Question: Much has been made for a long while about Australia's invincibility at The 'Gabba, but in truth it's often seemed to me to extend to the other grounds outside Melbourne and Sydney too. Statistically, is this borne out?
Spider says: Very much so. At The 'Gabba Brisbane, Bellerive Oval in Hobart, The WACA in Perth and Adelaide Oval, Australia's record is nothing short of incredible. Since the watershed which begun a new era in 2007/08, this has mellowed-out a little, but no more than that. They lost at the WACA in 2007/08 and 2008/09 to teams who had never previously won there, have been held to high-scoring draws at Adelaide Oval in 2007/08 and 2009/10, plus now the 'Gabba two weeks ago, and lost at Adelaide last week, but otherwise it has been a continuation of the remarkable winning ways which preceded it. South Africa managed a remarkable escape at the WACA in 2005/06 thanks mainly to Jacques Rudolph; India drew at a damp 'Gabba in 2003/04, and New Zealand did likewise there and at Bellerive in 2001/02 but then made Australia fight tooth and nail to avoid defeat at the WACA. West Indies and England respectively won dead Tests at the WACA and Adelaide Oval in 1996/97 and 1994/95, New Zealand grafted a draw at the WACA in 1993/94, West Indies squeezed to one at the 'Gabba in 1992/93 with help from a little lost play, England and Pakistan just kept the Australians at bay at Adelaide in 1990/91 and 1989/90 respectively, and the Sri Lankans gained a credible draw in 1989/90 at the 'Gabba thanks to Aravinda de Silva, while New Zealand were saved by rain at the WACA. In this period their record at the 'Gabba in particular is extraordinary - it is very conceivable that had lost play been able to be made-up they would have won 17 Tests in a row at the ground from 1990/91 onwards (and another 3 to follow from 2007/08 to 2009/10). Then comes the one significant period where the norm was broken - between 1984/85 and 1988/89 Australia won very little anywhere and suffered badly at their normally favoured venues: in 15 Tests they won just twice. But before that down period it was the same story as after: the mighty West Indies sides of 1979/80 and 1981/82 were able to win at Adelaide, and they had also won at the WACA in 1975/76 among five defeats that season. But the only other defeats the first-team suffered at the grounds between the resumption of international cricket after the Second World War and 1983/84 were to the men from the Caribbean again in a match at the 'Gabba in 1968/69 where the toss had a significant impact, and at Adelaide to the South Africans in 1963/64, English in 1954/55 and West Indians again in 1951/52. (The effective Australia A were beaten by England at each of 'Gabba, WACA and Adelaide in 1978/79, but there is little sense in grouping these matches with those played by the full team.)
In full: between the Second World War and 2006/07 (excluding the 1977/78 and 1978/79 seasons when they were reduced to fielding an A team), Australia's record at the four grounds read:
'Gabba: played 44 won 27 drawn\tied 12 lost 5 (with 4 of those 5 coming between 1984/85 and 1988/89, and the last 4 draws all seeing them denied by lost play).
Bellerive: played 7 won 5 drawn 2 lost 0 (both draws being badly rain-affected).
WACA: played 31 won 18 drawn 7 lost 6 (5 of the 6 defeats being inflicted by West Indies).
Adelaide Oval: played 47 won 22 drawn 16 lost 9.
South Africa wasted the chance to take a much bigger first-innings lead than 484 when they declared with just four down in the First Test. Could they have threatened the biggest post-second-innings lead if they had batted on?
Quite possibly they could have done, yes. Their eventual lead in the just-concluded Test at Centurion Park comes third in the list of authentic Test match second-innings leads (Sri Lanka took landslide margins over Bangladesh in 2007
and Zimbabwe in 2003/04
in woeful mismatches), and they also forfeited the chance to inflict an even more imposing deficit when the same captain, Graeme Smith, declared six down in the Test at Lord's against England in 2003
with a lead of 509. Smith was absent when, in 2006, the South Africans had Mahela Jayawardene to thank for taking pity on them and declaring five down with a lead of 587 in the Test at the notoriously runway-esque SSC
. On all three of these occasions, the lead-taking team won the match easily (both of South Africa's victories came within four days despite a second-innings revival by their opponents) so could quite conceivably have targeted a bigger lead and not wasted the chance of victory had they so desired.
And how about the biggest ever lead on first-innings?
It is unlikely that the record for the biggest lead after both sides had finished their first-innings' will ever be broken - it stands at 702, inflicted by England on Australia at The Oval in 1938
. The reason it is unlikely ever to be broken is that this was a timeless Test, so England could bat for 335.2 overs in the first-innings (still, their captain Walter Hammond eventually declared, though only after it was confirmed that Don Bradman would not be able to bat after fracturing a shin) without worrying about forfeiting their chance of victory. The second-biggest lead in a finite Test after the above-mentioned Sri Lankan one in 2006 is 570, inflicted by Pakistan on New Zealand at Gaddafi Stadium Lahore in 2001/02
. And there are four further leads in serious Tests under legitimate circumstances which top the SAfricans' 484: England's 563 over West Indies at Sabina Park in 1930 (again a timeless Test)
; Australia's 504 over England at The 'Gabba in 1946/47 (a six-dayer)
; Australia's 493 over South Africa at The Wanderers in 2001/02
(again this could have been more, as they declared seven down and ultimately won in two-and-a-half days); and West Indies' 490 over India at Eden Gardens in 1958/59
(where they declared five down and ultimately won in little over three days).
Q: Since Andrew Flintoff retired, England have played 11 Tests in a row (excluding the four against Bangladesh where they rested several players) and in each have picked an attack featuring just four specialist bowlers - and all indications are that this will last at least another couple with the last two Ashes matches. When was the last time they went this long without picking a fifth specialist (whether or not he was also a capable batsman like Flintoff)?
A: Funnily enough, it wasn't actually so long ago - in Flintoff's lengthy hiatus lasting from the start of the home summer of 2007 to midway through that of 2008, they played 17 Tests and fielded just four specialists in each. That period involved little of the stability which has characterised the more recent one, not least because of the fact that Flintoff's return was always eagerly anticipated. Ryan Sidebottom and Monty Panesar were pretty much constants (Sidebottom was only brought in for the second of these matches due to Matthew Hoggard's injury in the first) but the rest rotated like there was no tomorrow, partly due to injury and partly due to the fact that many of those tried proved not to be good enough, either at that time (such as James Anderson and, possibly, Chris Tremlett) or ever (such as Darren Pattinson and, in all likelihood, Liam Plunkett). However, to find the last time before that requires going back quite a bit - to 1990 and 1990/91, in fact, when England played 13 in a row with just the four specialists. Neither the batting nor the bowling, in that spell, had the stability that it has enjoyed in the current ongoing one. The current side appears to have the potential to form England's most settled group of cricketers in several generations - maybe, in fact, since Test cricket begun.
Q: Is it true that Greg Chappell never missed a Test through injury in his entire 13-year career?
A: Indeed it is. Chappell Jnr. had three spells out of the side, each shorter than its predecessor. After debuting in the Second Test of the 1970/71 Ashes (and marking the occasion with a century), the first time he missed any Test cricket was 1977/78 - the same time most of the best cricketers in Australia were missing, having chosen to take themselves out of the equation by signing for Kerry Packer's arrangements instead. Those players missed 24 Tests; Chappell returned and played throughout the period which lasted from the post-Packer reconciliation at home in 1979/80 to the watershed which was the end of the 1983/84 series against Pakistan (the last game saw Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee retire alongside him), though in this time he opted-out of two tours, to England in 1981 (six Tests) and Pakistan in 1982/83 (three).