South Africa 2/255 v Australia.
I write the same thing every year. But I have always gone to the first day of the First Test with a group of university mates. It started when we were actually studying together. Although that’s not really true. It started when we were partying and playing together while enrolled at university. In those days the Gabba Test marked the end of exams for everyone. As a student you were free. As a tutor or lecturer, if you worked hard you might have all your marking out the way. The old Hill used to rock with varsity types who in the Queensland context rubbed shoulders very easily with plumbers and roof-tilers and blokes from the Department of Mines and other blokes down from Eidsvold.
This year the poor students are still sitting in the exam halls. This Test is too early. And there is no Hill anyway.
Over the years I have observed the changes as this group has gathered. We have had a year of fiftieth birthdays, and 2013 will feature the milestones of the other half of the regulars.
There was a time when I was the envy of the group. That was about fifteen years ago. I would arrive at the Gabba bright-eyed with tales of chasing beautiful women (unsuccessful), and golf (unsuccessful), and long evenings at the RE (Hotel) talking books and life with Mike Selleck (successful), and trips to sports events (frequent), and the punt (about even). I was always ready for a big Gabba Test and a big series. It was part of a delightful continuum. They would arrive with tales of nappies and illnesses, mortgages, and annoying work colleagues. Tired-eyed, they were ready for a big day and a big Test match. The sound of the warm-up and the hubbub of the crowd and the first walk to the bar on those beautiful Brisbane mornings and they were back at uni again.
How things have changed. Now I envy them. Having finally managed to catch one I have this tribe of kids and a strong need (biological and moral) to feed them. So this is the second year in succession that I am not with them. My thoughts are, as Jim Maxwell comes on the radio, and the Channel 9 music starts.
So much has changed in those three decades. Some things I find very amusing. One, Australia is playing a Test match against South Africa, unheard of in the early ‘80s. We only knew the African curiosities of World Series Cricket like Garth Le Roux.
More importantly though is how we experienced cricket. It is a delicious paradox that despite squillions of dollars being spent on marketing by cricket organisations and millions of dollars being spent by media companies on covering the game those of us who are not fanatical but always have a place for the game of cricket in our lives know less about it than we did then. Then we could name the six Shield captains and most of the sides (but we could also name the six state premiers – who the hell are they now?) We certainly didn’t need to be reminded of the players of the visiting Test teams. But I suppose Viv and Clanger Lloyd and Beefy Botham will do that to you. We were waiting for them. Watching them in the lead-up.
This Test just popped up like a mushroom. “That’s right,” we were thinking, “the Test.”
Who is that bloke with a beard?
Who is this Philander?
Oh, is Graeme Smith captain now?
Oh, and I see Allan Donald’s not opening the attack?
Kallis: is he still plodding away?
Funny thing is South Africa is the best Test team in the world, having just beaten England, away. Funnier thing is that we are less likely to know that even though there is a world rankings system. I am trying to find explanations for this. Is it just that I am distracted? But aren’t a lot of people distracted on a daily basis? Has the way cricket is played, marketed and conveyed actually worked against it?
I am imagining the scenes at the Gabba; imagining the group of nine friends who have gathered. Where would they be?
Meanwhile I am in Melbourne at my desk writing a bit of a preview of the match and of Stakes Day at Flemington. I am tipping South Africa: they are a very good, very established, very settled cricket team. The Australians, by contrast, have been all over the shop, despite a fine home series against a less-than-determined Indian outfit last summer.
A glance at the TV shows the Gabba wicket has a green tinge to it – as is often the case. The forecast is for cloud, and then rain. Conditions will probably suit the bowlers. So it is a brave decision, in some ways, for Graeme Smith to bat.
The opening hour is well-contested but yet again it lacks something. Michael Clarke sets two men out and the Australians feed Smith’s nurdle to the leg side. The openers steam in but they look self-absorbed, concerned for their own form. A couple fly past the bat, but things are relatively quiet.
