England v Australia
Old Trafford, Manchester
August 1 -5, 2013.
Australia: 7(dec)/527 & 7(dec)/172.
England: 368 & 3/37.
Opal is a seasoned cricket tourist, a veteran of many Tests on English soil. His belt even contains the notches of Windies and Indian tours. But for the rest of our group of seven, the Manchester Test represents a chance to cross a small item off our bucket-list. We are grateful that our wives have given us such an extraordinarily long leash; we just need to be careful that we do not hang ourselves with it.
Over the years, six of us have played cricket together at our club Williamstown CYMS, and indeed, we managed to organize a match against a local village team near Burnley (a story for another time, perhaps!). So by the time we roll into Manchester on Test eve after enjoying four days of Lancashire hospitality, the touring party is a little worse for wear. The rain is teeming down, and we are becoming increasingly concerned that play will be minimal at best. The weather outlook is grim. The experienced Opal, however, provides some sage advice: “Don’t go out too hard on the eve of a Test…the forecasters here are useless”. We decide to go along with his strategy, and are rewarded on both fronts – we are fresh for the start of play, and the sun is out.
From about lunch time on the first day, it becomes apparent that having lost the toss, England’s chief goal is to avoid defeat. The fields set to Michael Clarke and Steve Smith are ridiculously defensive, even though the latter is struggling against Graeme Swann. Having undergone some expensive renovations, of which the Lancashire county club is extremely proud, Old Trafford looks fantastic, although the splashes of red are slightly jarring to the eye. I am determined to watch at least the entire first day’s play and resist the entreaties of the Big Ship to join him in consuming vodkas at the bar.
Australia is by far the better team for the majority of the match. On the batting side of the ledger Clarke is imperious, Chris Rogers is solid, the pantomime villain David Warner re-captures some form in an entertaining second innings knock, Smith shows he has improved enormously, and Brad Haddin continues to prove the doubters wrong. The seamers have the better of the Poms, with Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle the standout quicks throughout the match. The Lord’s debacle is almost a distant memory. Almost.
It is in the spin department where England has it all over us. Nathan Lyon is honest at best. But when Swann comes on to bowl, the crowd has a sense that there is always something about to happen.
Thankfully for my liver, the first three days advance uninterrupted, despite the ever-changing colours of the Mancunian sky. I am happy to say that I watch a lot of cricket, and it develops into a brilliant Test match. Slugga, Chris, Opal and Jika travel to Turf Moor on the Saturday to watch Burnley take on Bolton in the season opener (1-1), and the Big Ship trains it to Liverpool for the Steve Gerrard testimonial game. Singing “You’ll never walk alone” at Anfield allows him to delete another item from his bucket-list.
But the rain will not be denied and it inevitably arrives in at tea on the fourth day. Australia is in control, and probably should have declared a little earlier in the afternoon. It is a surprise that Clarke has been so circumspect. Our fifth night out in Manchester is full of what-ifs regarding the final day’s play. The one certainty appears to be that the weather will play a part.
Australia is all over England in the brief session on the final day. It should allow them to go to Durham with confidence. We convene behind C Stand, drinking mini bottles of cab-sav out of plastic cups. Two of our crew once played grade cricket with big Merv, and he joins our circle and proceeds to regale us with stories for the entire afternoon session. It also provides us with a small insight into the manner and constancy with which celebrities are pestered. We later celebrate one final dinner together, at the hotel in which the Aussie players are staying. We decide to leave absolutely nothing in the tank (or pounds in the wallet), and there is a touch of sadness that our trip is drawing to a close, and we are preparing to go our separate ways.
It is a long time since I have laughed so hard (or drank so much). And the cricket was excellent, too. On the morning train back to London, Opal and Jacko are a little surprised that there is no alcohol on offer in first class, but I am thankful. And happy that I did not hang myself with the afore-mentioned leash.