The one in which Neil ticks an item off his bucket list…
More than a game?
As you might imagine, given the conditioning that goes on here from the generally poor standard of broadcast journalism on offer (for the most part, it’s the regurgitation of political bumph and Covid statistics that Australian television viewers are being bombarded with) it would have to be something of enormous significance, and huge importance, to take the seemingly ceaseless stream of Coronavirus scaremongering off our television screens, newspaper front pages and Google newsfeeds.
But something did do that in December, and that was The Ashes. A series of five cricket matches, arranged to straddle the Christmas and New Year period – the summer holidays here – to be played by Australia against a touring England side, over two months.
The Ashes is an event of such common interest in Australia that it has managed to galvanise a nation otherwise irritably divided state against state, as the federation continues to deal in different ways with the public health crisis posed by Covid, and State Premiers look to the weekly opinion polls to steer and cement their policies; albeit that the daily press conferences they give mostly contradict the information provided only the previous day, giving the distinct impression of witnessing policy-making being made on the hoof.
The popular term to cover this phenomenon is to describe a situation as being ‘very fluid’. Indeed, there have been days where the fluidity and keenness to keep the public informed have resulted in seemingly hourly press conferences; such is the insatiable hunger here of politicians to appear on our television screens, and the reciprocal need of broadcasters for content to fill the available airtime.
The rise of 24 hour rolling News channels in the UK in the 1980s was received by almost all of us in the broadcast industry with utter dismay – the notable exception being News journalists, of course; the rest of us believing that such a move was akin to handing the keys of the asylum to the lunatics, whilst simultaneously gifting the broadcast media an unalloyed opportunity to steer public opinion with little recourse, with few robust checks-and-balances being put in place. Such was the naivety of the time.
Which was indeed naive: and British society has changed irrevocably over the last 30 years because of this programming: to take the two most recent examples – the coverage of Brexit and Covid – the journalistic standards in the mainstream media managed to decline exponentially to new lows, and in direct proportion to the disappearance of integrity in its Siamese twin, the Westminster political bubble.
But what of a country like Australia, distanced from the crucible of world events, yet home to some of the world’s most crudely outspoken politicians? Well, that’s where the influence of the weekly opinion poll comes in to fill the vacuum.
As the BBC’s Australia correspondent Nick Bryant wrote in his 2014 book ‘The Rise and Fall of Australia’:
‘[opinion polls] have become major news events in their own right, the weekly highlight of often meagre newsroom diaries in a country short of breaking stories. For 24/7 news channels, newspapers online and the Twittersphere, they are manna from heaven.’
And he hits the nail on the head as accurately as any tradie could, when he says:
‘The breathlessness in the coverage of the polls heightens their faux news value even further.’
This breathlessness is played out each night on indistinguishable television stations such as Channel 7, 9, 10 and the ABC, with male and female news anchors taking on all the gravitas, credibility and plasticity of a Netflix parody, but with no hint of irony.
A state of independence.
With borders closed between states until either 80% or 90% of their respective citizens were fully vaccinated (that number changed from state to state and then changed within some states as time went on) an air of deep mistrust was seeded in various regional media outlets at the prospect of out-of-State, ‘not from not round here’ people crossing borders; bringing to life the spirit of the fictional, close-knit community of Royston Vasey.
And whilst the mainstream media manages to restrain from interstate name-calling, social media has no such restrictions and banter between folk from different states is often peppered with references to the New South Wales people being ‘cockroaches’, Queensland people being ‘cane toads’ and ‘banana benders’ (and the Brits are ‘soap dodgers’). I take it that these terms are said in fun by mates; but ‘banter’ can also have an extra edge to it here.
It was a cruel blow to the many cricket fans hoping to travel interstate to the opening Test Match at Brisbane’s Gabba stadium, and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk left it late to announce her decision on when the border with New South Wales would re-open; calculatingly timing the relaxation of the border restrictions to coincide with the day after the Test Match finished. Which left the 42,000 capacity Gabba looking somewhat sparse on the opening day of the series, with a reduced crowd of 30,000 achieved only by a flurry of late ticket return sales caused by those spectators unable to enter Queensland. By Day 4, not helped by England’s lacklustre performance, the attendance had fallen to just 19,000.
Not that any of this seemed to particularly bother the Australian fans who did make it to the game and were sitting all around me on that opening morning. United at last after weeks of bemoaning how many players in the national side were from states other than their own, this fiercely partisan approach to the team’s selection was yet another of the many unexpected new experiences I have had since moving here.
Less like cricket, more like ‘Crikey!’
To attend an Ashes series in Australia, especially at ‘The Gabbatoir’ as it is known as by English players, was ticking an entry off my ‘bucket list’… Other items on that list include a British Lions tour of New Zealand with my son Sam, (the next one is in 2029, but the Lions are here before that, in 2025); attending the Australian Moto GP at Phillip Island (hopefully later this year); and playing guitar on stage as a sideman to my fabulous musician-chum Ash Robinson.
