There are sports in which 147 is an excellent, even perfect, score. Test cricket, especially on the opening day of the Ashes, is not one of them. England are not quite snookered yet, but it is a long way back from a first day like this in Australia, their most taxing tour.
Much was made of the battle of the two captains, the ICC’s No1-ranked bowler, Pat Cummins, new to the job, and the No1-ranked batter, Joe Root, looking to become an Ashes-winning captain at the third time of asking.
The first act could not have been won more emphatically by Cummins. Root won the toss, to the relief of Cummins, who was uncertain what to do. He opted to bat and, in an almost impossibly dramatic opening, watched his senior opener bowled first ball, found himself at the crease a couple of overs later, and gone without scoring not long after that.
His team were bowled out for 147, at which point the forecast rain finally arrived. By the time it passed, bad light prevented play resuming, and stumps were called.
In helpful conditions, Root’s bowlers were therefore denied a chance to get England back into the game, and dampen the fuss around the decision to leave out James Anderson and Stuart Broad for the first time in 37 Ashes Tests.
That was grounded in some logic – the desire to protect two men in the autumn of their careers at risk of muscle injuries – but if England lose heavily in these conditions, which would have suited them, the noise will be as deafening as the thunder heard at the Gabba this afternoon.
The only moment that did not go right for Cummins, meanwhile, was when he brought himself on with the express intention of dismissing Root, as he has seven times in Test cricket.
Before he bowled a ball at the England captain, Josh Hazlewood had sent one down just where Root does not like it, and nicked him off. It was the eighth time Hazlewood had got Root and, with Rory Burns and Dawid Malan already gone, England were 11 for three. It was the start of nervous, undercooked tourists.
Root’s was his first nought of a golden year. The trouble is, he is the 19th Englishman to record a Test duck this year. With Burns (for a record sixth time) and Ollie Robinson suffering the same fate, England now have 46 this year. They will now surely break their own record of 54, recorded in 1998.
For the first time in Test cricket since March, out strode Ben Stokes, wearing a touching tribute to his father Ged, who passed away a year ago today. England’s players were all wearing black armbands in memory of Eileen Ash, the former player who died aged 110 recently. On his Stokes had scrawled 568, the New Zealand rugby league cap number of his father.
As Stokes looked comfortable at the crease, it was easy to consider it destiny that he would rescue England once more. But he became Cummins’ first scalp, squared up and caught in the slips when he did not need to play (as Malan had been). The pitch was green and bouncy, but a little slow. England were in a deep hole.
Together came Haseeb Hameed and Ollie Pope, at 29 for four. The two young men, both on Ashes debut, played nicely, making it to the break without further loss. Alas, Cummins had Hameed caught at slip four balls after lunch.
Jos Buttler dominated his partnership of 52 with Pope, and took the attack to the Australians. Hazlewood had figures of 7-4-3-2 in the morning session, but Buttler launched a series of audacious boundaries that forced a brief rethink from Australia’s new leadership team. They even made an incorrect DRS call.
But just as English belief began to build, Mitchell Starc – who had given them that dream start with the wicket of Burns – had Buttler caught behind.
Australia bounced England’s last few out, as they did four years ago. Pope, having played so judiciously, recklessly hooked to long leg to give the rangy all-rounder Cameron Green a maiden Test wicket, something India managed to avoid throughout a four-Test series last winter.
To complete his first five-fer against England, Cummins swept up the seamers, Ollie Robinson, Mark Wood, and finally Chris Woakes, who – like Pope – was very well caught by Hazlewood. Australia had caught brilliantly, in the cordon and in the deep.
As the rain set in, Cummins capped a dream first day as skipper by challenging himself with the newspaper’s cryptic crossword. Root has an even more vexing quandary. When play resumes half an hour early tonight, England have no time to waste.