During the Fourth Test at Headingley in 1993, the marvellous English crowd on the West Terrace, full of student ratbags with blow-up accoutrements and magnificent lager louts (local and itinerant) wearing soccer strips, watched Australia occupy the crease forever. Like the biggest kid in the backyard, Allan Border just kept batting and, while his mother didn’t ever call him in for dinner, he strolled out on the morning of a third day to reach his double century. Steve Waugh got a hundred and the Australians declared at 4/653.
When it was their turn, the pressured English batsmen were able to make an uber-flat track look like an underprepared down-the-grades Toowoomba couch-strip. With the English innings in tatters at 6/170 (thanks to Paul Reiffel, of all people) a group of varsity types who had been singing ‘Running Bear’ and ‘Sloop John B’ (with guitar), turned their voices to a melancholy number. “There’s only one Eric Bristow,” they swooned, “One Eric Bristow. One Eric Briiiiiiistow. There’s only one Eric Bristow.”
It was a sad moment for those who loved the Empire. British civilisation clung to glory in what seemed, then, to be a past-time barely known beyond the pubs of northern England. World-champion darts player Eric Bristow was their one and only.
And it was to get worse. Shane Warne had just arrived. I can think of no better way of describing his arrival in Test cricket than he flopped his cock out with that opening delivery at Manchester. The Poms were, by comparison, nervously changing into their togs with white towels wrapped around them.
Yet, while Warney was playing at Headingley, it was T.B.A. May who bowled beautifully, having two top-order batsmen stumped by Ian Healy in the second dig. Any stumping to an offie is material for pub yarns for us amateurs, and stories for the has-beens on the speaking circuit, but these were both right-handers – Atherton and Gooch, no less. (Atherton was to replace Gooch as skipper at the end of the Test, as I headed north to play St Andrews).
The parlous state of English manhood was on show on the fourth morning when, sporting a thick head from a night in some pub which ended with a return to our tent in a caravan park in Acaster, I downed an oil-dripping serve of cod and chips and was off to wash out the arteries with a pint of Smith’s Bitter.
While waiting in the queue in the bowels of the pavilion, we were enjoying the cricket on the TV monitor, when one local became agitated.
“Put the fookin’ golf on,” he yelled at the screen as Sumo Hughes put another one chin-high through to the keeper.
It appeared to be a gag.
However, he kept at it: “Fook you. Put the fookin’ golf on.”
An English chap, concerned for the general tone of England, said, “But we’re at the cricket young man.”
“I hate fookin’ googlies.”
“Well why are you here?” the gent inquired politely.
“Because it’s the only place in fookin’ Leeds y’can get pint at midday.”
The world has changed since 1993. Although it may be changing back. Warney is not long retired and he still flops. But the Poms found some grunt almost a decade ago and have had their moments of marvellous victory.
More importantly the world has started to appreciate darts. It would be unfair to claim that the English have marketed darts relentlessly in the hope that it would save the Empire. Darts is better than that. It needs no marketing. The den of Samantha Foxes it parades is also unnecessary although it gives it flavour and makes me wonder why Warney chose poker over tungsten-tossing.
England came to Australia this summer feasting on colonial pessimism which pub-discussions suggested was widespread – although the bookies knew better (as always). The first two Tests were dominated by one man. Mitchell Johnson didn’t really flop a la Warney. He more rolled his out in the way that Port Lincoln fishermen set nets off the back of trawler. He has been phenomenal.
Johnson started at the crease on the second day of this Perth Test with the game even-stevens. He went to a pearler: one of those deliveries which swings one way and seams the other. Then Smith went as well.
Siddle, Harris and Lyon added a useful 60, which frustrated the tired Poms and may have an impact as the match goes on.
What could Mitchell Johnson do on the bouncy Perth track?
As it turned out, not much really. Cook and Carberry, despite the play-and-misses and occasional nicks that are part of WACA cricket, fought hard and it took a stroke of ill-fortune to separate them. Bowling around the wicket, Harris’s new line befuddled Carberry who played on. He trudged off thinking he’d gotten himself out which is the mindset of the beaten batsmen and the driver who has just backed into a light-pole while trying to park. It was a silly accident. But an expensive one.
Root went to Watto in an incident which will give SEN talkback about 20 hours worth of material this week. The Australians thought Root feathered to Haddin. Root knew he didn’t hit it because he reacted, calling for a review instantly. Mr Erasmus did not use the reason of his distant cousin of Rotterdam; he raised his finger. He’d given too much weight to the flimsy evidence of an exuberant and triumphant Australian appeal. The lack of evidence doomed Root – the complete reverse of what should have happened. The lack of evidence must save the aggrieved else justice is disregarded.
Cook became even more determined. He could single-handedly keep his side in the Ashes – if he batted and batted and batted. However, he couldn’t resist Lyon’s short one and, trying to smash it through point, mis-timed his cut to Warner at backward point.
Pietersen looked fidgety, but up for the fight. Of all the world’s successful batsmen he is the quickest to be annoyed by the maiden over. He was sort of patient, but waiting. And when a half-tracker came at him he tried to pull it out of the ground. Instead he swatted it to mid-on where Johnson took a brilliant catch at the full extent of his heavenward reach. It was another helmet-era pull shot: foot lurching forward, weight heading back while playing it. There was nothing of Roy Fredericks or Ian Chappell in it. Nothing. Kevin Pietersen is over-rated. His biggest asset is his size. He blocks out the target.
Bell and Stokes survived an hour or so of gripping cricket with the heat-sapped Australians probing all the way to stumps.
It is set up for another fascinating day, given the state of the series.
No doubt the Barmies spent the night quenching their thirst in the pubs of Perth. Many will have watched City flog The Gunners.
All is not lost for them, nor will it ever be. The World Championship of Darts has just started. And, ask a Pom, he’ll tell you that Phil Taylor is the greatest living sportsman.
The Footy Almanac 2013 is available now. Order your copy here.