Hours after landing in Brisbane, where the most dramatic of series in recent memory seeks closure, Josh Hazlewood sounded out a warning to the Indians: “We will be extremely dangerous in Gabba. We probably grow a leg up there.” In the heat of the Sydney battle, Aussie skipper Tim Paine had issued a threat to Ravichandran Ashwin from behind the stumps: “Can’t wait to get you to the Gabba.” Months before the schedule of the series was fixed, Paine had requested Cricket Australia to start the series in Brisbane, before flinging a tongue-in-cheek dart at Virat Kohli: “Maybe we can get a pink-ball Test (in Brisbane) if he’s in a good mood.”
Two weeks ago, it was uncertain whether the arena would indeed host this Test, due to Queensland’s rigorous adherence to COVID-19 protocols. So unflinching has been the attention that if the Brisbane Cricket Ground had ears, it would have blushed.
They don’t call it Fortress Gabba for nothing ⚔️
— ICC (@ICC) January 13, 2021
Like every arena in Australia, Gabba has a unique characteristic. The Sydney Cricket Ground has an old-world grandeur, Melbourne Cricket Ground glows in its historic majesty, Adelaide has a laid-back, carnival-like feel. Perth’s WACA breathes a fearful romance, the neighbouring Optus flaunts a glowering swankiness, and Hobart’s Bellerive Oval exudes an offbeat charm.
The Gabba simply frightens. The very name induces a shiver down the spine. Maybe, the stadium built over a swampland park was destined to frighten.
Gabba owes its name from Woolloongabba, the suburb it stands on. The old inhabitants used to call it Wulonkoppa, which means “fight talk place.” It’s a big bowl of an arena, a closed enclosure, where sound hangs in the air eternally, where every whisper assumes the proposition of a heavy metal rock concert; where the crowd, possessing a fierce sense of rough regional identity, are shudderingly inhospitable.
Few stadiums strike such an aural fear either. Gabbatoir, its moniker, a portmanteau of Gabba and abattoir, provokes a hollow dread. Like being thrown into a slaughterhouse. Is there a more savagely-named bowling end in cricket than the Vulture Street End? As if the bowlers are circling around the batsman to rip the carcass apart. Outside the stadium, there is a board that reads: “Vulture St. One way.” Often, for oppositions, there has been no way out.
The indomitable arena could get to the players. “Brisbane is not an occasion of joy. The dressing rooms, for a start, they are down underneath, so it’s like you are locked into the dungeon, then you get released into this concrete jungle and the heat … the heat just hits you as you come through the tunnel from an air-conditioned dressing-room,” former England captain Michael Vaughan once told BT Sport.
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 14, 2021
It’s where Michael Clarke threatened James Anderson: “Get ready for a broken f****n arm. It’s where the security guys sledged the Barmy Army out of the stadium. It’s where Mitchell Johnson spooked out Jonathan Trott with his chin music.
It’s where Australia routinely kickstarted their home Test summers. Passing through the crucible was the roughest examination of a touring team’s mettle, of their minds as well as bodies. Unsurprisingly, the decision to move the season-opener away from Brisbane, due to financial considerations, met stout rebuke from past and present players, eventually forcing the reinstatement of the tradition from the next Ashes.
It’s easy to see why Australia’s cricketers love the Gabba so much — because Australians love winning and at the Gabba, they almost always win. In 62 Tests, they have emerged victorious on 40 instances. They have lost only eight games, the last in 1988 to Viv Richards’ West Indies. In their 32-match unbeaten streak since, they have drawn just seven games, mostly rain-hampered games. So crushing has been the authority here that they have enjoyed four 10-wicket victories, eight innings wins and seven with a margin in excess of 150 runs since their last defeat.
It’s an unbudging fortress, perhaps the last of its kind in the country. India have lost six of the seven games here, the only drawn game owed to Sourav Ganguly’s heroic century, undoubtedly his best, in 2003. However, there have been several close brushes. Like in 1968, they fell short by only 39 runs chasing 395, when the debonair ML Jaisimha stroked a magnificent 101. Nine years later, Australia snuck home by 16 runs, defending 340, albeit a WSC-depleted line-up. The rest have been sound thrashings, including being bundled out for 58 and 98 on the 1947-48 tour.
Little has changed
Throw & Catch 👐
— BCCI (@BCCI) January 14, 2021
It’s also one of the few surfaces in the country that have preserved their distinctive characteristics, retaining much of the intrinsic traits through the passage of time and intrusion of modernity. While concrete mass has obliterated the old dog-race track and obscured the hills, the soul of the venue remains intact.
So many other Australian grounds have had their identities eroded by drop-in turfs. The WACA has long lost its intimidating bounce and pace, MCG has become slower, SCG sluggish. But not the Gabba, thanks chiefly to the father-son pair of Kevin Mitchell senior and junior, who nursed and nurtured the ground for close to four decades, before Mitchell junior retired in 2017.
The senior used to collect bottles on the ground for pocket money before joining the army. Then during a vacation in the 1970s, he just went to help his friend, a groundsman, at the Gabba. He did not rejoin the Army. The Mitchells looked after the ground like “their child”, always keeping it green and pretty, battling and beating the elements. Brisbane can be like a furnace in summer. Winter is mild, but cyclones and thunderstorms are not too far any time of the year.
The sun, rain and benign winter encourage a luxuriant growth of couch grass — the secret behind hard, firm Gabba decks. In Queensland, it grows for almost 10 months, whereas in most other parts of the continent, it barely grows for six months. No wonder then that the Australian bowlers have enjoyed the bounce, pace and swing (when the clouds begin to drift in) it has offered for ages.
Cream rises to the top
— BCCI (@BCCI) January 13, 2021
Most of the legendary bowlers have sparkling records too. Dennis Lillee maintained an average of 20.16, Jeff Thomson 24.03, Glenn McGrath 21.75. Among their successors, Pat Cummins has picked his wickets at 15 runs apiece, striking every 36th ball. Mitchell Starc and Hazlewood have a much inferior, but still respectable, averages of 27.84 and 26.65 respectively. Spinners have relished the bounce. Shane Warne helms the bowling chart with 68 wickets at 20.30. Nathan Lyon has nabbed 35 at 29.37.
Invariably, good batsmen too have thrived, though only five have double hundreds on the honours’ board. Only Bellerive Oval, which has not hosted half as many Tests as the Gabba, has fewer double hundreds in Australia. Donald Bradman averages 105, Greg Chappell 111 and Michael Clarke 103. But Brian Lara averages 22, Sachin Tendulkar 7.65, Virat Kohli 10.
Clarke had a simple piece of advice to some of the New South Wales youngsters at the Gabba: “Play either with a horizontal bat or vertical bat. Nothing in between.” The advice was passed onto him by arguably Queensland’s most famous cricketing son: Matthew Hayden. If one man captures the essence of Gabba, in all its prowess to intimidate, it’s Hayden.
But it has been a strange series, wherein adversities have only emboldened India. They have shown rare courage and grit to not only stand up to the Australians but also fling in the knockout punch when required. But it would not get more daunting than at the Gabbatoir. Survive the crucible, and India might well have achieved a rare slice of history.