It wasn’t simply that they were bowled out for 147 after winning the toss, instantly handing the initiative in this five-Test series to Australia. Just as damaging were the numerous subplots, ranging from the first-ball dismissal of Rory Burns to the chalk-and-cheese fortunes of the captains: while Joe Root fell for a duck, Pat Cummins – in his first Test in charge – picked up five for 38.
If Australia could have penned their own storyline, this is more or less how it would have looked, with their fast bowlers running amok against an undercooked England batting line-up more used to failure than success.
Joe Root’s England were bowled all out for 147 on day one of the first Ashes Test in Brisbane
Pat Cummins claimed a five-for on his debut as Australia’s Test captain on Wednesday
There were, it’s true, moments of encouragement for the tourists. Haseeb Hameed showed patience and guts to bat through a traumatic opening session, while Jos Buttler made a counter-attacking 39 and Ollie Pope a mature 35.
But that was pretty well it on a day when Australia confirmed their pre-series status as favourites – and cemented the Gabba’s reputation as a venue of harsh reality checks for English ambition.
In 1994-95, Michael Slater cut Phil DeFreitas’s first ball of the series for four. In 2006-07, Steve Harmison’s opening delivery fetched up in the slips. And if Andrew Strauss’s first-over dismissal in 2010-11 gave way to a happier English narrative, then it’s hard on this evidence to see how Burns’s golden duck will prove anything other than a miserable omen.
To compound the sense of yet more Pommie haplessness at a ground where they have won twice in 20 attempts since the Second World War, the mid-afternoon drinks were carried on by Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, both said to be fit yet neither required – other than to mix the cordial.
Captain Joe Root (left) won the toss, elected to bat and dropped Stuart Broad in his team
If England, who wanted to find room for the left-arm spin of Jack Leach, really can afford to leave out 1,156 Test wickets’ worth of experience and knowhow, then good luck to them.
In the event, they wouldn’t have been needed much anyway, as the storms that have dogged the Gold Coast for the past fortnight finally returned to the Gabba. On a day when everything went right for Australia, even the weather was on their side, sparing their top order a post-tea probing in perilous conditions.
But let us not make excuses: from the start, England provided little justification for Root’s decision to bat on a green surface whose preparation had been hampered by the weather.
Was it bold? Definitely. Was it foolhardy? Probably. Regardless, there was only one way for England to lose the Test on the first day, and that was by batting in helpful conditions against Australia’s world-class attack.
Root’s game plan was undone when Rory Burns was clean bowled by Mitchell Starc first ball
Starc (right) celebrated only the fourth time in history a wicket has been made on first ball
The procession began when Burns planted his front foot outside off stump to Mitchell Starc’s first ball, which unhelpfully zeroed in on the base of leg. Bowled ignominiously behind his pads, Burns became the second player – after Derbyshire’s Stan Worthington, also at the Gabba, in 1936-37 – to fall to an Ashes series’ opening delivery.
It was his sixth duck of 2021, a Test record for a calendar year, and the 17th by a member of England’s wobbly top three.
Then, after Dawid Malan fended Josh Hazlewood to Alex Carey for six, providing the debutant wicketkeeper with the first catch of his Test career, Australia plunged a dagger into English hearts.
All year, Root has operated on a different plane from his team-mates, notching six hundreds – four of them 180 or more – and papering over gaping cracks.
Josh Hazlewood then claimed wickets off Dawid Malan, then captain Root for the eighth time
Ben Stokes then fell at 29-4 on the England talisman’s Test cricket return after six months away
But Hazlewood had his number, and soon found his edge. When David Warner at first slip did the rest, Root had a new Test nemesis: Hazlewood has now removed him eight times, more than any other bowler. As recoiling in disappointment, Root’s average dropped back below 50.
Eleven for three soon became 29 for four when Ben Stokes, in his first international appearance since July, was squared up by Cummins and caught low down at third slip by Marnus Labuschagne for five.
From there, England did show a bit of pluck. Hameed, his emphasis on survival, reached lunch on 25, only to fall in the first over after the break as he thrust low hands at Cummins and was caught by Steve Smith at second slip.
Opener Haseeb Hameed (above) helped England get to lunch but fell shortly after lunch
Jos Buttler (right) and Ollie Pope (left) hit a 50-run partnership but were both dismissed
Australia captain Cummins cleaned up England’s tail to get the visitors all out for 147
Then Buttler lived up to his pledge to go after the bowling, repeatedly going over the top as if trying to revive his murderous unbeaten 71 off 32 balls against roughly the same attack at the T20 World Cup in Dubai.
Pope kept him level-headed company in a stand of 52, but from 112 for five the innings went into freefall. Starc had Buttler caught behind, and Pope spooned a pull to fine leg, where Hazlewood held the first of two excellent tumbling catches to give Cameron Green his first Test wicket.
Ollie Robinson drove tamely at Cummins to register the third duck of the innings and the 46th of England’s year (their record of 54 in 1998 looks eminently breakable), before Cummins bounced out Mark Wood and Chris Woakes.
It was the 10th time they have been dismissed for under 200 this year – barely a basis for negotiation, let alone the foundations of an Ashes-winning bid. Almost before they have begun, England are chasing their tails.
TOP SPIN AT THE TEST – AUSTRALIA VS ENGLAND FIRST TEST, DAY ONE
By Lawrence Booth in Australia
Rory Burns’s sixth duck of 2021 was a Test record for a calendar year, taking him one clear of Indian opener Pankaj Roy (1952), and former England captain Mike Atherton (1998).
Only one player before Burns had fallen to the first ball of an Ashes series. Derbyshire’s Stan Worthington was caught behind by Bert Oldfield off Ernie McCormick, also at the Gabba, in 1936-37.
Joe Root became the 19th England player to make a duck this year, before Ollie Robinson took the team’s total to 46. Their record is 54 in 1998.
Josh Hazlewood has now dismissed Root eight times in Tests, more than any other bowler. Joint-second on seven are two team-mates: Australia’s new captain Pat Cummins and off-spinner Nathan Lyon.
Cummins’s sixth Test five-for was his first against England. In all, he has 169 wickets at an outstanding 21 apiece.
England have not won at the Gabba since Ian Botham made a first-innings century in 1986-87. Since then, they have lost six out of eight, with one of their two draws reliant on a final-afternoon thunderstorm in 1998-99.