Mitchell Johnson is a key to Australia's attack. Image courtesy of dailytelegraph.com.au/AFP
Not since Sir Vivian Richards last led his all-conquering West Indies team to the ‘Gabba has a touring side come away with victory in Brisbane’s eastern suburbs. The Windies won that test in 1988 by nine wickets inside four days and had the Sir Frank Worrall Trophy wrapped up by the New Year. Since then, plenty of touring teams have come unstuck at the start of the summer; amongst them a couple of England teams, including Nasser Hussain’s side in 2002 when side spent day one chasing leather after the skipper erred in sending Australia in to bat, and then again in 2006 when Steve Harmison sent the first ball of the Test in to Andrew Flintoff’s bread basket, almost unbelievably, at second slip.
Since last winning in Brisbane in 1986, England has managed come away with just two draws from six visits. In one of those games they were saved by a last day thunderstorm, and the other draw came when the tourists amassed a stunning 1/517 declared in the second innings after trailing by 221 runs after the first dig.
The weather might play a big part in the opening stoush of the 2013-14 series with rain predicted for the first three days of the match. In saying that, last time Australia got sent in on a wet day in an Ashes Test Down Under, the home side was rolled for a paltry 98 in Melbourne in the 2010 Boxing Day Test, in a match England won embarrassingly easily by an innings and 157 runs. Although the ‘Gabba pitch has tended to dry out more in recent years, the heavy conditions will ensure the deck is anything but a featherbed come the last couple of days.
There are question marks over both teams heading in to the Test. Australia is taking a calculated risk by picking Mitchell Johnson . He was a tormented soul in the UK in 2009 but on England’s last tour he produced one of the great Ashes spells in Perth on his way to figures of 6/38 in the only Test Australia won in that series. He knows this ground well having played most of his career for his home state of Queensland, and in four Tests there he has taken 17 wickets at an average of just 26.
Ryan Harris is always an injury concern and missed a couple of months after injuring his hamstring in August, but the big quick will play a massive role in this series if he can stay fit. The 34-year-old has 71 wickets at an average of just 22 from 16 Tests, but just five of those have been played in his home country. An adopted Queenslander, he is yet to play at Test in front of his home crowd. He has 35 wickets from seven Tests against the old enemy and he was phenomenal in England’s series win earlier this year collecting 24 scalps at 19. Peter Siddle was very good in the opening Test of that series but didn’t have the same impact as time wore on, but he will take happy memories of playing England in Brisbane after picking up a hat-trick there on the opening day back in 2010.
Australia’s batting line-up is relatively settled with George Bailey set to make his debut after terrorising India during the recent one-day series. He has been steady without going on to make any big scores in two Sheffield Shield matches since he returned home. Skipper Michael Clarke has a love affair with the ‘Gabba; in nine Tests there he has tallied 916 runs at a Bradman-esque average of 114, including four centuries.
After he was mercilessly probed outside off stump by the likes of Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark on his first tour of Australia, Alastair Cook made the host nation pay when he returned in 2010. He amassed 766 runs in the series with three centuries at an average of 127. He was well held in England with just three 50s to his credit and a highest score of 62, and exposing the middle order early will be a key to Australia’s success.
Graeme Swann was a match-winner on some dusty decks in the Old Dart during our winter, but with more right-handers in Australia’s line-up, he should be less effective here. He averaged almost 40 with the ball on his first tour here last time around. Shane Warne had a brilliant record at the ‘Gabba, but finger spinners have had limited success, and even the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan left Brisbane with some not-so-flattering figures in the past. James Anderson showed he had learnt a lot from his previous visits when he was the leading wicket-taker with 24 in the last series.
Normally a score of 400-plus is considered par for the course in Brisbane, but batting first hasn’t been easy in recent seasons. South Africa and Australia’s batsmen dominated on a flat track last season, but prior to that, three of the four previous teams batting first failed to pass 300.
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