The ‘big first hour’ has become a cricketing cliche. But never is it more apt than when England go to the Gabba, where an entire Ashes series can be defined by events before drinks on the opening day.
In 1994, Phil DeFreitas saw his first ball dispatched for four by Aussie opener Michael Slater, who went on to smash 176 as England lost the first Test and then the Ashes 3-1.
Eight years later, captain Nasser Hussain muttered the infamous words, ‘We’ll have a bowl’, after winning the toss, only to watch Australia close day one on 364 for two and go on to romp to victory in Brisbane and win the series 4-1.
Nasser Hussain opted to bowl first after England won the toss of the opening Test in 2002
In 2006, it was Steve Harmison who set the tone for a humiliating 5-0 whitewash when his first delivery to Justin Langer was so wide it was collected by skipper Andrew Flintoff at second slip.
Here, those three men recall their day-one disasters as a warning to Joe Root of what can go wrong if England get off to a bad start at the Gabba a week tomorrow.
PHIL DeFREITAS: SLATER PLAYED WELL BUT I GAVE HIM SOME THROWDOWNS!
1st Test, Nov 1994: Australia 426 & 248-8dec; England 167 & 323. Australia won by 184 runs
The first over of an Ashes series, you set the tone. I think I set the tone for Australia.
All my preparation had gone really well. Three days before, I knew which end I was going to bowl at. I was focused. I visualised it the night before.
In the morning, we went through the drills as normal. I bowled from that end and felt great. But just as we were about to go out, Mike Gatting — after most probably having 10 sausage rolls for breakfast — went along to captain Michael Atherton and said: ‘The wind has changed, Daffy needs to bowl at the other end.’
Michael Slater smashed English bowlers as he scored 176 in the first Test of the 1994 series
He completely took my focus away and I ended up bowling the first over from the end which I didn’t see myself bowling from.
You don’t want to use it as an excuse… but it affected me and my thought process. It was not a perfect first over.
There were a lot of nerves and Michael Slater was very positive. That was just the way Slater played.
He did not need a sighter. He just saw the ball and hit it. He cut my first ball through point for four.
England fast bowler Phil DeFreitas endured a nightmare opening Test
He then hit another wideish ball over third slip for four in that over and he was off. He played really well but I gave him some throwdowns to start!
Going 1-0 down in Australia, it is always tough to come back. You are instantly on the back foot.
We knew we were battling because you are not only playing the Australians on the cricket field, you are also playing the crowd and everyone at the hotel as well.
When you go back to the hotel, you can’t get away from it and the only way to keep them quiet is by winning.
The Gabba brings back great memories for me because it was the place where I made my Test debut in 1986 and we won.
I enjoyed playing cricket there — apart from that first over in 1994.
NASSER HUSSAIN: WITHIN 20 MINUTES I KNEW IT WAS THE WRONG DECISION
1st Test, Nov 2002: Australia 492 & 296-5dec; England 325 & 79. Australia won by 384 runs
I always look forward to the first morning at Brisbane because my Twitter feed explodes with gags about the toss in 2002. Luckily, all of these years later, I am able to laugh at myself about it.
I look back now and just think: ‘I got it wrong.’ It was a case of me trying to reinvent the wheel. We were beset by injuries leading up to that game, especially in the bowling department.
Hussain’s call to bowl first was motivated by feeling the ball would swing in the first session
In the warm-up games, the only time we had looked like getting wickets was early on when it was swinging. On the morning of the Test, Marcus Trescothick, our vice-captain, came up to me and said it was swinging in the nets.
So I thought our best chance would be to bowl, give our attack something to go at and try to get some early wickets.
Within 20 minutes, I knew it was the wrong decision. The ball wasn’t swinging, it was flat and Matthew Hayden smashed us everywhere.
Then poor old Simon Jones put in the slide on the re-laid Brisbane outfield and his knee snapped in two. It went from bad to worse.
I went into the dressing room at lunch and just held up my hands and said, ‘Sorry lads, I got that horribly wrong’. There was no point trying to bluff, bull or make excuses.
The decision backfired as Australia ended day one of the 2002 Ashes on 364 for two
It was labelled as my biggest mistake as England captain but I don’t look back on it and think, ‘Oh my God, that was a dark day’.
I look back more on games like the NatWest Series final in 2002 when we had India 146 for five and lost, or the World Cup match against Australia in 2003, when they were 135 for eight and we managed to lose.
This one was just the toss of the coin, but it gets highlighted because everything gets highlighted with Brisbane. It is the first day of the Ashes. It set the wrong tone but would it have gone any different if I had decided to bat first in Brisbane?
Things went from bad to worse for England who lost Simon Jones to a serious knee injury
Probably not. Did it cost us that Ashes series? Probably not. Australia were a better side than us. They won the series 4-1.
Not that it exonerates me, but I later found out that Australia captain Steve Waugh was going to bowl first himself.
Nathan Leamon, England’s analyst, has also said to me since that, statistically, it was the right thing to do in Brisbane. I just laughed at him and said, ‘That’s probably not the best way to try to sell your services as an analyst!’
STEVE HARMISON: IMAGINE THE ABUSE I GOT FOR NINE WEEKS AFTER THAT BALL
1st Test, Nov 2006: Australia 602-9dec & 202-1dec; England 157 & 370. Australia won by 277 runs
I have never had a problem talking about that ball. My best mate Andrew Flintoff threw me the ball and said, ‘Right, you go and take the first over in this long-awaited Ashes series’. Then, 25 seconds later, I duly obliged by giving him it back!
The batsman, Justin Langer, didn’t get anywhere near it but Matthew Hoggard ran in from fine leg and got to the 30-yard circle waving his arms in the air, thinking, ‘Why is nobody cheering? It’s just gone straight to second slip… surely he hasn’t?’ Matthew, I had.
So he started throwing his arms around pretending to stretch because he was bowling the next over!
Steve Harmison’s (right) first ball of the 2006 Ashes at the Gabba ended at second slip
I can laugh about it now. I have never done it again. It was just one of those things. I tried too hard.
My preparation going into that series was shocking. I hadn’t played in Adelaide the week before. I was nervous. I remember talking to (my agent) Neil Fairbrother about it and he said, ‘I have never seen you nervous before, but the night before that game, that’s as nervous as I’ve ever seen anybody’.
It is history but I got to bowl another ball. My pride and joy of that series was that I never missed a Test. I played every single day.
Harmison’s dismal delivery set the tone for a series England ended up losing 5-0
Can you imagine the abuse I got for nine weeks on that trip after that first ball? But we weren’t good enough to beat Australia, whether that first ball of the series happened or not. We weren’t very good and Australia were fantastic. They deserved to beat us 5-0.
We were a shadow of the side that played against them in 2005. Michael Vaughan was gone, Marcus Trescothick was gone, Simon Jones was gone. It didn’t matter if Andrew Strauss or Flintoff was captain. If Vaughan had been captain, we would still have been beaten 5-0.
I got asked about that ball by a journalist at Durham the next summer. He said it was 33-1 for a wide for the first ball. I quickly evicted him from the Riverside. It was a good job three or four of my team-mates got in between us!
Harmison was speaking on The Cricket Collective on talkSPORT2, which is repeated on the Following On podcast.