ALAN MULLALLY'S first day of Test cricket for two years proved to be a bittersweet experience. England born, but Australian raised, Mullally took two early wickets before committing one of the deadly sins in current Ashes cricket - he fumbled a chance to run out Steve Waugh. Not since Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" incident in the Mexico World Cup could a fingertip prove so costly to England's aspirations of winning a major sporting event.
No one knows this more than Mullally, whose upbringing in the Perth grades will have taught him that mistakes are invariably costly. Before this match Mark Taylor, the Australian captain, talked of the big moments that present themselves in every match. Unhappily for England this was one such occasion and through a piece of sloppiness their generally combative cricket was found wanting.
The episode, one of four chances missed, occurred when the Australian score was 149 for 4 and Waugh was batting with Ricky Ponting. Hooking Angus Fraser down to Darren Gough at fine leg, Ponting decided to take two. Waugh, expecting a single, dawdled and was slow to turn. Alec Stewart, having taken Gough's throw, hurled the ball at the bowler's stumps where Mullally stood poised to receive it. In his haste to gather it Mullally disturbed a bail, an action that made all subsequent slow motion replays irrelevant.
"I thought it was going to go over the top," he ruefully admitted later, after television replays had shown that the throw was on course for a direct hit, and would have found Waugh short of his ground. With a giant screen showing the episode ad nauseam, it left the thousand or so England supporters in the sell-out crowd crying into their beer.
England know what it is like to be in the Waugh zone, and the flintier of the twins, 29 at the time, ended the day on 69. To make matters worse he was again missed, just before the close. This time the culprit was Nasser Hussain who spilled the chance at second slip - an easier one than the edge he floored earlier in the day off Michael Slater - as Gough heartily propelled the second new ball.
These were not the only mistakes made by England, as their early advantage was eroded by a combination of Waugh's cussedness and withering strokeplay. Almost as distressing would have been the catch offered by Ian Healy when he was on 36, after a leading edge off Gough taunted Fraser at third man. Put out to grass after a long spell, Fraser was slow to move and he dropped a catch he really should have swallowed.
Until tea, when Australia were 141 for 4, Stewart's men were well placed after Taylor, making his 100th Test appearance, had won the toss and batted. Indeed, if you contrast this to the state of the first day's play four years ago, when Australia finished on 329 for 4, England were competing rather favourably.
Most impressive, at least until the chances in the last session took their toll on morale, was the discipline of the bowlers. Stewart and his coaches have obviously done their homework and Australia were made to work hard.
The upshot was that pressure was created, which eventually translated into wickets: first Slater, who edged a flat-footed drive off Mullally to wide third slip, and then Justin Langer. A stocky left-hander, Langer is an lbw candidate, a theory Gough's late swing proved, despite the suggestion that the ball may have pitched just outside leg stump.
If not quite as consistent as his impassive brother, Mark Waugh, at least when set, is still one of the most dangerous batsmen in world cricket. Fortunately for England he still appeared to be on Karachi time and, apart from one cracking square cut, his scratchy stay was ended when he inside- edged Mullally to Stewart. Even then, the tumbling catch needed ratification from the third umpire.
Two balls later, at the other end, Dominic Cork produced the ball of the day to dismiss Taylor, who had looked certain to add another half- century to his formidable record. Having swung the new ball earlier in the day, Cork got this one to bounce and leave the Australian captain off the pitch, a combination that provided Hussain with the easiest of the three catches that came his way.
With Australia 106 for 4, England had every reason to be cock-a-hoop. But if they have learnt not to relax, they had not reckoned on the might of Waugh. Gritty he may appear, but he is not a grinder and England's bowlers soon felt the force of his off-side strokes as he shepherded Ponting through a 68-run partnership.
At one point, just after tea, bad light forced a 35-minute stoppage. It was a crucial moment, blunting England's momentum and could have been avoided had they agreed to an experimental rule already used in domestic cricket here, of switching on the floodlights. As it was, the stoppage was made up for with time added on at the end of play.
So far there has been a general attempt in Australia to downplay the importance of the Ashes. Waugh, a great scholar of the game, is having none of it and his motivation was clear when he grumpily hooked at a bouncer from Gough. According to seasoned onlookers, the last time Waugh played such a rash shot was in the previous decade.
Unlike Ponting, who succumbed to frustration by thumping Cork straight to Mark Butcher, who took a smart catch at extra cover, Waugh was not tempted again. With Healy now helping to frustrate a tiring attack by playing his shots, his partner consolidated.
Cricket against Australia is about scrapping hard and feeding off morsels. Waugh is a past master at it and if ever there was a disincentive to let chances go begging, watching him and Healy turn around an unpromising situation is it. Australia's tail may be long and their top order vulnerable but, until you break their backbone, they will not lie down.
Australia won toss
AUSTRALIA - First Innings
*M A Taylor c Hussain b Cork 46
191 min, 135 balls, 6 fours
M J Slater c Butcher b Mullally 16
67 min, 40 balls, 2 fours
J L Langer lbw b Gough 8
55 min, 43 balls
M E Waugh c Stewart b Mullally (TV replay) 31
65 min, 50 balls, 3 fours
S R Waugh not out 69
189 min, 131 balls, 10 fours
R T Ponting c Butcher b Cork 21
94 min, 61 balls, 1 four
I A Healy not out 46
92 min, 79 balls, 6 fours
Extras (lb4 nb5) 9
Total (for 5, 379 min, 89 overs) 246
Fall: 1-30 (Slater) 2-59 (Langer) 3-106 (M Waugh) 4-106 (Taylor) 5-178 (Ponting).
To bat: M S Kasprowicz, S C G MacGill, D W Fleming, G D McGrath.
Bowling: Gough 19-4-58-1 (5-2-6-0, 2-0-13-0, 4-2-12-1, 4-0-18-0, 4-0- 9-0); Cork 22-5-56-2 (nb1) (9-4-9-0, 6-1-22-1, 4-0-10-1, 3-0-15-0); Mullally 22-7-64-2 (nb3) (7-2-16-1, 1-0-2-0, 7-2-23-1, 1-0-4-0, 6-3-19-0); Croft 10-4-18-0 (nb1) (4-2-3-0, 2-2-0-0, 4-0-15-0); Fraser 16-5-46-0 (3-1-9- 0, 6-1-23-0, 6-2-14-0. 1-1-0-0).
Progress: First day: 50: 104 min, 24.5 overs. Lunch: 58-1 (Taylor 30, Langer 7) 29 overs. 100: 179 min, 42.3 overs. Tea: 141-4 (S Waugh 26, Ponting 7) 56 overs. Bad light stopped play 3.05-3.41pm at 145-4 (S Waugh 29, Ponting 7) 57.2 overs. 150: 251 min, 58.2 overs. 200: 323 min, 74.4 overs. New ball taken after 81 overs at 222-5. BLSP 5.54pm-close.
S Waugh's 50: 115 min, 80 balls, 7 fours.
ENGLAND: M A Butcher, M A Atherton, N Hussain, *A J Stewart, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, D G Cork, R D B Croft, D Gough, A D Mullally, A R C Fraser.
Umpires: D B Hair and K T Francis.
Compiled by Jo KingReuse content