England still suckers for the Brisbane stockbroker scam

The Ashes
Josh Hazlewood celebrates the wicket of Jos Buttler in the first Ashes Test in Brisbane

England making a disastrous start to an Ashes series in Brisbane. We’ve been here before and we’ll be here again…

One of the easier cons for budding hustlers to implement is the Baltimore stockbroker scam.

This particular grift begins by spamming a large number of people with a prediction about an event with a binary outcome (for example, whether a particular stock’s price will rise or fall, or a sports team will win or lose, or a broadcast of a Test match will have functioning television cameras or not).

But the trick to the con is this: half the people receive one prediction and the other half receive the opposite one. After the result of the predicted event comes in, the con artist – who, for convenience, we’ll call Shane W – abandons all the people for whom he gave the wrong prediction and instead contacts all the others about the next binary event. Again, he splits his predictions 50-50. Again, half of those predictions will prove to be wrong. But the other half will now have received two correct predictions in a row.

If Shane continues with this process, he’ll lose half of his contact list with each pair of predictions. However, he’ll also be establishing greater and greater credentials with all those remaining, for whom he is seemingly getting every single prediction right. If he starts with about 1000 people in his list, then by the time he’s made seven predictions, there will be roughly eight people who have only ever seen a 100% success rate from him. Those eight become the marks (or cullinans, to use more modern con artist jargon), and having proved his predictive credentials, Shane will now offer to sell a fictitious system to them that provides this perfect success rate. The system obviously doesn’t exist, but the cullinans don’t know that, and if Shane is a good enough con artist, he should be able to persuade one or more of the eight to give him a large sum of money before disappearing into the night.

Which brings us, like the England cricket team, to the Gabba. For three decades, the Gabba was Australia’s unbreakable fortress. Every year, touring nations would start their Test summer there and, every year, Australia would strut away with a win or, at the very worst, a draw.

Ashes

Now obviously there are legitimate cricket reasons why the Gabba is a difficult ground for tourists to emerge triumphant. It’s typically a fast track with good bounce. These factors, along with the custom for it to receive the opening Test match means that any pitfalls that visitors face in adjusting to Australian conditions will be accentuated most there, giving the home side a substantial advantage.

(It also helps, of course, that for about half of that undefeated streak, Australia fielded one of the greatest Test sides of all time along with its slightly less great immediate predecessors and successors.)

But in addition to these cricketing reasons for Australia’s dominance at the Gabba, there is also the Baltimore stockbroker scam factor to take into consideration. When we allow for all the grounds in world cricket, then there will always be some that have undefeated streaks of varying lengths by pure chance alone. (Even more so when both a draw and a win count as a streak-continuer.) And over three decades, it’s likely that the Gabba also benefited at least partially from this effect.

‘Can’t wait to get you to the Gabba, Ash’

What the precise blend of Baltimorean stockbroking and cricketing challenges might be as tourist obstacles can be debated. But the fact remained that the Gabba had earned near-mythic status as a ground of baggy green indomitability. Australian fans would check it off in the calendar as a certain victory before the summer began. And despite predictable, media-trained ‘we never take anything for granted, Howie’ claims to the contrary, former Test captain Tim Paine’s infamous taunt of ‘can’t wait to get you to the Gabba, Ash’ suggests that the Australian players tended to pencil it in as a victory too.

And then Ravi Ashwin and the rest of the India side went to the Gabba at the beginning of the year and ended the streak. Which, all things considered, was a thundering nuisance for Australian cricket. It cost Australia not just the Border-Gavaskar trophy, but also a spot in the World Test Championship final. And it took a precious ‘in’ out of the indomitability of Australia at the Gabba.

But with all good cons, the facts don’t really matter. All that matters is what the mark believes. England had seen what India had done. They knew that Australia could be beaten at the Gabba. And maybe, for a brief moment at the end of the third day, they thought about contemplating the possibility of perhaps believing they could replicate the heroics of Rishabh Pant, Cheteshwar Pujara, Washington Sundar et al.

Apart from that one session, however, England acted as if the Gabbatoir had never been breached. The decision to rest James Anderson and Stuart Broad came across as them having written off the first Test before it even began. As if they’d put their hopes in that damp strumpet La Niña to help them escape to Adelaide with a 0-0 scoreline and their best bowlers fully fresh.

But with La Niña flaking out on Joe Root and his men, everything instead followed the same pattern as previous Gabba encounters between the two nations. From Joe Root’s choice to bat having won the toss under cloudy skies to the calamitous first day collapse and equi-calamitous fielding shenanigans on day two, all the way through to the final hope-shattering capitulation on the fourth morning, it all felt stunningly familiar to fans of both sides. England might have known it was possible to beat Australia at the Gabba. But they didn’t seem to ever really believe it.

A streak with caveats is inherently unsatisfying. But if Australian fans must have a caveat, then a lengthy undefeated Ashes streak at the Gabba will suffice for now.

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