Ashes 2017-18: Brisbane Test will once again prove to be pivotal - Bill Athey

IN the immortal words of Mark Twain, there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Yorkshire and England's Bill Athey in action

In the 37 Ashes series since the end of World War Two, a side has come from behind after losing the first Test to lift the urn on just four occasions – with that feat happening just once on Australian soil – way back in 1954.

Those sort of figures heighten the importance – were it needed – of Thursday’s opening instalment in Brisbane, where England’s recent record is abysmal.

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On their last visit to the Gabba in November 2013, the hosts, spearheaded by a devastating bowling performance from Mitchell Johnson, gorged on a 381-run success, an almost identical margin of victory to the opener in late 2002.

THE 1986-87 ENGLAND CRICKET TEAM LINE UP BEFORE LEAVING FOR AUSTRALIA AND THE ASHES TOUR. FROM LEFT: BACK ROW: LAURIE BROWN (PHYSIO) BRUCE FRENCH, WILF SLACK, PHILLIP DE FREITAS, CHRIS BROAD, JAMES WHITAKER,GLADSTONE SMALL, JACK RICHARDS, BILL ATHEY, PETER AUSTEN (SCORER) FRONT ROW: MICKEY STEWART (TEAM MANAGER) NEIL FOSTER, IAN BOTHAM, DAVID GOWER, MIKE GATTING, Peter Lush, JOHN EMBUREY (V-CAPT), PHIL EDMONDS, ALLAN LAMB, GRAHAM DILLEY.

Heavy England losses also arrived in 2006, 1994 and 1990 and you have to go back to 1986 for the last occasion that the tourists triumphed, magnificently, in Brisbane, eight visits ago.

For Yorkshire and England’s Bill Athey, it was a moment and a series he will for ever recollect.

Famously written off by cricketing scribe Martin Johnson, who delivered an eve-of-tour missive stating: ‘England have only three major problems. They can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field’, Mike Gatting’s motley crew took the hint to dispatch an in-transition Australia in a 2-1 triumph.

It was as glorious as it was unexpected, with England heading Down Under after three lost series in succession – eight defeats in 11 Tests without a single win.

General view of The Gabba, Brisbane, Australia, venue for the first Ashes Test. (Picture: PA)

The tone was set at the top of the order, just as you suspect it must be between Alastair Cook and Mark Stoneman if England are to afford themselves a successful time of it in the place which defines cricketers from these shores.

Athey – promoted to opener due to the poor form of Middlesex’s Wilf Slack – led the way with 76 in England’s opening salvo at the Gabba in an imposing card of 456, which provided a foundation for a seven-wicket success.

An opening stand worth 223 between Athey and Chris Broad – England’s fifth highest opening partnership against Australia -–ensured the tourists possessed an element of control in the drawn second Test in Perth and after another draw in Adelaide, the job was finished off in Melbourne, with Broad proving the star batting turn in a series where he averaged 69.

Middlesbrough-born Athey, who works at Dulwich College in London coaching the next generation of young cricketers, said: “Going one-up in a Test series is huge, really. It is a long way to get back for the side that loses it and so it proved for Australia and it was just too much for them.

THE 1986-87 ENGLAND CRICKET TEAM LINE UP BEFORE LEAVING FOR AUSTRALIA AND THE ASHES TOUR. FROM LEFT: BACK ROW: LAURIE BROWN (PHYSIO) BRUCE FRENCH, WILF SLACK, PHILLIP DE FREITAS, CHRIS BROAD, JAMES WHITAKER,GLADSTONE SMALL, JACK RICHARDS, BILL ATHEY, PETER AUSTEN (SCORER) FRONT ROW: MICKEY STEWART (TEAM MANAGER) NEIL FOSTER, IAN BOTHAM, DAVID GOWER, MIKE GATTING, Peter Lush, JOHN EMBUREY (V-CAPT), PHIL EDMONDS, ALLAN LAMB, GRAHAM DILLEY.

“The partnership with Broady did work well. Broady had an exceptional series and generally we got off to fairly good starts. Once or twice, we got off to very good starts and it worked.

“I certainly went out as one of the spare batters, I suppose. I think they had a rough idea of what they wanted the test starting team to be.

“But obviously, the build-up games gave them second thoughts. They took a bit of a punt with me to open the innings, but it all worked well in the first game. And throughout it, really.

“Brisbane got us off to a good start and did my confidence the world of good and others’ confidence in me, the world of good. The Australians thought: ‘well, he is all right and he can play a bit.’ It worked very well.

General view of The Gabba, Brisbane, Australia, venue for the first Ashes Test. (Picture: PA)

“We made our minds up to get stuck in and things worked. It didn’t really pan out as we expected and probably they expected. We hit our straps, got the bit between our teeth and kept going.”

The words of Johnson did the job too, with England’s inadequacies, so starkly and savagely spelled out in print, serving as a motivational tool for Athey, Broad, Gatting, Botham and co.

England never looked back from Brisbane and made light of their poor form in the warm-ups to come good when it mattered, proving that a bit of pre-Ashes criticism is no bad thing.

Athey, who played for Yorkshire between 1976 and 1984, said: “We were distinctly unfancied. With the way we had prepared up to the opener, everybody knew we had not played very well.

“Nobody had fired or done any good at all and the odds were stacking up against us with the bookies and everybody.

“But when you looked at the squad and you thought of Martin’s quote that ‘there’s nothing wrong with this squad apart from they can bat, bowl and field’, you knew it was patently untrue.

“Sometimes, things are written which are patently untrue and it can be tongue in cheek.

“We had a bit of a siege mentality early on when things aren’t going so well and people were writing us off. The first Test match proved to everybody that we were good enough to do well. After that, there was no hassle”