It’s sort of industrial. Like they’ve punched the bundy again. It has the appearance of percentages. It’s like the extremeties of the Bell curve of emotion have been lopped off – a little more each season in the interest of process and control.
I want madmen playing this game. Crazies like Rodney Hogg and D.K. Lillee.
But I’ve had little sleep and cricket is not all about me. Or is it? Surely I have to relate to it. The stump mic is back-to-front. We should not be hearing the banalities of the players, they should be hearing something to light them up. There should be stump-speaker pumping out Bohemain Rhapsody and Kiss and even Eye of the Goddam Tiger.
James Pattinson does show some of his inner-Hogg. Had there been a review system in R. M. Hogg’s day they’d have been used up by 11.23am. Pattinson gets one through the crouching Smith and there is a mighty appeal. Billy Bowden shakes his head. Pattinson is bewildered. He shows how bewildered he is. He keeps running towards Clarke and quite clearly says, “That’s out.”
While the skipper is consulting the percentages book which he has committed to memory and remembering Policy 2.2(b) which also swims around in there Pattinson will not be denied. He wants this reviewed.
The review is successful.
Amla comes to the crease and settles in on a wicket that is playing few tricks. The Australians bowl a tad short which is fine by Amla who has the neatest back foot in world cricket, and one of the best back foot punches through cover of all time. He’s all elbows and arcs and the bat comes through…well, beautifully. Amla is a beautiful batsman.
So he has to be attacked early. The Australians work at him and one delivery gets through and flicks the top of that back pad. Again Pattinson insists on a review and but the system works against the Australians: despite Hawkeye showing the ball will hit the stumps, it also shows that not enough of the ball is hitting the stumps so the original decision stands. Had Amla been given out, and he reviewed, he would have been out.
The first hint of the madness that this game requires comes when Nathan Lyon is thrown the ball, during the first session. He shows he has some nerve. Realising it is the opening session and that his side must break through, he bowls aggressively, with loop and giving the Kookaburra a good tweak. One turns and bounces and flies away off Wade’s gloves. Everyone makes a note of that. Amla decides to belt him out of the attack and a single blow over long on does that. Lyon is taken off after his three promising overs are expensive. Another one please?
Petersen and Amla become comfortable and wait for the poor deliveries. They take almost no risks.
After lunch the Australians are again denied. An edge from Amla doesn’t quite carry although I am surprised Ponting has not lent forward and to his left in attempt to snaffle it because the bounce is pin high. Ten out of ten for degree of difficulty though. The other chance is more realistic. Hilfenhaus balloons an in-swinging yorker at Petersen. It catches his foot before ricocheting onto his bat. There is a huge appeal. Turned down. Review. The review shows the ball cannoning into the stumps but Petersen has managed to get his toe outside the line (really?). He survives.
Soon after he loses concentration and spoons Lyon to mid-on.
Jacques Kallis arrives looking ageless. He sums up the situation quickly. Once he has worked out the pace of the wicket he treats the Australian bowlers with the level of respect he thinks they deserve and scores at nearly a run a ball. Rather than supporting the re-establishment of their respect, the skipper throws the ball to Michael Hussey, and then to Robert Quiney on debut.
Amla continues to accumulate runs. He gets past 5000 (who is that bloke with the beard?) Test runs with a series of drives to both sides of the wicket, front and back foot. Peter Siddle deceives him with a slower ball but carpets the return catch. Oh dear. You have to make opportunities and then take them – in any cricket.
The game meanders to the close which happens conveniently for Channel 9 at three mineutes before news time.
Amla walks off to respectful applause. He is a great player. He is a blend: a little G.S. Chappell, a little Mark Waugh, a little Zaheer Abbas, and you can throw in a few others. He is also Amla.
The South Africans are in a powerful position. Immense pressure will eventually fall on the Australian top-order, and on the aging middle. That’s when the South Africnas feel they have enough to declare.
I ring the uni crew who are on top of the world. They are young again, and together. They are off to Choiv’s place for palenta and they tell me “Choiv’s got three home brews on tap.”
Maybe Dr Suess isn’t the worst option.