Batsman and bowlers alike were left puzzled by a Southampton surface that seamed like a green top but dried out rapidly over day one of Australia’s lone Ashes warm-up while also providing variable bounce.
A ledger of 201 for 17 across the day hardly depicted a batting paradise, but nor was it exactly the sort of slow, seaming surface that the tourists can be expected to face against England over five Tests at Edgbaston, Lord’s, Headingley, Old Trafford and The Oval over the next two months. Marnus Labuschagne, the only batsman to pass 30 all day, and Jackson Bird, one of four pacemen to take three wickets or more, were united in their puzzlement.
“We were umming and ahhing this morning about what to do if we were going to bowl or bat,” Labuschagne said after making 41 out of 105 for his side. “I actually called Sam Northeast up in the change room and he was saying that on this wicket they tend to bat first because of the deterioration during the game. It’s really hard to tell – the conditions with the ball as well, there was plenty of swing and seam for pretty much the whole day, so I don’t really think it made too much of a difference batting first or second.
“The heavy roller probably did, over here it flattens it out a little bit for probably 30-40 minutes but towards the back end it was still pretty lively and going. It was just the dryness of the wicket, with the bowlers we had who did bowl a heavier ball into the wicket I think they got considerably more up and down out of the wicket than you would potentially in a championship game with the bowlers bowling a bit slower and a bit more sideways movement. But everyone you’ll see will adapt and hopefully get some runs in the second innings.”
Bird, who has played county cricket for Hampshire and Nottinghamshire in the past, said it was not like any pitch he had seen before in these parts. “It was a funny sort of wicket, you don’t really see this sort of wicket in England,” Bird said. “There was lots of live grass on it but the surface was really dry, so there was a bit of inconsistent bounce from the top end, and it nipped around a little bit as well with that inconsistent bounce, which made it hard. The wicket got a little bit better as the day went on, but the bowling all day was reasonably good.”
Where this all leaves Australia’s Ashes preparations is anyone’s guess, but suffice to say there were more than a few batsmen who would have preferred greater time in the middle, particularly given its dual status as a preparatory fixture and also a selection trial.
“This game is a very serious game and it’s one where we’re all looking to perform,” Labuschagne said. “As a whole squad everyone wants to score runs, take wickets and I think we’re getting the best out of each other by playing this hard cricket and its the best preparation for the upcoming tour.
“Facing the majority of the people out there bowling 130-140kph plus, facing the extra pace on a wicket that is going a little bit up and down, you need to make sure your ducks are in a row and your plans are in order. You wish as a batter it counted as 141 but no, 41 is still 41. In a low-scoring game those scores do help the team but from a personal view, it’s frustrating when someone does get in and doesn’t go on with it.”
As Labuschagne’s opponents, Bird complimented the Queensland No. 3 on his diligent planning for the surface. “He had a plan especially facing up to me, he came down the wicket and across to off stump and tried to take away getting bowled and lbw,” Bird said. “The wicket could nip and stay a little bit low so he took that mode of dismissal out and it seemed to work for him. Although he nicked one in the end but that happens sometimes. It was good to see him have a plan, he’s had a really strong start to the county championship season this year.”
Regarding the selection trial, with the final Ashes squad to be named at the end of the match, Bird admitted to more than a few unusual emotions. “It’s a weird situation that we haven’t been in before,” Bird said, “but everyone’s really embraced it the last week and it’s been really good to get in both teams in separate groups and I guess try to get the team camaraderie as much as you can in a weird situation.
“Our batters are world class as well, so anytime you get to come up against those guys it’s good for your confidence and good for honing your skills I guess. It was a poor day out for the batters but the bowlers took a lot out of it. I’m expecting the batting group to bounce back in the next three days.”