Wickets tumble on dramatic opening day of Ashes
THE Ashes began in a fever pitch of excitement and a welter of wickets. England began the campaign with a vintage display of inept batting but they were matched almost blow for errant blow by Australia.
Whether it was nerves, fear, lack of skill, top notch seam and swing bowling, or an unhappy combination of the lot it made for riveting viewing.
It was breathless stuff from warm-up to warm-down. Shortly after tea in the opening act of the series, England were all out for 215, the stuff of nightmares, and by the close of a day which remained resolutely overcast, Australia were 75 for 4.
It was all a savage indication that the urn which is the cause of all the fuss will not be coming home again simply because everybody in the country thinks it is a nice idea.
For a pitch that was meant to be full of runs they were uncommonly hard to find, perhaps sought too eagerly by players for whom awaiting the start of this series was at last over and were too anxious to make their mark on it.
England's first innings was a litany of almost unbridled disaster. Four of the top seven played false shots which defied the policy of putting a high price on their wicket, instead making them knockdown bargains in a job lot. As if that were not enough, this folly was compounded by the loss of the last four wickets for two runs in 12 balls.
Peter Siddle, the fast bowler's fast bowler, took five wickets for the eighth time in Tests and the fourth against England. He muscled in with his usual abundance of spirit but that apart Australia's bowling was deeply disappointing. If they get it right, England could really be in trouble.
Australia's initial response was similarly imbued with recklessness and hesitancy. James Anderson bowled mesmerically but England were without Stuart Broad, who was hit on the shoulder while batting and if he is absent again on the second day the shortage could be crucial. Unless there is a dramatic change in the balance between bat and ball there is every prospect of this first Test, sponsored by Investec, being done and dusted by Sunday and a conclusion on Saturday should not be entirely ruled out.
The start of the day was as dramatic as what followed. Before the teams were officially named at the toss it emerged that Australia were awarding a baggy green cap to the 19 year old left arm spinner, Ashton Agar. This became apparent when the iconic headgear was handed over in a team by huddle by one of its most legendary wearers.
Agar was the youngest Australian debutant in an Ashes Tests since Doug Walters in 1965 (and he scored 155). A month ago he was playing for Henley in the Home Counties League, a stint he finished by taking a hat-trick of lbws, all with arm balls.
In the event Agar was little used or needed (though that could easily change in the second innings on a pitch that is drier than Death Valley, California in a heat wave). The bulk of the work was done by the three fast men.
It was evident that both James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc were overawed by the occasion. Pattinson started the series with a loose short ball that was called a wide and his left arm partner also sprayed it down the leg side.
There seemed nothing for England to fear despite the cloud cover which was encouraging the ball to swing. But their captain, Alastair Cook, committed the first lapse of the many, driving at a ball well away from his body and edging to the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.
Order seemed to have been restored by Joe Root and Jonathan Trott. Root played as he has since coming into the international game, that is, as if he was born to it. Trott looked in particularly splendid fettle, marking his crease with his usual copious diligence and clipping assertively off his legs - when these two things are happening it is known that all if right with the world.
Root was undone by a lovely yorker from Siddle which held its own but what followed was much more culpable. Soon after lunch, Kevin Pietersen, who was not accorded the welcome of a returning hero when he came out to bat, pushed at one away from his body and was caught at slip. Trott, with fifty in sight, drove loosely at a wide one and was unceremoniously bowled off his inside edge, the timbers clattering over.
It required some swift and meaningful repairs if England were to have a meaningful total. Ian Bell and Jonny Bairstow batted pleasantly and ably. Bell was just beginning to make it seem that this was the day for a big innings - but he has been down that road before many times - when he edged a good ball from Siddle that moved late on him. Matt Prior, so often the tormentor of opponents with his quickfire salvage operations, swatted to point.
Briefly, Bairstow and Broad counter-attacked but it could only end one way on this particular day. In short order the last four wickets were donated as if on a silver platter, mishooking, ambitiously driving, following a ball outside off, prodding to point.
It was barely believable that Australia had 28 overs to bat on the first day after losing the toss. England needed wickets and they needed them quickly. Finn obliged with two wickets in two balls in the fourth over, persuading Shane Watson to edge to third slip and Ed Cowan to drive sloppily, unthinkingly at his first ball to second.
If England could ensnare Michael Clarke, Australia's captain and best player now they were in the game. Anderson produced a peach which curved in, seamed away and trimmed the off stump. When Chris Rogers was given out lbw to Anderson coming round the wicket, a decision upheld after review, Australia were reeling. They recovered a little through the audacity of Steve Smith, another surprising choice in their team, but after 14 wickets in the day there is in this Ashe series all to play for.