The great outpouring of breath: the Ashes, anticipation and a man called Harmy

The walk to the ground, the murmur at the toss, the delivery of the first ball, it’s all about the expectation in an Ashes series. But in 2006-07, it was even more dramatic than usual, as Nigel Henderson, who was there, recalls.

The opening of a Test series is always special but I knew this one was going to be more special than most as soon as I rose from my hostel bed at 6.30am and stepped outside to feed my coffee habit from the machine on the communal veranda. There, on the steps that separated our original, mainly wooden structure from the more modern building, I saw a man in a Barmy Army T-shirt being interviewed by an Australian television crew. (It could be a dangerous thing wearing a Barmy Army T-shirt: you could never be sure when a media representative would leap out of some bushes and demand you be a spokesman for the nation).

I caught a snippet of the conversation, smiling inwardly at his answer to a question about how he could take the winter off to follow England round another country: he simply grinned and swept his arm around in an arc, inviting the cameraman to take some shots that would prove to the audience the paucity of the accommodation he was obliged to occupy.

Caffeine-reinvigorated, I passed the interviewee again, hoping against hope that he hadn’t forecast a wildly optimistic outcome to the Test series and roused my initially unresponsive girlfriend. By 7.40, we were on the road – a long, straight one called Vulture Street – to the ground. As we walked we were joined by people with the same goal, spilling from side streets and en masse from South Bank Station, down a ramp to our left. It felt as if we were extras in a meticulously-choreographed number from a well-known musical or part of a protest group marching towards a parliament with a genuine grievance and the conviction of right on our side: in fact, we were just cricket fans desperate to get to the Gabba early enough to circumvent the promised heavy security in time for the start.

Steve Harmison: destined to flummox A-level students everywhere

The first ball of an Ashes series is not one you want to miss.

It is not so much that the opening delivery sets the tone for what is to follow – although there are those who adamantly maintain that it does – but more that it provides an outlet for all the hopes, expectations and anticipations of the months that have preceded it. It is like a great outpouring of breath that has been held too long, the type that might be expelled by a Buddhist over-zealous in his meditation practice.

We took our seats, two from the end of the row in Bay 43, although it could have been bay 34 or 143 such was the appearance of uniformity the Gabba had taken on since it was rebuilt in the 13 years since I was last there.

There were no stands as such. Its mainly yellow seats were interspersed with others of maroon and turquoise but in no discernible pattern and to all extents and purposes we were enclosed in a compact concrete bowl. Stray too far from home in search of a sandwich in the morning session and you may not find your way back much before tea.

Ah, that first ball. It is one still talked about 11 years down the line – and maybe it really did set the tone.

Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden have come trotting on to the outfield, a gesture that signals Australian intent, body language that challenges England: “We’re off and running, can you keep up with us?” You’d like to think Steve Harmison, measuring his run-up at the Stanley Street End is having similar thoughts.

In his imagination, what is he seeing? In his body, what is he feeling? In his mind, what is he thinking? I know what I’m seeing, thinking, feeling. It’s not a wicked bouncing delivery that rears up unexpectedly to the splice of Langer’s bat and lobs gently into the slips. That would surely be too much to ask. No, what I’m anticipating is a ball on a good length, just outside off, with good carry, and which Geraint Jones, side-stepping towards his first slip, takes cleanly; I’m anticipating Langer making a slight movement forward, studying the ball watchfully, at the last minute withdrawing his bat – or maybe having a little nibble.

What I’m not seeing, thinking, imagining is Harmison racing in, skipping through his delivery stride and spraying the ball, at some pace, wide of a bemused Langer, wide of the return crease outside his off stump, wide, even of first slip. But that is what I’m seeing. It’s not immediately apparent to us high up behind long leg exactly where the ball has ended up, but not, we are sure, in the gloves of Jones, who is partially obscuring our view. I turn to my girlfriend for confirmation of what has happened but she is a cricketing novice and I see in her eyes that she’s not sure this is not supposed to happen.

“Has that … gone to slip,” I half-ask no-one in particular.

“Second slip, I think,” says my neighbour. “Yes, Flintoff’s got it.”

“Noooo,” we chorus, but by then we are laughing.

The crowd is by now cheering. Or jeering. Whatever, it is a remarkable opening to a Test series and beats the hell out of a square cut for four. For sheer implausibility it beats the hell out of a square cut for four.

The reaction for minutes, hours, weeks – decades – later feels like an A level exam question: Steve Harmison delivers the first delivery of the most anticipated event in Australian sporting history straight into the hands of second slip: it is two years to the day that he was ranked the best bowler in the world. Discuss.

This article is adapted from Nigel Henderson’s book, If It Was Raining Palaces: The Ashes Travails of a Whingeing Pom.