2019-09-08 10:02:17

For cricketers, especially English ones, it can be hard to fathom why Adelaide should have its reputation as a sleepy, decorous old outpost of Australia. Here alongside the banks of the serene River Torrens lies one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world, overlooked by St Peter's cathedral, a true oval that captivates all comers.

The capacity has now been enlarged to almost 40,000 – not so much for cricket but because of the demands and regulations of Aussie rules football. The old Western Stand has been renovated but without desecration. Adelaide Oval, unlike The Gabba with its modern symmetrical pragmatism, retains a special, civilised atmosphere. In the marquees behind the main stand there will be Pimms, chilled wine from the Barossa Valley, strawberries and pretty floral dresses. We haven't seen much of that in Brisbane.

Yet it is here that cricket almost tore two nations asunder. It is not the time to dwell on the Bodyline tour except to recall that the fuse was well and truly lit when Bertie Oldfield was felled by Harold Larwood at Adelaide Oval in 1933 and Australia's captain, Bill Woodfull, informed a spluttering Pelham Warner that there was only one side playing cricket out there.

More recently two, maybe three, England captains have been shattered by their experiences in Adelaide to the extent that their confidence in their ability to lead the national team could never be restored. In the most genteel of Australian cities comes an incongruous yet vivid reminder of the depths of despair that can come from leading an in Australia.

Bob Willis and his tourists arrived in Adelaide on the 1982-83 tour one down in the series but not without hope. After all, England held the Ashes and Australia were not regarded as invincible; Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were still around but just starting to creak.

Two days before the match was due to start Willis and his senior aides, David Gower and Ian Botham, studied the Adelaide Oval pitch. They spied an unusual dampness. Gower and Botham both counselled that England should bowl first. Willis was less certain, especially after the sun had shone down upon the square for a couple of days.

Indeed by the morning of the match Willis's gut instinct was that England should bat. Up went the coin and Willis won the toss. Instead of trusting those instincts he followed the advice of his lieutenants. Half an hour later Willis was galloping towards the cathedral with Kepler Wessels in his sights. He hurled down the first delivery of the match with all his might. The ball plopped into the turf, which by now had no trace of any seductive greenery, and it appeared to double-declutch on its way towards the ankles of Bob Taylor behind the stumps.

Willis, one of the game's greatest triers, knew immediately that the wrong decision had been made. So did all of his team; so too the opposition. If only he had trusted his own judgment. He blamed himself; indeed he was furious with himself and thereafter his self-belief as a captain was irreparably damaged. He may have been in receipt of some duff advice but he recognised that the final decision had been his. Greg Chappell helped himself to a hundred, England were obliged to follow on and lost the match by eight wickets.

In 2006 at least Andrew Flintoff elected to bat first on winning the toss at Adelaide. Once again England held the Ashes, but were one down when they arrived in South Australia. This time everything went perfectly for almost two days. Kevin Pietersen and double centurion Paul Collingwood added 310 together. The pitch may have been benign, but at last the Australian legends were starting to look their age. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were clearly tired and mortal.

Then came that declaration on the second evening. Many Englishmen at the ground applauded Flintoff's enterprise. After all, there were 551 runs on the board. It was time to get at the Aussies before the close (indeed England managed to remove Justin Langer that evening). But we know what happened thereafter, the slow drip to a disastrous defeat.

I can hear the accusations of my being wise after the event. But I well recall my horror when Flintoff declared. Indeed I had assured anyone who happened to ask and one or two who didn't that England would – and should – keep batting that evening. Flintoff was opening his shoulders. He had carte blanche to explore the short square boundaries of the oval.

Warne had already conceded 167 runs; McGrath had yielded 107 without a wicket; the Australians were running out of bowlers. Here was a chance, such a rare one, to plant a metaphorical foot on the demons' throats. At the time an England defeat was hardly entering anyone's calculations, but that declaration was letting Australia off the hook.

Of course England lost the match and they could never recover from the deep mental scars of losing from such a position of strength. It was enough to drive a man to drink and it may well have led Flintoff in that direction. In fact he was still in the Australian dressing room at midnight that evening alongside a few empty tinnies. Eventually he had to be politely ushered away by Langer so that the Aussies could sing their song. After that Flintoff was finished as a captain. Forget the mathematics, the series was well and truly over when the Australians celebrated one of their greatest victories on that fifth evening.

Four years earlier in 2002 Nasser Hussain must have realised that Ashes success in Australia was no more than a pipe dream. He had made his blunder at the toss at Brisbane. But how do you lose a game when your opening batsman (Michael Vaughan) cracks 177 on the first day? It should be difficult but the problem was that while Vaughan was hitting all those runs in a masterful display England could muster only 342 in that innings. The Australians strolled to victory by an innings and 51 runs. Adelaide can seem candy-soft compared to the other venues; it can also be cruel.

All these painful memories remind us that runs flow at Adelaide Oval. The boundaries square of the wicket are short and enticing, the outfield is fast. Hit straight and it is possible to run four anyway, though even with today's clumps of wood a straight six is still quite an event. Moreover the pitch has the reputation of being the most docile in Australia with the possible exception of Hobart, though England have never yet been sent there for a Test match.

Yet it is a mistake to head for Adelaide anticipating a draw. We know that the posting of what seems like a mammoth total in the first innings is not an absolute insurance against defeat. Ricky Ponting realises this better than most. In 2003 he hit 242 against India out of a total of 556. But on the last day Steve Waugh had to shake hands with Sourav Ganguly as a defeated captain. He would not have enjoyed that much. Ajit Agarkar had whisked out the Australians in the second innings.

So there may be runs aplenty at Adelaide but there is no shortage of results either. The last four Ashes Tests there have produced results, usually on the fifth day, Australia winning the last three and England stealing a victory – not quite so dramatically as the Australians in 2006 – on a topsy-turvy last day in 1995 when the home side were defeated by startling contributions from Phil de Freitas, Devon Malcolm and Chris Lewis. In the past 19 Tests at Adelaide against all opposition there have only been three draws.

So what conclusions can Andrew Strauss draw from all this? Well, don't be duped by all that tranquillity. In terms of selection there will be no inclination to change the batsmen. It is far too early in the series for that. Paul Collingwood looked ill at ease in the first innings in Brisbane. But as he demonstrated in 2006 the lower bouncing surface at Adelaide suits his style much better.

As for the bowling the "horses for courses" strategy would mean that Ajmal Shahzad comes into consideration. He is regarded as a handy reverse swinger. He could only possibly replace Steven Finn, so excellent have Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad performed at The Gabba even if their wicket columns fail to reflect that. Finn, as six first-innings wickets prove, has not disgraced himself either, but they may contemplate "rotating" him with Shahzad or Chris Tremlett.

So there are a couple things for Strauss to remember: bat first and don't declare prematurely, because funny things happen in Adelaide.