With great regularity across several decades of men’s Ashes cricket, England’s tours to Australia have seemingly been cursed by luck. There was Simon Jones and his knee, Steven Harmison and his yips, Chris Silverwood and his playing career. Coin tosses lost when they hurt most, won when they would have been better avoided. Coming to Australia to win was hard enough, but the dark hand of fate would still see fit to intervene.
For a couple of hours on Thursday morning Adelaide time, fate settled on a different target. That was when the news came through that the Australian captain, Pat Cummins, though fit, was ruled out of the imminent Test match after being identified as a close contact of a positive Covid-19 case. Through those pre-match warm-ups, through the early anticipation, some English minds would have wondered if this was a series turning point, the new version of Glenn McGrath rolling an ankle at Edgbaston in 2005.
Cummins had been out for dinner in Adelaide on Wednesday evening, seated near a recent arrival from Sydney, who during his meal received a text message saying he had tested positive for the virus. This was because South Australian rules require interstate travellers to be tested on arrival, but not to await their results in quarantine. Cummins was accordingly deemed a close contact, and now has to stay in isolation for seven days pending negative tests.
While plenty of other places have grown jaded or complacent about the virus, South Australia has so far avoided most of its impact. In the last two days days, the entire state recorded 25 and 24 official cases respectively. Having recently opened their borders, local authorities are trying to keep those numbers to a slow climb while still allowing interstate movement and commerce. Cummins has been caught in the compromise.
The Australian captain did not do anything risky: Cricket Australia has been flexible with players this season, allowing latitude for socialising after so many biosecure events. CA’s chief executive, Nick Hockley, did suggest they would revisit rules to ask players to only eat outside at restaurants: bowlers Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon did just that at the same venue as Cummins, and so avoided being sent to quarantine themselves.
Yet for all the dislocation of losing a captain on the morning of a match, Australia not only weathered the storm but prospered. CA got what the organisation wanted when recently installing Steve Smith as vice-captain: a chance for him to lead the team once again after his 2018 sacking during the sandpaper affair, without weathering the criticism of giving him the leadership outright. Smith won the toss, and with it an all-important chance to bat first. England began a day and a night of toil.
For all the talk of the pink Kookaburra cricket ball that can offer swing, it travelled through the air as straight as a billiard cue. Across the opening hours of a blamelessly dry and sunny afternoon, CricViz ball-tracking data detected the least first-day swing of any Test in Australia for seven years. Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson got some balls to move off the seam, but they passed harmlessly far from the edge of the bat, coming from a length too short just like when the same bowlers opened proceedings at this venue in 2017.
So the wheel of luck briskly turned. Australia had been extremely unfortunate to have Cummins ruled out, but the instability of that removal was not compounded. Australia were already missing Josh Hazlewood with a side strain, meaning the premier pair of fast bowlers had suddenly vanished. Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser are quality replacements, but Richardson played his two Tests nearly three years ago and Neser is on debut. Had they been the ones offered no assistance by conditions on the first day, the chance to put them under pressure could well have been taken even by England’s suspect batting.
Instead the task of steadying the side fell to those best qualified to do it with the bat: David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne and Smith. The former pair proceeded slowly through the first two sessions, but only in the face of bowling that was steady rather than suffocating. Jos Buttler bookended the day with dropped catches from Labuschagne, aside from which only a few false shots were drawn. For much of the journey it seemed the Australians were less concerned with the runs they could score on day one, and more with making sure England would be bowling on day two, with a forecast of 37C before it drops to civilised numbers later in the week.
They were also happy to watch England’s over rate drag out, leaving the visitors scrambling to fit in nine overs with a new ball under floodlights after the 80th over. The fifth of those precious overs brought the spurned edge from Labuschagne; the potential 10th of those precious overs was lost.
By stubbornness and attrition, Australia turned a bad situation firmly to their advantage. They will resume on the second day on 221 for two, with plenty of time in hand. If good enough with the bat, they may be able to choose to bowl in the evening session. When they do bowl, their inexperienced replacements will be backed by runs. Into the bargain, Cummins gets a rest in the series without the palaver that would have accompanied it had the captain been rested. There are days to go, but so far Australia’s big stroke of bad luck has not done much harm.