(Picture: Getty Images)
By Derek Pringle
In the recent past the Gabba Test has set the tone for the rest of the Ashes, so a misstep tends to be a bad omen for the team making it. So too, in the way that Russian dolls fit together, has the first day of the series, sometimes the first ball, usually shaped the result of that match. On that basis, James Vince has every right to be pleased, as should those who stuck their necks out to see him selected.
Plenty of coaches and players talk about going with their ‘gut’ despite this age of number-crunching analysis. And so it is with Vince. Before the Gabba, where he made 83 of England’s first day score of 196-4, Vince’s Test figures – 212 runs at 19.2 – had been poor.
Sometimes, players find the step-up to international cricket too nerve-wracking, and there was a degree of that with Vince in the red-ball arena where he looked jittery. But he did not shine in county cricket either last season and, as a result, did not give the selectors a single reason to pick him, at least on the numbers.
Selection should, principally, be about judgment and Trevor Bayliss, England’s head coach, had clearly seen something in Vince the ‘stattoes’ had not. Maybe it was his crisp ball-striking, or the way, when his confidence was high, he could cream a ball through the covers as if a left-hander in the mirror, a rare facility among right-handed batsmen.
Talent like that is innate and cannot be learnt, though some things can be instilled in a player – like confidence from being backed by both captain and coach. Vince’s other problem – impatience and a lack of sound shot selection – was also something to be worked on. It is all well and good being gung-ho and the Flash Harry of Hampshire, but it rarely works out against the better bowlers and fielders found in Test cricket.
The build-up matches on tour saw him score runs against modest opposition though he needed luck, given the amount of times he was dropped. Australia put him down at the Gabba, as well, wicketkeeper Tim Paine dropping him after Nathan Lyon got one to bounce and take the edge when he was on 68.
Yet, he’d played well to that point, his judgment of when to leave and when to play, especially the aggressive shots he struck for four, impeccable, where previously they had been flawed. So good was it that Australia’s normally unflaggingly accurate bowlers were forced into trying something different, with the result that more scoring opportunities presented themselves.
A couple of things helped Vince. Much has been made of the low standard of the opposition that England have faced in their preamble to the Ashes. On past tours, England were often pushed to the hilt by State sides who saw their game against the Poms as their ‘Test’ match. Instead of making the visitors battle-hardened, it used to tire them out and depress their confidence ahead of the first Test. Weak opponents may not provide an adequate sounding for the real thing, but they can work wonders for a batsman’s confidence as both Vince and Mark Stoneman, who made 53 in the first innings at the Gabba, can attest.
The other thing that aided Vince was the pitch, the last of the 27 produced for Test matches at the Gabba by groundsman Kevin Mitchell Jnr. According to Mitchell, the rain Brisbane has received in the past week has not allowed the surface to dry and harden in the sun as much as he would have liked. As a result it was slower than usual with less aggressive bounce. It was, one commentator said: “Almost English in character.” Once it became obvious that the bouncer would be a largely wasted weapon, it allowed Vince to concentrate on his front foot shots, which he dispensed with regal abandon around the ground.
For many, it recalled Michael Vaughan, an association first made by Duncan Fletcher. Vaughan had a stupendous Ashes series in Australia in 2002/03, making 633 runs with three hundreds. Fletcher, who was batting consultant to Hampshire in the late Noughties, reckoned Vince played in similar fashion. He even had that Vaughan touch of getting out in a soft manner, on this occasion run out, though Lyon’s pick-up and throw from extra cover was electric.
Perhaps more intriguing, though, is that when Fletcher was England coach he backed his own judgment over Vaughan, just as Bayliss has done with Vince. It was a bold call; all statistical evidence pointing to Vaughan being – given his first-class average was below 30 at the time – little more than a county journeyman.
Fletcher did the same with Marcus Trescothick, another who averaged high 20s in county cricket. But he’d seen something from Trescothick which resonated when Somerset had played Glamorgan, the team Fletcher coached before England. In both instances, his judgment proved sound. Trescothick’s Test average ended up being 43.7, Vaughan’s 41.4.
The coach’s pick doesn’t always work. On England’s 1994/95 Ashes tour, Ray Illingworth, England’s supremo, stuck out for Joey Benjamin and Martin McCague in place of the reliable Angus Fraser.
Benjamin’s figures for Surrey in the County Championship had been good – 76 wickets at 20.7 – while McCague had a bit of gas when a fair wind blew down at Kent. But as one of the few men who’d captained England to victory in Australia since the War, Illingworth should have known the folly of taking two inexperienced bowlers to a place that tends to reward nous and bottle, things Fraser had in buckets.
It went badly, though not for Fraser. McCague played the first Test, floundered, and then got injured, while Benjamin played in the State games without distinction and was not deemed worthy to replace him. Fraser, playing Grade cricket in Sydney, was called up and played the last three Tests. The Ashes were lost 3-1.
Coaches can be praised or pilloried for sticking their necks out over certain players, and while there is a fair distance yet to travel in this series, there can be no denying that the Gabba, day one, was a big tick for Bayliss and his man Vince.
*This article originally featured in Issue 249 of The Cricket Paper.