So, our Ashes squad isn’t doing as well as we’d hoped. So far we’ve been better than a team that was expected by some to go 0-5, but not much better. The First Test had a fascinatingly close result, but there was also a freakish debut innings and last wicket partnership that wallpapered over the cracks somewhat. A mere two tests later, both the central characters in that momentarily nation-binding partnership of hope were out of the XI. Stability has been something we’ve grabbed for, but never kept within our mitts. It’s not unfamiliar to me – but gee, it’s a long time ago.
The first day I spent at the Test cricket was with my older brother in 1982 at God’s home ground, the Adelaide Oval. I had just turned 10. I’d caught the cricket virus towards the end of the previous summer and suddenly there was nothing else in the world. I still vividly remember Kim Hughes hooking two sixes over our heads where we sat in front of the scoreboard in the mid-December sunlight. The day started particularly positively for me as my first cricket hero, Geoff Lawson, had come out late the night before as a night watchman and thus was in the action straight away – even though he didn’t last long. I’ve got countless memories of those first days at the Adelaide Oval – probably enough for another article if I cared to find the time to reflect and type.
Two and a bit years later, and we were off for the first Ashes tour that I would follow closely. I was by then an avid reader of Australian Cricket magazine – imagine my delight when I learnt early in 1985 that they would be in publication every calendar month of the year! You beauty – new cricket reading every month! (Did I mention I was raised in a country town with no library, no cricket team – no other kids in all truth? So, every Australian Cricket was a passport to the world I wanted to live in.) I bought a small exercise book and wrote up all the statistics that I could of every member of the touring party, complete with photo’s from Australian Cricket back issues. A few more pages than expected were required when Messrs Maguire, Rackemann, Alderman, McCurdy and Rixon announced they were heading to South Africa with a rebel team. Apparently they weren’t popular on the international stage around that time. I was 12, I didn’t understand. There was an Ashes series coming up – explain the story to me once the Oval test match is done and dusted.
When the first test kicked off at Leeds, my brother was home with us for a rare weekend away from the big smoke. He was pretty clever with the telescope, and we were blessed with a clear night, so we trotted out to the front yard with the telescope and he amazed me with his ability to find distant celestial beings and tell me all about them (he still does). But we had a soundtrack with us. 5CK – now ABC North and West – at 639 on the dial relayed to us the glory that is English cricket commentary. Playing the previous three summers in Jamestown’s junior cricket grades, I’d never heard a shot described as ‘glorious’, ‘exquisite’ or heard of one being played ‘with a flourish’. And certainly, I never remember anything cricket-wise in my world being interrupted by a surprise cake from the other side of the country. I loved it then. I love it now.
The first test turned out to be a disappointment. Andrew Hilditch, who walks past me in the street these days from time to time, scored a hundred in the first dig but once he left, we fell away. I remember a photo in Australian Cricket towards the end of the tour of Tim Robinson, with a caption along the lines of ‘Robinson displayed a fondness for the ball being delivered towards his pads, and the Australian attack was surprisingly obliging’. He scored 175 at Leeds, and we weren’t within coo-ee, even if we did give them a scare in their chase. Never mind, it’s a six test series, and KG Cunningham (Adelaide sports radio legend) had told me what to expect anyhow – ‘we will beat the Poms’.
And we won at Lord’s. McDermott continued to announce himself on the world stage, Ritchie (a favourite of mine) almost made a hundred and Border almost doubled that. Then Bob Holland – yes, Bob Holland - took five wickets in the English second innings and we had to pass a small total. As was tradition, and perhaps still is, we made a meal of passing it, with a little Gower magic removing Wessels when we were starting to look confident. But we won, it was 1-1 and KG’s prophesies seemed promising.
The third test at Trent Bridge was a run-fest, which was good for us because Wood and Ritchie scored hundreds and we enjoyed a big first innings lead. Trouble is, they scored runs too – finding form when it really was starting to count. And so while the fourth test was drawn, there’s no doubt who was beginning to look the stronger unit. Gatting scored a huge ton and McDermott was the only bowler to take a wicket for us. Only another Border ton saved us from embarrassment.
The concerns were showing in my scrapbook. At the start of the tour, every tour game score and bowling return was being noted for each player. Possible selections were being considered with every county game with enthusiasm, wonder and excitement. By the time the fifth test was upon us, I think I knew that things were turning away from us. My notes weren’t being maintained with their customary precision or enjoyment. My hero Lawson wasn’t performing as I’d come to expect, Border was only being supported by occasional cameos from his fellow batsmen. It wasn’t looking good. But it was still 1-1.
We know what happened. The last two tests were each lost by an innings, with the final being an embarrassing capitulation. Robinson, Gower and Gatting all scored tons at Edgbaston and they uncovered a bloke called Richard Ellison who bowled apparent swinging hand grenades. Gooch and Gower – again – scored hundreds at the Oval and, well, frankly at that point I was beyond caring. We’d lost. And lost badly. It was to get worse. New Zealand were to beat us before the year was out, too.
The 28 years that have passed have thankfully seen more wins than losses, although recent times show a worrying return to the 1985 era. I’ve been to England twice in my travels, and each trip has involved cricket in some way. In 1994, as well as the obligatory tour of Lord’s, I visited the Hambledon cricket ground, reputed in some circles as being the ‘cradle of cricket’. In 2005, on the first day of my trip I visited the ground at Canterbury, the famous ground with the tree in the outfield, that only two or three players have cleared. And then, after winning the Ashes for the previous 16 years, I was there for the penultimate day of the series that saw England retain the urn after so long. Flintoff was awesome at the Oval that day. I wasn’t sad to be on the train to France the next.
There is still a beauty to watching and listening to the cricket from England for this little Australian who sadly never realised his dream of wearing the baggy green. And it all started one night in the mid north of South Australia, standing in my dressing gown, listening to 5CK and looking at the rings of Saturn. Funny how these things begin, sometimes.