Australia had improved. Despite a batting average of 37, David Warner was to be feared. Even though he finished his last Ashes series as a puddle of doubt, Mitchell Johnson would save the day.
In the few months between the series Australia had somehow magically improved their game. Alastair Cook’s defensive captaincy wouldn’t work in the Australian sun. They had found an in-form player in George Bailey. Even Shane Watson’s body had switched from batsman to allrounder mode.
During the last two Ashes series, the Australian press looked nervous going into the series. Instead of being the vicious, bile-sledging 12th man, they had been reduced to noting more than the odd bit of chirpiness.
This time the Courier Mail walked into the Ashes like not only would Australia win, but England would end up shaking on a hospital gurney. It was back to the glory “banter” years. England were smug arrogant cheats that no one liked. Stuart Broad’s name could not even be uttered. Unless you were calling him a medium pacer.
Despite the paper suggesting strongly that Broad should not be mentioned by name, the crowd decided their chant, which referred to him being a self-satisfier, would not work without his name in it. There was even a horror-themed banner inferring about his non-walking past.
Warner played some big shots, but did his best work by getting to the non-striker’s end with ease. Watson kept planting that foot and watched the ball very intently as he defended most of them. With Warner and Watson solid at the crease, between 87 and 93 per cent of TV viewers on Channel 9 decided Australia would win the Ashes.
Somehow in the three months since the last series, Australia had found a magic cave of awesomeness to transmogrify them into a fierce Test team. The talk was right, Australia were back.
Then that smug arrogant cheating medium pacer with no name would not go away. The sun blared down on a flat pitch without much sideways movement, while he ended Australia’s top order. Watson got stuck, as he has throughout much of his Test career. Either Clarke’s back or his arch nemesis brought him down in a familiar way. Warner bunted an innocuous ball to cover point when he was well set. And Bailey and Steve Smith got out to bowlers who could be named, both tentatively, caught behind the wicket. That was the end of the top order.
That was the end of more than just six wickets. The bubble had burst. The emperor had no clothes. Schrodinger’s cat was dead. Australia were still the fifth best Test team on earth.
Despite Johnson’s moustache, Australia had not turned into apocalyptic demons in their months off, they were still the same team of inconsistent cricketers that lost a series just a few months earlier. Which considering they had not played a Test since, had a weird adventure in India and are not as used to the Gabba as they make out was not altogether surprising.
The best two shots were an uppercut from Warner and the front cover of the Courier Mail. Yet Warner got out with a shot that inspired not fear, but fearlessness. And a few minutes later the Courier Mail’s headline was “Aussie Wickets Fall”.
Then Australia had another lower order fight back. It seems they have one in every game now. Their lower order players face new balls at practice, just in case they are needed early on again. Every easy drive from Haddin and Johnson must have stung at the pride of the top order. Even Twitter is getting bored at the “reverse the order” jokes about Australian cricket.
Other than Haddin, Australia made it to stumps with all the panache of a limbless, bloodied ingénue dragging themselves away from an axe-wielding maniac. Hoping beyond hope that the axe-wielding maniac would trip and fall on his own weapon.
Australia might still do better in this series, Haddin might cobble together enough for Australia to defend. England may also fall in a heap on this batsmen-friendly pitch. But what is clear is that for Australia almost nothing has changed. Australia are the same flawed team with a penchant for self-sabotage we saw a few months ago. There was no magic cave. Australia had not improved. They just had not had a chance to fail for three months.