It had been an interminable wait for this series to begin. For England it arrived much too soon. There was a grotesque combination of stage fright, fluffed lines and pratfalls the like of which had been seen previously only in church hall amateur dramatics. Whatever happens in the next seven weeks (and plenty might) the manner in which the tourists emerged on the opening day will remain an abiding memory.
Holders of the Ashes, one of the greatest of all sporting prizes, in the most eagerly awaited, lip-smacking series of all time? You had to be kidding. If it had been an audition they would have failed it with flying colours; unfortunately it was the real thing.
It made for a strangely muted atmosphere. For too long, it was like watching Test cricket between these countries of not long ago (i.e. pre-2005) when spectators pitched up to the ground expecting humiliation for one of the sides, which was never Australia.
The day was marked by two extreme performances. Ricky Ponting, the world's best batsman, did what he does and scored a hundred. It was magisterial and it was never in doubt. It put level with Steve Waugh as Australia's leading scorer of Test centuries on 32. It was his sixth against England, his fourth at the Gabba and maybe the most inevitable.
But no Englishman on this day will remember Ponting first. Down the years, the opening day of the 2006-07 Ashes series will be recalled for its first ball and how that influenced the ensuing proceedings. It was bowled by Stephen Harmison, palpably nervous at the top of his run. Inconceivably, it veered inexorably into the hands of Andrew Flintoff at second slip.
The ground, never quite full despite the scalpers lowering their prices, was still settling down, becoming accustomed to the start of the match. But a befuddled silence descended. The first reaction was to laugh because it was so bizarre but sympathy and anger were not far behind.
Harmison, it was felt by those who know the man, had to start well to bowl well and this was the worst augury. Almost everything it portended came true. He improved (he had to), but he was allowed only 12 overs in the day and when the second new ball was taken his friend Flintoff did not seek him out. Harmison spent most of the day sentenced to the outfield. He did not bowl after the 46th over of the day, more or less halfway. They may as well have asked him to move from third man to third man.
Nobody should forget his inestimable contribution to the Ashes victory but the harsh truth is that his has been a career of decline since his halcyon days as number one bowler in the world two and half years ago. His international career comes in several segments but it is worth comparing its two halves.
The first of 23 matches ended at the close of the 2004 English season. True, he had taken his time to learn about Test cricket but by then he was in his pomp: he had taken 102 Test wickets at 24.34 apiece. This is his 23rd match since and by yesterday's close he had 77 wickets at 34.88.
Harmison is a diffident man and a hostile bowler. That pair have never been happy bedfellows, though for a while he reached a happy compromise. It was vital to England's cause that he came into this match at full throttle. He had ground to make up. In withdrawing from last week's match against South Australia, he had pleased neither management nor team-mates. Several net sessions in which he bowled like the wind seemed to suggest he was ready. But when the time came he was undone by the biggest enemy of the public performer. It had nothing essentially to with lack of preparation or willingness. Maybe Harmison knew he could not do it anymore.
England could find excuses because there was no early movement of either the swing or seam variety. This emasculated all their bowlers to varying degrees. Hoggard was game but his pace allied to the lack of movement allowed him to pose scant threat. James Anderson appeared to be afflicted by nerves similar to those of Harmison and bowled too short.
Two bowlers were honourable exceptions. In the circumstances, Flintoff was monumental. He removed the openers who had started with such authority and kept the batsmen honest.
And then there was Ashley Giles. He was, at the least, a contentious selection because Monty Panesar not only looked the part of an attacking left-arm spin bowler but also because he had endeared himself to the nation. It had been 364 days since his last Test match. If nothing else, Giles' performance was testimony both to a resilient character and the worth of bowling over after over in the nets. He came round the wicket all day in a way that was unthinkable, say, 364 days ago and still played a holding role.
Giles deserved his wicket (Damien Martyn chopping one to slip) and he could have had another when Ponting, on 82, was beaten on the sweep shot. It might have been given on another day and as umpire Billy Bowden took a finger from his pocket and raised it skywards, it seemed it might be given on this. He merely scratched his left eyebrow. Either he was grandstanding or had an itch so powerful he ought to be considering treatment. Giles was getting turn. The downside to this was a recation from someone in the pavilion with, as Ponting said later, his eyes lighting up. His name was Shane Warne.
