It wasn’t entirely a novelty, seeing crowds roll up to fill Brisbane’s Gabba ground, given that life in the state of Queensland has proceeded largely as normal throughout the pandemic years. There was still some novelty, though, given it had been nearly a year since the Australian men’s team had last played a Test match. That had been in the middle of January at … the Gabba, meaning the ground has now hosted back-to-back Tests for the first time in its history, despite the long break in between.
Nor was this first day of a Test match an entirely normal one, given that travellers from interstate and overseas were still prohibited from entering the state without doing a fortnight’s quarantine. But it was normal enough in having a full house for an Ashes contest, vocal and voluble in response to the action on field.
It was also normal that the Gabba could not get enough of the crowd in on time. When Steve Harmison bowled the first ball of the series to second slip in 2006, the seats were about a third full with huge queues outside. When Mitchell Starc curled the first ball of the current series into Rory Burns’s stumps, the situation in the stands was much the same. People were lining up outside the gates two hours before play, but did not start being admitted until there was an hour to go, while the lines moved slowly with bag checks, vaccination checks, and government-mandated smartphone check-ins.
Those who did make it inside were ready to go, though. There was a mighty cheer when Patrick Cummins walked to the middle wearing a captain’s blazer for the first time, fortuitously losing the toss to Joe Root and avoiding the pressure of making a decision. There was a pantomime boo followed by a pantomime cheer when the England team ran out for the national anthems a few seconds ahead of the Australians.
Most people watching probably didn’t clock exactly what had happened
All of which were nothing compared to the noise after Starc’s first delivery. The tall left-armer has been a target of criticism from one or two former players whose opinions prove inflexible when infused with ego. His delivery was not an unplayable one, but it was fast and full enough and swung: from left-arm over the wicket, into the left-hander. Burns has built his technique around walking across his stumps, but walked too far. A ball angled down the leg side instead swung back, past his ankle straps and into his leg stump.
Most people watching probably didn’t clock exactly what had happened. They just saw the stumps tilt and the bails fly, and knew the match had started in the most dramatic of fashions. The noise that greeted it was less one of triumph than of simple exclamation, of surprise and delight in that surprise. Starc joined it with his own roar, riding the wave of sound across the turf and into a convergence of teammates. It was only then, a few seconds later, that the significance of the blow began to sink in.
Nobody summarised it better than the novelist Robert Wilson, emailing the Guardian’s over-by-over coverage. “It’s starting the gig with your best joke, it’s showing the butler doing it in the pre-credits sequence. It’s neither omen, nor harbinger, it’s a notarised contract. It’s literal genius, because all genius has always shrugged its shoulders and said the same thing: ‘There’s more of this to come’.”
Not much went England’s way after that, while plenty went for Australia. But the local English contingent did their level best to compensate for the many thousands of Barmy Army regulars who were this year stuck back at home. The headcount might have been anywhere from a few hundred to a couple of thousand, over in the ground-level bays on the southern side of the ground, but they made the noise of many more – though would not have anticipated having to pull The Great Escape song by lunchtime on day one.
In the meantime, the Australian crowd was less creative. There were repeated unsuccessful attempts to get a crowd wave going. “You’re next, Rooter!” was the choice witticism loudly directed at England’s captain as he went out to bat after two early wickets. The heckler was, ultimately, correct. The wickets kept falling and, by the time England’s innings was drawing near an end for 147, the storm clouds were bringing in gloom literally as well as figuratively.
Brisbane rain came heavily but briefly, as it does, and cleared before the end of a day. Like ants from a log, members of the crowd emerged to take their seats again. There will be more interruptions in the days to come, but the first innings being completed has set this match sufficiently into fast forward that a result can be had regardless.
The home crowd did not mind. Cummins joined the 1800s operator George Giffen as the only Australians to take a five-wicket haul in their first Test as captain. Starc thrilled. Josh Hazlewood bowled like a dream. Cameron Green got his first Test wicket. The only thing to wait for was Nathan Lyon’s 400th. There was plenty of opportunity to make noise, and exactly the right context in which to do it.