November 7, 2002, is a day Nasser Hussain will want to erase from his memory. His decision to bowl first backfired to such an extent that, after the pummelling they received at the hands of the Australian batsmen on the first morning, England never recuperated throughout the series. Moreover, one of his principal bowlers in Simon Jones was subject to a career-threatening injury. Karthik Parimal recollects the events of the first day’s play of the Brisbane Test in the 2002-03 Ashes.
The Australian team, before 2005, was known to put an end to many an England captain’s tenure; sometimes their careers, too. As Nasser Hussain embarked with his entourage to regain the urn on Australian soil in 2002-03, he was made aware of this grim bit of history. Upon landing, just days before the first Test at Brisbane, he was dealt with two severe blows — his premier bowler Darren Gough had to fly back home in tears owing to a knee injury, whereas Andrew Flintoff’s rehabilitation after undergoing a hernia operation was still under cloud. In the end, he was left behind.
With two of his spearheads no longer in equation, Hussain was pushed onto the backfoot, and little did he expect his troubles to worsen. On the evening before the Test, he walked to the pitch and was pleased by the covering of grass on it. Sceptical about England’s chances of ever bowling Australia out on their turfs, the tinge of green raised his hopes. A few days earlier, the Australians had slammed 500 for three on a flat track, against Queensland, and those figures terrified Hussain. The thought of bowling first therefore crossed him. But Derek Pringle, as if reading Hussain’s mind, asked him not to get suckered by its looks and that he had to bat if he won the toss.
On the morning of the Test, Hussain bumped into Marcus Trescothick who confirmed that the practice wicket was doing a bit and that the main surface looked quite similar. A suggestion to bowl first followed. Hussain took that on board but refrained from having a second look at the wicket, or, to consider coach Duncan Fletcher’s opinion. He duly won the toss and said England would bowl. Since then, it has been labelled Hussain’s biggest mistake as a captain.
“It was our worst day’s cricket in at least five years”
Hussain was welcomed into the dressing room by a glum-looking Andrew Caddick. He hated being thrust into the spotlight, a fact a few English players affirmed in their autobiographies. Nonetheless, the decision had been made. Caddick and Matthew Hoggard opened the bowling for England and the ball swung around for the first five overs. Thereafter, it turned out to be one of the flattest tracks on offer. By now, Hussain realised his blunder alongside the fact that torturous days lay ahead. In the 12th over, he threw the ball to Simon Jones and he immediately bowled well, accounting for the wicket of Justin Langer (32) before almost getting rid of Ricky Ponting. He also held on to a catch offered by Matthew Hayden on 40, but tumbled across the boundary at the last moment.
The Australians were well on course of recovery. In the 29th over, tragedy struck England. A full delivery by Caddick was played by Ponting past mid-on and Jones, fielding at that position, set out to stop the ball, which was now speeding towards the long-on fence. Almost at the end of the chase, he made one last attempt by sliding and, almost instantly, Hussain — fielding at mid-off, could hear a crack and the noise. Jones was squirming in pain along the ropes as the rest of the English players, fully aware of the lethality of the injury by now, converged around him. It had become evident that Jones, with ruptured knee ligaments, could no longer be a part of this Test, or even the tour.
The sight of Jones being stretchered away from the ground made its impact on the English cavalry. The bowlers, with drooping shoulders, looked monotonous and poor fielding made matters worse. When Michael Vaughan dropped Hayden, the Brisbane crowd were literally in splits. They could not comprehend the standard of cricket being dished out by an international side. On the flip side, the Australians were ruthless. Hayden bludgeoned characteristically as he strongly drove down the ground on both sides of the wicket. He pulled Caddick unforgivingly on several occasions and charged down the turf when Ashley Giles operated. Craig White, too, rendered futile. In fact, hayden reached two of his milestones — fifty, and surpassing his highest score against England (previously 70) — with thunderous pulls, both off White. The coveted one, his 100, was attained by fiercely driving a full toss from Giles to the fence.
On his way to 150, Hayden was dropped three more times, but he remained unflustered even through those anxious moments. By now, England waited for the day to end. At the other end, Ricky Ponting sauntered his way to yet another ton. The duo put on 272 for the second wicket before, as if like consolation, a momentary lapse in Ponting’s concentration, on 123, enabled Giles to break through his defences. At stumps, the Australians were perched on 364 for two, Hayden unbeaten on 186 and a murderous line-up licking their lips at the prospect of having a dig the next day.
Hussain labelled it as their worst day’s cricket in at least five years. “We were very quiet that evening in the dressing room. Somebody said, ‘is it still doing a bit, skip?’ but nobody laughed. I was embarrassed about what we had done. And we were all upset for Simon [Jones]. We all went to see him and he had already been told that the injury might be career-threatening, so he was understandably at a very low ebb,” Hussain wrote in his autobiography Playing With Fire.
The opponents’ view
For Hussain, the intent to curb the Australian batsmen weighed more, as opposed to attacking them. The English feared an onslaught. It was perhaps why he was inclined to bowl first at the sight of green on the wicket. The only assistance, he believed, his bowlers would get was on the first morning and none thereafter. With that mindset, downhill was the only route.
In his book Out Of My Comfort Zone, Steve Waugh says Hussain’s worst nightmare had eventuated when he won a toss he’d desperately wanted to lose. He also states Hussain’s decision to bowl first wasn’t a bad one, but the execution since was completely poor. “England did so as a means of working themselves into the game — a conservative start rather than taking the initiative. Rarely, if ever, has the first session of an Ashes campaign begun without one bouncer being bowled in anger. It was tame, lame stuff that allowed Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting to take the match beyond England’s reach after just two sessions of play and set the mood for the whole series.”
England’s top-order forged a respectable first innings total of 325 in reply to the 492 they were after, but Australia, riding on yet another Hayden century, scored 296 for five before declaring to set a target of 464 runs. On a deteriorating surface, England fizzled out for 79, conceding defeat by a margin of 384 runs. It was a near-faultless performance by Australia.
In the next two Tests, at Adelaide and Perth, England lost by an innings. The Boxing Day Test was lost by five wickets. That decision on the first morning of the first match indeed set the tone for the whole series. Australia’s ‘dead-rubber syndrome’ kicked in during the final fixture at Sydney, a game in which Hussain’s men earned a consolation victory by 225 runs.
Australia 492 (Matthew Hayden 197, Ricky Ponting 123, Shane Warne 57; Ashley Giles 4 for 101, Andrew Caddick 3 for 108) and 296 for 5 decl. (Matthew Hayden 103, Damien Martyn 64, Adam Gilchrist 60; Andrew Caddick 3 for 95) beat England 325 (Marcus Trescothick 72, Mark Butcher 54, Nasser Hussain 51, John Crawley 69*; Glenn McGrath 4 for 87) and 79 (Mark Butcher 40; Glenn McGrath 4 for 36, Shane Warne 3 for 29) by 384 runs.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)