(Photo: Ben Radford / ALLSPORT)
By Peter Hayter
This time next week we will have a fair idea as to whether England have once again fallen under the curse of the ‘Gabbattoir’.
For the sake of Joe Root’s chances of his team returning from Australia with anything other than another catalogue of broken dreams, bruised pride and battered reputations, they had better hope not.
As any fool knows, England have not won a Test match in the Brisbane suburb of Woolloongabba in the 31 years since Mike Gatting’s “can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” tourists pulled it off, going on to win the 1986-87 series 2-1.
In the intervening seven full series, only twice have England got outta Dodge with a draw; in 1998 they were saved by a final-day thunderstorm, but still lost the series 3-1, and, in 2010-11, the defiance of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott laid the early foundations for their only Ashes win Down Under in three decades.
Australia have taken the other five, the unwritten rule stating that if they win at the Gabba, they win the Ashes and a sift through the memories of how and why suggests that if Root’s men are not already acutely aware of how vital it is, at the very least, to avoid defeat next week, they should be.
Readers of a nervous disposition may care to look away now.
1990 – Australia won by 10 wickets
England suffered the biggest blow to their hopes of regaining the Urn in the opening practice game of the 1990-91 tour in Perth in the instant skipper Graham Gooch suffered a gashed finger on his right hand when attempting a caught and bowled.
Though the bone was exposed, a local doctor decided butterfly tape would suffice and it did, for about a fortnight, until, batting in the nets before the match against South Australia in Adelaide, Gooch complained of severe pain.
Hospital tests showed a dangerous spread of poison, which necessitated immediate surgery. Some said it saved his finger, his career and possibly even more.
Without Gooch to blunt the swing of Terry Alderman and the bounce of tall left-armer Bruce Reid, England slid to 194 all out on the first day in Brisbane.
They hit back strongly to bowl Australia out for 152, but, after England were then shot out for 114, Geoff Marsh and David Boon knocked off 157 without loss to complete a three-day victory.
And it was now that stories emerged that England’s senior batsmen David Gower and Allan Lamb (who was deputising for Gooch as captain) had been seen playing the tables at Jupiter’s Casino in the early hours of that final day, a 40-mile drive up the Gold Coast from their Brisbane hotel.
Gower later argued that they were only being polite to their host, the redoubtable Kerry Packer, who was not used to hearing ‘no’ for an answer. Brilliantly, he further pled that, as he was already out, his nocturnal activities were hardly significant.
Acting skipper Lamb, however, was 10 not out overnight and made just four more the following morning before falling at 60 for four. Perhaps wisely, he made no attempt to offer mitigating circumstances.
Once Australia had completed their 3-0 victory, which had also featured the ‘Tiger Moth’ incident and the foundation of the ‘Phil Tufnell Fielding Academy’, Gooch chose the following phrase to describe the experience: “It was,” he mused, “like farting against thunder.” Indeed.
1994 – Australia won by 184 runs
The insistence of chairman of selectors Raymond Illingworth that Angus Fraser was a spent force meant Mike Atherton travelled with a pace department comprising England legends Joey Benjamin and Martin McCague, accompanying Darren Gough, Phil DeFreitas, Devon Malcolm and, apparently, Craig White.
Due to various ailments ranging from chicken pox to side strains (one of which, allegedly, was caused in a disco), to stress fractures, all of them missed at least one Test, three were forced home early and Fraser was eventually summoned as a replacement, along with Chris Lewis.
This pattern of shambles wrapped in black comedy was established in Brisbane, when Malcolm went down with the pox three days before the match.
Then, according to Wisden: “When an erratic start by DeFreitas and McCague allowed (Michael) Slater and (Mark) Taylor to score 26 off four overs by doing nothing more than punish leg-side balls and off-side long-hops, the initiative was won and lost in 20 minutes.” It didn’t seem to take as long as that.
McCague, the Aussie-born Kent quick dubbed in advance by the Australian media: “The rat who joined the sinking ship,” limped off after two balls of his 20th over with shin splints and never played for England again.
Australia made 329 for four on that first day and Shane Warne finished England off with 8 for 71 from 50.2 overs in the second innings.
A measure of how well prepared England’s batsmen were for the challenge of facing him is that some of them spent much of the downtime after their dismissal trying to fathom out his variations from above the sightscreen in front of the old pavilion. Gooch was so cross at how Warne had suckered him second time round that it hastened his decision to retire at the end of the tour.
2002 – Australia won by 84 runs
At least England had only surrendered the initiative in the previous two defeats once play had begun.
In the first Test of the 2002-03 series, Nasser Hussain gave it away half an hour before the match started when, after winning the toss, he invited Steve Waugh’s Aussies first use of what looked to all but him an absolute shirtfront. Waugh could barely keep a straight face.
Hussain argued afterwards that a smidgeon of green in the surface meant his decision had some basis in logic but later, writing in his autobiography, conceded: “By the fifth or sixth over nothing was happening and I could feel the world closing in on me. I thought to myself: “Oh God, Nass, what have you done?” And I was clever enough to realise, even in that first session, that the next 25 days of Test cricket were going to be absolute hell.”
And that started when Simon Jones slid on the newly laid outfield and twisted his right knee, rupturing his cruciate ligament. For his tireless efforts at rehabilitation, Jones gained spectacular reward, if all too brief, when he played his part in England’s brilliant 2005 victory.
But at the end of that first day, Australia had scored 364 for two, edging their way to a match-winning 492, which was also exactly what Hussain’s timidity deserved.
2006 – Australia won by 277 runs
The most glaring example of a single delivery setting the tone for what was to follow, Steve Harmison himself describes what he sent down to Justin Langer seconds after the start the 2006-07 series as: “The worst opening ball in the history of Ashes cricket.”
Desperate to make an early impact after the sad loss of Marcus Trescothick and to give his friend Andrew Flintoff something to build on as he strove to stamp his authority on what many still felt was Michael Vaughan’s team, Harmison admitted he allowed the situation to get to him.
As the ball landed in Flintoff’s hands at second slip, a nation baying for revenge for what had happened in England 15 months previously let out a collective belly-laugh and after they made 602 for nine in the first innings, Australia’s confidence grew so strong that they were able to crush England 5-0, even after the hosts had made 551 for six declared in the second Test in Adelaide.
2013 – Australia won by 381 runs
England actually started the last series Down Under with some success. Stuart Broad took the first four wickets to reduce Australia to 83 for four and when Steve Smith went at 132 for six, Cook’s side looked capable of extending their winning run from the previous summer’s Ashes victory.
But a stand of 118 from Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson grabbed back the initiative and as Australia went from strength to strength, England fell to bits.
Haddin was Australia’s hero with the bat, rescuing Australia from similarly tricky spots time and time again. Johnson was too hot for England batsmen to handle, taking 37 wickets at 13.97 overall. But it was the assault on Jonathan Trott at the Gabbattoir that set the tone for their second 5-0 whitewash in three.