For a while it all went quiet out there, too damn quiet – at least for the Australians.
After all the braggadocio in the build-up to this series, the actual cricket seemed to be taking place in a library. Seldom can 30,000 assembled Aussies have been so hushed. But in the final session of a rain-affected day the crowd found their voice as their team snaffled the vital wicket.
As the sun dipped below the stands in Brisbane, Joe Root was dismissed by Pat Cummins and there was a roar in the stands and embraces in the field. England's captain had gone and the tenacity displayed by two Ashes newcomers, James Vince and Mark Stoneman – both of whom recorded their career bests in Test cricket – was in danger of being squandered. England finished a tense and absorbing opening day on 196-4.
Vince and Stoneman had, at the very least, prevented a calamitous start for the tourists with their 125-run partnership from 53 overs, which was sometimes painstaking and always diligent. With admirable composure they managed to allay the nerves of a dressing room which had witnessed the loss of their most experienced batsman, Alastair Cook, in the third over of the day.
Vince played his best England innings by a country mile, which ended with the pursuit of an ill-judged single and a direct hit from cover by Nathan Lyon. Vince had 83 at the time and had looked set for many more. Nonetheless, here was a remarkable early vindication of a controversial choice for this tour. From the safety of the press box we happily criticise selectors when their men falter, so in these circumstances they are due a public pat on the back.
Vince will have batted in more taxing conditions. The Gabba pitch was true but surprisingly slow, not quite what the Aussies were craving from Kevin Mitchell Jr’s last strip – maybe the unseasonably cool weather has contributed to that. There is always a peculiar tension to an Ashes opener and Vince, until he pushed to cover and ran, dealt with that in the most matter-of fact manner. So too did Stoneman even though he never achieved the fluency of his partner while accumulating 53 runs from 53 overs. Indeed the great virtue of Stoneman’s knock was that he struggled for timing throughout, yet battled on regardless.
By contrast Vince’s strokeplay was often silky. That cover drive, so often exasperating rather than enchanting throughout his brief Test career, was working well. He first impressed Duncan Fletcher with his trademark shot almost a decade ago but in Test cricket his strongest stroke had become his greatest vulnerability. Not at the Gabba on Thursday.
Throughout his innings Vince’s footwork was precise and decisive, which was not the case in Cook’s brief knock. The timing of his pre-delivery movements were all awry against Starc. The opener was still moving forward with his right foot no further than the popping crease when he tried to make contact with a full-length delivery. Cook was out of control with his bat way in front of his body and he edged to first slip where Peter Handscomb held a neat catch.
Vince earned his first boundary with a cover drive, and this was where he would score the vast majority of his runs. The Australian bowlers invited the cover drive – understandably so given Vince’s record – and those invitations were readily accepted.
There were not many other thrills or frills in a hard-fought morning. At lunch England were 59-1 from 29 overs and the off-spinner, Lyon, who had already bowled six overs, was arguably more challenging than any of his fast bowling colleagues.
Then it rained for almost 90 minutes, not proper Brisbane rain but gentle April showers that stubbornly refused to go away. Upon the resumption the partnership continued to flourish,and Stoneman hung in like an old pro. Aside from his helmet he would not have looked out of place back in 1970, when Brian Luckhurst made his England debut here at the age of 31 and scored runs with John Edrich. Somehow, Stoneman was redolent of those two old English battlers.
The ball seldom beat the bat in that afternoon stretch. Vince played and missed no more than three times – twice with attempted cover drives, of course. The first lbw appeal, a poor one, came from Cummins in the 47th over. Then Vince, on 68, was dropped by Tim Paine behind the stumps off Lyon, a moment the Aussie selectors would not have enjoyed.
It was not going to plan for the hosts, but they were able to claw their way back either side of a late tea interval. Pat Cummins, while never hitting the anticipated 150kph (93mph) mark , began to trouble Stoneman when bowling around the wicket. Soon enough, a full-length delivery darted between bat and pad, and Root came to the crease, surviving four deliveries before the interval.
Vince and Root briefly hinted at acceleration. Throughout the day England had progressed at little more than two runs an over thanks to a lush outfield and disciplined bowling, especially from Starc and Lyon, who also conjured some turn. Yet it was Lyon the fielder who dispensed with Vince. The projected single may have been ill-judged but the throw had to hit the stumps, and to Vince’s despair it did.
England were now becalmed. Root lost his impishness, partner Dawid Malan was wary and Cummins found more rhythm. A full-length ball found Root falling over to the off side and the ball thudded into his front pad. Marais Erasmus gave Root not out, but Australia reviewed and the captain was palpably lbw. England were wilting and grateful for a plucky unbeaten stand of 33 between Malan and their new number six, Moeen Ali. Malan survived a late lbw review from Mitchell Starc as the tourists repelled the second new ball before stumps.