-chief, as so often, was Kevin Pietersen. Forget the sometimes mixed feelings he seems to stir back in Blighty. Here in Australia, there are no nuances about it. He is the big fish, the prize scalp, the one player Ricky Ponting's men fear more than any other.
As England tried to rebuild either side of lunch, the midday sun providing him a perfect patch of limelight on the green outfield, Pietersen was in his element - clouting Johnson back down the ground and through cover, sashaying down the track to Xavier Doherty, punching Shane Watson straight with dismissive ease. Even when leaving the ball he somehow managed to hold the attention, lifting his bat high in with a matador flourish and holding the pose in ostentatious fashion.
The England fans spread in small clusters around the three-tiered stands, unaware of the nightmare to follow, loved every second. The Aussies, chugging away on plastic pots of beer, chuntered and jeered. Pietersen, Captain Hook moustache on his upper lip, revelled in the role as pantomime villain.
Then, just as we started to dream of series-steering centuries and match-winning totals, it was over - a firm-handed drive at Siddle's fuller one, a little away bite taking the edge, Ponting clinging on at second slip before wheeling away in triumph with index finger wagging.
Kevin Pietersen made a good start but could not produce the big score England needed - photo: Getty
Pietersen departed with a rueful downward glance at the track, but the blame lay elsewhere. Even at his best, he is the sort of batsman who can perversely be excruciating to watch - not because of any crabbiness or technical flaws, but because he sometimes looks so utterly at ease that the thought of him failing is almost impossible to stomach.
England fans can handle Collingwood or Prior departing for low scores. Our expectations of them are limited.
Not KP. When he's in this sort of dreamy form, anything less than a century feels like short change, the cricketing equivalent of taking the family silver to the Antiques Roadshow only to be told that it's worth less than the bus fare over.
At least he got a start. His skipper barely got a look-in.
First overs in Ashes series are taking on near-mythical status. In no other series is there anywhere near the same importance attached to them as there is in this contest. Blame Michael Slater for his four off Phil DeFreitas, or Steve Harmison for the brute he served Justin Langer in '05 or the tripe he delivered four years ago.
When Strauss left the very first ball of the match alone and dabbed the second into the ground, it seemed like that sequence might be at an end. Then he cut hard at Hilfenhaus's third, sent it straight down Mike Hussey's throat at gully and horrible history appeared to be repeating itself.
Strauss scored more runs than any other player in the last Ashes series. As England skipper he is the totem Australia will attack. To lose him without a run on the board sent the home fans into high-fiving frenzy and the travelling supporters into head-shaking disbelief, and may have set the tone for what was to follow.
Was he guilty of a rash stroke at the most inopportune time? The ball was short and wide, but it did just come back in a fraction and cramp the batsman up. On another day the ball would have flashed in the gap between gully and point, or flown over Hussey's head.
Wise old sages were divided. Former England captain Michael Vaughan felt he should have upper-cut it high over the infield. Slater, speaking on Test Match Special, blamed the tension of the occasion - long hours of pent-up nerves and adrenalin forcing the error.
England were grateful for the runs from Cook and Ian Bell, both of whom have attracted their fair share of criticism in the past. While Cook's 67 off 163 balls threatened to provide a backbone, Bell's classy 76 put some meat on the bones.
There is a long, long way to go in this match and in this series. But with Australia 25-0 at the close and both openers entirely untroubled, this was an ominous opening salvo for England.