The British are never comfortable with unalloyed sporting success. And just three days after Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph and four days after the Lions’ rugby win, England’s cricketers returned to something like business as usual at Trent Bridge on Wednesday.
At the start of the five-Test Ashes series against Australia, they were bowled out for 215. But by the end of an eventful but rather absurd opening day Australia were struggling themselves, on 75 for four. Not much in it.
This fitted in with several well-known phenomena. One is that England start series badly. Another is that there is so much hype surrounding the Ashes compared to other events on the dilapidated Test match circuit that the players forget everything they ever knew and turn into nervous wrecks.
The early skirmishes have a habit of being barmy: this was tame compared to 2005 when 17 wickets fell on the first day. But, though the ball swung around under a slate-grey sky, most of the 14 wickets fell to wretched, often panic-driven, shots.
England were curiously oblivious to the weather. The prediction was that Nottingham, unlike most of the country, would be cool and cloudy all day before rejoining the rest of heatwave Britain, suggesting that batting would be much easier on the second and third day. The captain, Alastair Cook, discounted that, or did not know, choosing to bat on what is admittedly a dry and potentially crumbly pitch. Still, there will be questions if this goes badly.
The calmest man on the field might have been the most improbable. At breakfast-time Ashton Agar might have been a village in Somerset for all most of us knew. He is, we now know, a 19-year-old left-arm spinner from Western Australia and he is in the Australian side. Agar was not even in the official touring party. He was in England playing for the Australia A-team and also for Henley-on-Thames, for whom he took a little-noticed hat-trick of lbws against North Mymms in the Home Counties Premier League last month – I am not making this up.
The new Australian team manager Darren Lehmann evidently thought Agar might be more effective than the established off-spinner Nathan Lyon against England’s preponderance of right-handers. There was not much evidence for that: Agar bowled his seven overs nicely and economically, without getting a wicket. But he had already provided the biggest Ashes selection bombshell for years, one to match Peter Taylor, aka Peter Who?, widely believed to be a case of mistaken identity when he was picked at Sydney in 1986-87. He won that match for Australia.
This time the main wicket-taker was the sturdy and untiring swing bowler Peter Siddle, who exploited the cloud cover and, even more, the frailties of the England batsmen to finish with five wickets for 50. After a rocky beginning, he made a blinding start to his second spell, bowling England’s young batting star Joe Root with a perfect yorker.
Until that moment, England had been progressing serenely at 78 for one. Chaos came upon them only gradually: Jonathan Trott played some handsome strokes for the highest score, 48; Jonny Bairstow was positive and sensible for his 37. But the descent was inexorable nonetheless: Matt Prior’s first-ball, off-side smash straight into the hands of Philip Hughes looked especially doltish. And the last four wickets fell for two runs.
But the underlying reality of the 2013 Ashes is that, while England will have bad days, the Australian batting order looks simply inadequate. Steve Finn and Jimmy Anderson woke the crowd from their mix of afternoon torpor and English despair with a burst of early wickets. Finn was within a whisker of a hat-trick: the escapee, Australia’s captain and star Michael Clarke, never made a run anyway – Anderson got him with a beauty.
By most cricketing standards it was an extraordinary day. In the context of the eternal combat between these two nations it was pretty routine. The next few weeks could be like this. But the general perception that England are the stronger team by some distance has not yet been dislodged