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Brisbane beginning sets tone

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The two captains, Steve Smith (L) and Joe Root (R), will be all too aware of the attention and pressure they’ll be under throughout the entire five-Test Ashes series, which gets underway in Brisbane on Thursday. (Reuters)
Michael Slater got Australia off to a great start in 1994. (AP)
Steve Harmison
Nasser Hussain
LONDON: Alberto Salazar, the controversial Cuban-American track coach, is a man of few words. But something he said about the doubts that bedevil even the best would strike a chord with most sports stars: “Standing on the starting line, we’re all cowards.”
In a contest like the Ashes, which stretches over five Tests and a month and a half, the importance of the start can sometimes be overstated. But in recent times, the opening exchanges in Brisbane have had a big bearing on the series outcome. For Australia, who last lost there to the great West Indies side in November 1988, the ‘Gabbatoir’ has become a fortress. They’ve won 21 and drawn seven of their past 28 Tests there, and that sequence includes a couple of matches that were absolutely pivotal in ensuring the Ashes stayed Down Under.
Back in 1994-95, it was Michael Slater who was tasked with facing the first ball of the series, from Phil DeFreitas. It wasn’t a great ball, but it wasn’t terrible either. A bit short, a little wide, the sort of ball nervous opening batsmen would shoulder arms to. Slater, whatever Salazar’s views, was no coward though. He slapped it behind point for four. Australia finished the day on 329 for four, an astronomical score by the standards of the time, as Slater smashed 176 from only 244 balls. They would go on to win the series 3-1.
Eight years later, England’s fate was sealed even before they stepped on to the field, with Nasser Hussain deciding to bowl first on a flat pitch. Matthew Hayden, who once admitted to finding the sound of bat striking ball “addictive,” bludgeoned his way to an unbeaten 186 as Australia closed on 364 for two. This time, Steve Waugh’s side retained the Ashes with a 4-1 margin.
But no one ball has encapsulated England’s Brisbane woes quite like the one Steve Harmison bowled to start the 2006-07 series. It was so wide that Andrew Flintoff, standing at second slip, had to field it. An entire stadium, and millions watching around the world, gasped, before awkward silence gave way to peals of laughter or grimaces, depending on which side you supported.
 “I let the enormity of the occasion get to me ... My whole body was nervous,” Harmison would say later. “I could not get my hands to stop sweating. The first ball slipped out of my hands.”
You have to go back to November 1986, when Ian Botham scored a belligerent 138, for the last time England won at the Gabba. They would take the series too, their third such success on Australian soil in 17 years. Over the next five full series, they would win just three Tests and lose 18.
When that conveyer belt of defeats came to a halt in 2010-11, it was largely because of the resilience shown in Brisbane. Peter Siddle’s opening-day hat-trick, and big hundreds from Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin gave Australia a 221-run lead before stumps on day three. Thousands of Barmy Army supporters must have thought: “Here we go again.”
Instead, Andrew Strauss (110), the captain, set the tone for a remarkable riposte. After his dismissal, Alastair Cook (235*) and Jonathan Trott (135*) added an unbroken 329. England left the Gabba with a draw, and won the series with crushing victories at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
How will they fare this time? Ben Stokes, probably the best all-rounder in the world, remains in the UK as Bristol police complete their investigation into a case of alleged assault. In his absence, Craig Overton, a tall, strapping fast bowler with a first-class batting average of 22, should get the nod to augment the pace trio of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes.
What that quartet don’t have though is the searing pace Australia can serve up. Both Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins can nudge the speedometer past 150 km/hr. Both are also injury-prone, and Australia’s chances of regaining the Ashes depend greatly on nursing them through the series. As crucial will be the form of Josh Hazlewood, whose steadiness and skill summon up memories of the great Glenn McGrath.
That threesome will certainly fancy its chances against a fragile English top order. Cook and Joe Root are the only established names. Mark Stoneman, Gary Balance, James Vince and Dawid Malan have endured difficult starts to their careers. That has left the middle and lower order to shoulder a heavy load. With no Stokes to call on, the pressure on Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali to replicate recent run-scoring feats will be immense.
The last Ashes series in Australia, a 5-0 whitewash, was effectively settled by Mitchell Johnson’s shock-and-awe spells at the Gabba, which saw him finish with match figures of nine for 103. England will need to avoid a similar roughing up at the hands of the other Mitchell, Starc, if they are to have any chance of avoiding the same ignominious result this time around.