That would have ended a burgeoning stand for the fourth wicket with Mike Hussey. It speaks volumes for Hussey that he was barely less impressive than his captain. The innings was his ninth score of above 50 in only 12 Test matches.
Giles said later, reflecting on the performance: "This side doesn't lie down." But the only kind of stand-up this resembled was of the comic variety.
I have been there too, and it is a horrible experience
Angus Fraser, the Independent's cricket correspondent, remembers his own first-ball nightmare
Stephen Harmison is not the first fast bowler to begin a Test match with an appalling delivery, and he will not be the last. A similar thing happened to me at Lord's in 1998 when I bowled the first ball of a Test to Adam Bacher of South Africa. The delivery I sent down did not go straight to second slip but it was a knee high full-toss that Alec Stewart, England's wicketkeeper, had to dive full length to his right to catch.
There were genuine reasons for my waywardness. As I approached the crease I lost my run-up and the ball slipped out of my hand at the moment of release. Nevertheless, it was a horrible experience. At the time I had more than 150 Test wickets to my name and had bowled tens of thousands of deliveries.
The next ball was tough to bowl because the experience of the previous delivery was alien to me. All I wanted to do was get it somewhere near the spot I was aiming for and fortunately I did. The over passed without further incident and normality returned, but the fact that I remember it vividly highlights how one error can prey on your mind.
Had Andrew Flintoff or Matthew Hoggard bowled the same there would have been comment, but the character of these individuals would not have been examined to the same extent. The pair are temperamentally strong and the error would have been viewed as a one-off. But this is not the first time that Harmison has bowled such a ball in an opening over, and that is why there is cause for his concern.
The ball, and Harmison's reaction - two overs that conceded 17 runs - emphasised just how vulnerable the 28 year-old is at the moment. Protecting him will not help. Harmison needs to bowl and he needs to take wickets. They are the only cure.
First day of five; Australia won toss
Australia - First Innings
J L Langer c Pietersen b Flintoff 82
138 min, 98 balls, 13 fours
M L Hayden c Collingwood b Flintoff 21
88 min, 47 balls, 2 fours
*R T Ponting not out 137
301 min, 206 balls, 17 fours
D R Martyn c Collingwood b Giles 29
78 min, 62 balls, 2 fours
M E K Hussey not out 63
172 min, 133 balls, 5 fours
Extras (lb5 w3 nb6) 14
Total (for 3, 390 min, 90 overs) 346
Fall: 1-79 (Hayden) 2-141 (Langer) 3-198 (Martyn).
To bat: M J Clarke, ÝA C Gilchrist, S K Warne, B Lee, S R Clark, G D McGrath.
Bowling: Harmison 12-2-52-0 (w2) (2-0-17-0, 4-0-20-0, 6-2-15-0); Hoggard 16-2-62-0 (nb1) (5-2-17-0, 1-0-10-0, 3-0-15-0, 5-0-17-0, 2-0-3-0); Anderson 18-4-88-0 (w1) (6-2-22-0, 5-1-33-0, 4-0-23-0, 3-1-10-0); Flintoff 16-2-48-2 (nb3) (2-0-10-0, 4-0-8-1, 4-2-12-1, 3-0-10-0, 2-0-7-0, 1-0-1-0); Giles 18-2-51-1 (1-0-1-0, 13-2-41-1, 4-0-9-0); Bell 1-0-12-0 (nb2); Pietersen 9-1-28-0 (one spell each).
Progress: First day: 50: 46 min, 10.2 overs. 100: 111 min, 23.1 overs. Lunch: 109-1 (Langer 68, Ponting 11) 25 overs. 150: 160 min, 33.5 overs. 200: 225 min, 49 overs. Tea: 217-3 (Ponting 63, Hussey 10) 52 overs. 250: 272 min, 60.4 overs. 300: 319 min, 72 overs. New ball taken after 84 overs at 332-3.
Langer's 50: 87 min, 65 balls, 8 fours. Ponting's 50: 105 min, 65 balls, 7 fours. 100: 201 min, 136 balls, 15 fours. Hussey's 50: 124 min, 94 balls, 4 fours.
England: A J Strauss, A N Cook, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, *A Flintoff, ÝG O Jones, A F Giles, M J Hoggard, S J Harmison, J M Anderson.
Umpires: B F Bowden (NZ) and S A Bucknor (WI).
TV replay umpire: P D Parker.
Match referee: J J Crowe.Reuse content