The way Ricky Ponting rang the five-minute bell foretold all that was to come. It was a peremptory, no nonsense, no-time-for-ceremonies plu-ck on the rope, which seemed to say the team he once led were impatient to get out there and take up arms. When they had finally laid them down, centurions Chris Rogers and Steve Smith both undefeated, the scorecard conjured memories of the 1993 Ashes Lord’s Test, in which three Australia batsmen ventured deep into three figures, Mark Waugh perished one short of that landmark, and the touring side reached well over 600 runs for the loss of four wickets.
Ponting fretted before play began that his successor Michael Clarke would not try too hard and not “want it too much” though even he and his clear sense of purpose could not have anticipated that the man would watch from a distance the entire day.
Rummage around a little in the small details of 337 for 1 and there is no small measure of solace for England. It was gone 4pm, the sun was high and the living was easy for Rogers and Smith when Stuart Broad came back at 86mph to locate more carry, more reach and the novel concept of sideways movement down the slope, in a fleeting humidity. That collective lot was well beyond the capabilities of Rogers, however well set the opening batsman.
You could also say that Jimmy Anderson’s second-session encounter with Smith was the day’s high noon period; a 45-minute game of bluff in which the bowler brought an opponent clucking incrementally further across his stumps, in that fussy fashion of his, then deposited a ball at the base of his leg stump. A game plan for every batsman and a back-up plan for most: that’s Trevor Bayliss’s England for you. Such are the reasons why Anderson and Broad have opened England’s bowling together more than any others and are destined to match the most ubiquitous pair ever to lead an attack – Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis – if, as is most likely, they lead the line for the 53rd time when this contest migrates to Nottingham.
Neither was this a day when all around them looked like they had put down their belief and forgotten where. Alastair Cook was plotting solutions to the docile pitch throughout. There was even a silly point for Adam Lyth’s brief turn of off-spin. Cook was still distributing instructions at the last drinks break. There were nods of consent as he mustered his team and talked: no one forlorn; no eyes fixed on boots.
And yet for all this, we seemed to have travelled into a different world – not just a different country – from that sunlit place near the South Glamorgan coast where catches stuck and slipped in synchrony with England’s first advances into this series, last week. Broad’s unplayable efforts sailed past Rodgers’ bat. Smith jammed his own down on that Anderson leg-stump missile. A Broad ball which traced across Rogers’ outside edge, three balls from the close, was played with soft enough hands by Rogers to die just short of Ian Bell in the slip cordon. The most significant part of Broad’s discussion of this Test had been his observation that luck of that Welsh variety could not possibly last. His words were more prescient than he would have hoped.
Everyone seemed to feel that. These Ashes seemed finally to have found their true realm as the 28,500 seats were filled, yet the galleries were more muted. None of the declarations of love for England which emanated from the flat stands of Cardiff. There was not even sound from the big screen to accompany the day’s advertisements and films which remained weirdly stuck in the silent era – by order of the management, apparently.
It was the summer’s first journey into the reality of Ashes Test cricket: a place where partnerships are compiled over six hours, not one, and where runs are a process of accretion. It is a land of small margins, where the talk about landing every catch is more than propaganda. England were hardly profligate. There was just the low, feathered ball by Rogers, on 50, for which Bell seemed too far back on his heels to reach.
Then the far slimmer opportunity – more technicality than chance – which evaded Jos Buttler, with Rogers at 78.
More significant than what has just passed on a docile pitch is what lies ahead next for England. The dynamics are difficult when there are 300 runs on the board and a wicket down. Australia can expect to accumulate 550 at least and that creates a very different land of opportunity for the bowlers.
Mitchell Johnson will have the surety of a vast total, as well as the Lord’s slope, to speed him on his way from the Pavilion End, sometime late on Saturday. We should expect that it will take more than the cavalier spirit of the new England to quell him. Centuries will need to be compiled, not crashed; a process of endurance with caution threaded through the middle order’s ambition, because Australia are not about to post a total that cannot be wafted away with impunity. We are asking for depths in this young side which have yet to be seen.
The landscape looks considerably better than it did in the summer of ’93, when the team was already engulfed by a national outcry over its performances – six successive defeats – and did not even possess a sense of purpose about whether Graham Gooch was fit to captain the side through the summer. From a first day close of 292 for 2 – 45 less runs than this – Australia accumulated an almighty 632 for 4, then bowled out England for 205 and 365. Only Michael Atherton’s runs – 80 in the first innings, 99 in the second – offered any degree of resistance.
Expectation demands more this time. Centurions, gladiators and national heroes are needed. Victorious Ashes summers were never built on anything less.