Ever since Allan Border’s unfancied Australians were sent in to bat at Headingley in 1989 and demolished England to set up a 4-0 series win, the opening day – if not the first moments – of cricket’s Ashes series have been an eerily accurate indicator of the final ledger.
On Thursday morning at the Gabba in Brisbane, the responsibility for getting Australia off to a potentially series-defining start will rest with either of the most unpredictable players in the game, Mitchell Johnson or David Warner.
If Australia bat, opener Warner will have the chance to show his aggressive capacity to play England out of the game, or even the series. If Australia bowl, fingers will be crossed for Johnson, whose thunderbolts can lurch from unplayable to unwatchable in the space of an over. If Johnson or Warner fire, Australia could be on the path to regaining the Ashes for the first time since 2006-07. If not, the drought could continue.
Weight of a nation on his shoulders: Mitchell Johnson. Photo: Getty Images
”That’s part of the intrigue of these Tests, that the early ascendancy is so important,” former Test batsman Michael Slater says. ”History suggests that if you don’t get it, it can be hard to get back into the series.”
From Slater’s first-ball boundary in 1994, which sparked a 3-1 series win, to England bowler Steve Harmison’s infamous first-ball wide to second slip in
2006, which ended in a 5-0 drubbing, the impact of an unforgiving minute in November has often resonated well into the new year. ”You set a scene on the opening day of an Ashes series,” Slater says. ”Even though the series is five Test matches long, you carry the flow from that first day, or the first session. It’s about someone standing up at the right time. It’s about the occasion and someone grabbing it.”
Slater did so at the Gabba five years after Border’s side’s famous win. Charged with tension, he smashed the first delivery from paceman Phil DeFreitas to the boundary between gully and point. It was the first ball of a five-Test series, but it was decisive. Slater made 176.
Oozing confidence, the Australians won by 184 runs and later claimed the series 3-1. ”I channelled my nervous energy in a positive way,” the Channel Nine commentator says. ”And you could almost see their shoulders slump when we got going.”
In 2002-03 day one arguably cost England the series. Captain Nasser Hussain’s decision to send Australia in ended with the host on 2-364, Matthew Hayden dropped several times on his way to 186 not out and English strike bowler Simon Jones suffering a serious knee injury. Australia won the series 4-1.
In 2005, England finally got it right. On the opening morning Harmison struck Justin Langer’s elbow and bloodied Ricky Ponting’s cheek with a bouncer before dismissing the captain. It set up a memorable England win. The Australians spent 18 months plotting their revenge and Harmison gave it to them on a platter. To start the first session on the 2006-07 Ashes, he bowled a delivery so wide, it was taken by Andrew Flintoff at second slip. Australia won the series 5-0.