Saturday 17 August 2019

Brutal first Ashes over can rattle best of batsmen

Australia's Mitchell Starc. Photo: Getty
Australia's Mitchell Starc. Photo: Getty

Paul Hayward

We should know by now that sport is never more compelling than when physical risk is introduced.

This explains the creep of dread before a world-title boxing showdown, the guilty thrill of the Ayrton Senna years in Formula One and the start of a first Ashes Test in Australia.

Cricket is game of myriad individual contests involving spin, seam and above all speed, where the dial can strike a point where skill turns into survival.

The point, in other words, that England's batsmen will reach when Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins run in to bowl at the Gabba.

Imagine facing a missile flying too fast to properly see and hard enough to smash your bones.

Here in Brisbane, it may sound as if cricket is in circus barking mode in a plea for relevance at a time when the long-form game is endangered by Twenty20.

It would be a mistake to think the antagonism is confected. The city is alive with threats, premonitions and haunting memories of Mitchell Johnson in 2013-14, with his bandido moustache and hell-fire eyes.

To start where we should, the first ball, first over, and first session are among the most mesmerisingly intense rituals in world sport, especially when batsmen who are cold to the crease must deal with a ball hot from the hand and travelling at 144kmh-plus, from a bounce the brain struggles to compute, such is its sheer velocity.

Trying to decide the hardest job in sport would keep a jury going long into the night. But right up there is facing a new ball from a fired-up Aussie quick on a surface designed to redirect it past your nose like a bullet.

These brutal realities will not stem the mockery, the bloodlust or the disdain when batsmen fail to deal with lightning bolts.

Lest we forget, even if Starc and Cummins can be blunted England will need to negate the precision (and pace) of Josh Hazlewood, and perhaps the spin of Nathan Lyon, who claims the Poms were "scared" of Johnson four years ago.

All this, under unrelenting scrutiny from an audience with no clue of what it takes to be out there for five days with history on your back, and with the natural human fight-or-flight battle raging.

Curiously, the Gabba is a nondescript Meccano ground. The stadium has no aura. Yet the grass burns in the imagination. It takes players to untold extremes.

Signs and symbols will be detected in every ball. Which tells you how the Ashes lift cricket to a higher plane of combat in which truly fast bowling adds a note of terror and panic, physical and professional.

The world sits with a nice cold glass of lager watching men tiptoe around the volcano of their Test careers.

Before it all kicks off, like a scary movie, there should be a pause for us to acknowledge the extraordinary fortitude of everyone who is thrown into such a struggle. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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