On the surface, things don’t look great for England.
Their tail appears as if it will fall over in a strong breeze, they need a score from opener Alastair Cook and the only cricket Ben Stokes is likely to play is in New Zealand.
But there are reasons to be optimistic. Honest.
They competed strongly at the Gabba
Few gave England much hope before they departed for Australia. No Stokes, a largely unproven top five and a bowling attack lacking genuine pace.
Even for those who had high hopes that the Ashes could be defended, was there really an expectation of a result at the Gabba, a ground where Australia haven’t lost since 1988?
But for three and a half days, England were right in there, competing, with more than a sniff of pulling off a shock in what could have been an Ashes classic.
Instead, the key moments were either given away or gifted to the Australians: the James Vince run-out, two lower-order collapses, baffling tactical decisions when Australia were seven wickets down, some dodgy line-painting resulting in Moeen Ali’s stumping.
Still, there was enough evidence to suggest that the two sides could be evenly matched.
“Those first three days were compelling cricket,” said former Australia pace bowler Glenn McGrath.
“England will feel like they had opportunities but didn’t take them. For Australia to win by 10 wickets was not a fair reflection of the game.”
Now all England have to do is improve on a record that has seen them win the Ashes only twice when they have lost the first Test on Australian soil.
The ‘unprovens’ played their part
For what seems to be as long as living memory, England have had holes in their top five.
At the Gabba, their top order included three Ashes debutants with only 15 Tests between them. In the case of Vince, he was getting a second chance at Test cricket despite a modest summer in the County Championship.
But Vince, Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan gave good accounts of themselves, making half-centuries in the first innings.
Vince had Australia on toast before he was run out, ditto for Malan before he daftly hooked Mitchell Starc to deep square leg. In the second innings, Stoneman bravely survived a torrid hour on the third evening when the Australia pace bowlers were dishing out legalised violence.
The challenge for the three rookies – and the rest of the top order – is to convert the good starts. Seven England players reached 38 at the Gabba, but Vince’s 83 was the highest score.
“The guys who are new to Ashes cricket played really well in the first innings,” said former England batsman Geoffrey Boycott,
“The biggest problem is that no-one went on to make a hundred. Pretty 20s, 30s or 40s rarely win matches.”
Australia’s batting is fallible
Where would Australia have been without Steve Smith?
The captain shuffled, shovelled and steeled his way to 141 not out in an epic Ashes knock, marshalling Australia’s recovery from 76-4 and 209-7.
Still, it only served to mask the problems in the home top order that were suspected before the Test began.
Usman Khawaja has issues with off-spin, Peter Handscomb looks a strong leg-before candidate, Shaun Marsh is in his umpteenth incarnation as a Test cricketer and Tim Paine hasn’t made a first-class century since Joe Root was in high school.
The real shame for England is that Cameron Bancroft got his Test career up and running with 82 not out in the second innings – but by then the stuffing had been knocked out of the tourists.
“Bancroft played well in the second innings, but if the ball moves I feel England can snick him off,” said former Ashes-winning England captain Michael Vaughan.
“Khawaja is a walking wicket against off-spin, England will bowl full and straight to Handscomb and Marsh flatters to deceive. There are plenty of chinks in the top seven.”
If they can just find a way past Smith…
Anderson and Broad are purring
It may seem a given that two fast bowlers with 899 Test wickets between them are dangerous wherever they play, but Anderson and Stuart Broad haven’t always had the happiest time in Australia.
Anderson, part of 5-0 defeats in 2006-07 and 2013-14, averages 38.44 with the ball down under. Broad’s record is better – he averages 31.07 – but he has tasted victory only once in eight Tests.
At the Gabba, though, both men provided a genuine threat, especially with the two new balls taken in the Australia first innings.
They returned a combined 5-99, with Anderson bafflingly underbowled at the Australia tail, a move captain Root later described as a mistake.
Australia recognised it too, with Bancroft and David Warner showing them the utmost respect in the second innings before tucking into the back-up bowlers.
“The big guns bowled really well on what was a tough pitch to bowl fast,” said former England spinner Phil Tufnell.
“The ball barely swung, so they had to adjust line and lengths, and they ran in hard throughout.”
Providing they stay fit, there are signs that Anderson and Broad can be potent in this series, but they will need support.
It’s Adelaide next
Even those horrified at the thought of the tradition of the Ashes being sullied with floodlights and a pink ball must be aware of the lifeline that day-night conditions in Adelaide represent to England.
The cool weather forecast, the twilight and the pink leather could have Anderson, Broad and co nipping the ball around corners.
The Australia pace bowlers will be helped too – but the day-nighter is a leveller.
Not only could the home pace be negated by the tourists’ skill, but a floodlit Test throws up more variables. Who, for example, will have the misfortune of batting in the difficult light of the fading sun?
“It’s dropped nicely for England. This is the opportunity to bounce back,” said Tufnell.
“If it the ball moves around, that will bring the teams closer together. They need a little luck, but they can definitely win that match.”
A win in Adelaide looks essential to England’s hopes of retaining the Ashes, especially with the third Ashes Test at the Waca, where they have not won since 1978, to follow.
Lose in Adelaide and the murmurs of a whitewash will grow louder. But it’s too early to be talking about that…