Half an hour into a lovely clear, sunlit Brisbane morning on day two of the first Ashes Test something extraordinary happened. Actually there were two things. The second of these was the commentators on Fox Sports stopped talking. This was a transformative event in itself, like having some painfully lodged object surgically removed from your inner ear: a toothpick, a kebab skewer, an endlessly burbling babel fish who only speaks 1990s Aussie Test great side-mouth pub chat.
In medieval times there was a widespread belief in trepanning, or literally drilling a hole in your skull, to “remove the pressure” of horrendous pre-aspirin headaches. Listening to that unceasing bloke-bantz – the yes-mate, aw-mate, no-mate – this starts to make some kind of sense. Fetch the drill. Please, somebody, just stop that feeling. Maybe this is why England were so bad in the 90s, the sustained mental disintegration of having to listen to the slip cordon chat among themselves. John Crawley was right. Get me out of here.
The Fox guys (and it is the guys) were derailed by the second thing, which was Mark Wood bowling the fastest spell of the match, at the start of a day that might have brought a few more than only the one wicket, but which was in its own way a kind of fulfilment.
England had already pretty much bodged what chance they had in this game by the time Wood came on to bowl, and done so right from the top. Most obviously there was that wretched showing on day one.
What’s the problem with England’s bowling? Answer: England’s batting. This is a rescue job every time. Just once it would be nice to come out and face tired opponents, running downhill with the wind. But then, the batting is simply the fruit of a system that disdains red-ball cricket, existing things, non-monetisable value, in favour of chasing a buck. A first day 147 all-out. A series already collapsing. This is the legacy-customer product now.
Chuck in poor prep and planning from the coach and captain, and it is through this fog that the players must operate. But they did so with great heart here. What a thrilling, uplifting spectacle it was, out there in the middle of all that colour and light.
There was David Warner’s gorgeously whiskery, beaming evil sheriff’s face, the face of a cartoon tiger who drives a car and robs trains. And there was Wood, the fastest bowler in the world at almost 32 years old, Tiggering in and hitting 91mph first up, smiling, chattering, jog-walking back, and bouncing it up to 94mph next ball.
Joe Root, Jack Leach and Ollie Robinson trudge off at the end of another dispiriting day for England. Photograph: Chris Hyde/Getty Images
Wood beat David Warner’s bat nine times. He hit him in the chest, and hit Travis Head on the elbow in mid-afternoon. This kind of extreme, sustained pace ennobles everything around it, gives a deeper lustre to Warner’s innings of 97, adds another gear to Head’s fine hundred.
As ever Wood did all this with that air of rakish good cheer, a cricketer who has crawled here through injury, dark times, thoughts of quitting; out there sending down those fizzing, purring bombs and providing in the process a reminder of something else. Here was a man still playing to the original plan, a parallel world where England came to Australia loaded with pace, like stumbling across the last surviving pillar of a ruined cathedral.
So what about those plans? There will be talk of how unlucky England were. The thing is, there is no luck, not really, not in this kind of attritional sport. As Gary Player might have said, the harder I work at making the wrong choices, the unluckier I get.
That imbalance of pressure, where every dropped chance kills you. That’s not bad luck. It’s bad batting and bad catching. A pair of new-ball bowlers who have never opened together, with no idea how their combinations might work, how that shared pressure can be honed. That’s not bad luck. It’s bad planning.
The absence of Stuart Broad, the guy who always gets the guy. Beating Warner’s bat repeatedly en route to 97, when you’ve already taken away your own best chance of snuffing him out before he gets to 10. None of that is bad luck either. It’s bad selection.
Slips too far back, wrong people in the right place, fielders on the half-volley, all those tiny, familiar margins. It’s poor captaincy, woolly thinking, an absence of that instinct for angles. And nothing here is bad luck.
There is frustration too because England can throw themselves at the rest of this game and indeed the rest of the series with a weak gleam of hope. The seam bowlers were all impressive, even with the added burden of filling the hole left by Jack Leach’s pre-planned monstering.
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Ollie Robinson was hugely impressive in his first Ashes Test, despite bowling so slowly when he floated the full ball up it felt as though Warner could play three different shots – drive? Leave? Bit of a run down? – before the ball had passed him.
Wood came back before tea and was straight into some 94mph leg gully stuff at Steve Smith, before drawing an edge to Jos Buttler. He had Mitch Starc dropped in the final over of the day. There is fight here, the remains of a plan, and also something instructional. If Wood’s own arc tells us anything, – the choices, the obstinacy that took him to this moment, 94mph under clear blue Ashes skies – it is that luck’s got very little to do with it.