I was pleased that I had secured tickets for 4 of the 5 days for me, Day 1 to Day 4, and Day 2 to Day 4 for Heather. These were hard to come by and our pair of seats would be in different stands each day, but I didn’t buy tickets for all five of the days because I felt sure the Test wouldn’t get to the 5th Day. At times, I wondered if it would even get past Day 3: because it proved to be as inevitable as it was brutal an opening to the series for England.
The build up to the first Test had been intense in the media, as interest in the Ashes series was initially aroused with a few weeks of speculation around ‘will they or won’t they come?’ stories; and then other op-ed pieces started appearing in the papers, such as: why Covid restrictions should not be lifted to accommodate the English players coming into Australia; how wives and children would not be allowed to accompany the England players; and how the travelling British media could endanger Australians.
All standard tabloid rumour mongering of course, that inevitably descended into the taunting of the England players: including a suggestion that the England team was ‘too scared’ to leave home soil and travel to Australia. This despite several of the England Ashes-squad players sharing the Australian team’s plane home to Brisbane from Dubai, being reported by these same newspapers elsewhere in their editions.
Coming in to this series, England had suffered an untimely exit from the T20 Cricket Word Cup to New Zealand in the semi-final, so I can’t imagine that it would have been a comfortable flight for the England squad, moving straight on to The Ashes: the prospect of 15 hours in the company of a victorious Australian T20 Cricket World Cup squad would surely cause any non-Australian’s heart to sink.
Aussie sportsmen (again, I use the pronoun advisedly as it is predominantly men that demonstrate this trait) have a tendency to be somewhat boastful in victory and rather faint with praise for their vanquished opponents: which I suppose is only to be expected in a land where the runner-up spot is treated with derision, to the extent that it’s not just the back pages of newspapers that deride sporting failures with cutting headlines – scholastic papers authored at Australian institutions are published with titles like ‘Second Place Is First of the Losers’, written by academics, (in this instance from Monash University in Victoria), who deeply examine sports performance and reinforce the national ideology of victory.
Cricket though is surely a game that stands unchallenged for the first-place spot in the dual-discipline of ‘unfathomable jargon and detailed statistics’; and one statistic that made hard reading was that it had been 22 years since England last won a game at The Gabba – a sobering fact not helped by the legendary hostility towards any England team that ever visits there.
It must affect the nerves of the visitors – its obvious intention – and on that first morning, on the way to the ground and nervous myself, my mind went back to poor Steve Harmison bowling the first ball of the 2006 – 2007 Ashes series for England at The Gabba. With a baying crowd anticipating his run up, he managed to bowl a ball so fast, but unfortunately so unbelievably wide of the target, it required an arm around his shoulders from team Captain Andrew Flintoff and words probably along the lines of ‘Come on now old son, settle yourself down’ before he bowled the next ball… So as bad omens go, that one was up there.
England lost that 2006 Test, and indeed went on to lose every match in that series; and no matter what else Stephen James Harmison MBE achieved in his cricketing career, such as two Ashes wins, taking 226 wickets in 63 Test matches, or taking 744 wickets in 211 First Class games – even taking all 10 wickets in one match – he’ll be forever remembered, especially in Australia, for that opening wide ball. Without doubt, that was induced by the cauldron-like atmosphere generated that day by the crowd in The Gabba.
The Aussies are well-known as a tough crowd, and they relish this of course. However, the palpable extent of this still came as a surprise to me as an Australian Ashes Test virgin. As it must have done to the England opening batsman Rory Burns, the 31-year-old Captain of Surrey, as he walked out to face the first ball of the 2021 – 2022 Ashes series.
A Test player since 2018, Burns is not exactly a novice: not uncommonly, he bowls right-handed but bats left-handed and has managed to notch-up 1,763 runs in the process; including a score of 133 against Australia in the last Ashes series (as it happens, at Heather and my old ‘home ground’ of Edgbaston, in Birmingham).
This was not to going be Rory Burn’s finest hour though, as he was dismissed by the very first ball of the series, delivered by Mitchell Starc, the brilliant Australian fast bowler, who sent down a Yorker that struck the base of Rory Burn’s leg stump and sent the bails spinning through the air.*
It was said that the sound of the initially incredulous, and then rapturous, crowd could be heard in the Queen Street Mall, when Rory Burns succumbed to Starc’s first ball. That’s a considerable distance from The Gabba, but I can well believe it. All around me was total mayhem as I sat in the stand, a lone Englishman with his head in his hands, adrift in a sea of lager, surrounded by fellow human beings (mainly men, it has to be said) dressed as huge bananas, Disney princesses or simply wrapped in the Australian flag (a design once described by the American comedian Jerry Seinfeld as ‘Britain at night’).
The disappointment for many Australian supporters there was that The Gabba didn’t open its doors early enough to let all of the waiting fans in to see the first over being bowled – and it wouldn’t be the last time in this Test that the stadium management’s judgement would be called into question.
An Over is a series of 6 balls bowled from one end to a batsman; then another over is bowled from the other end, and so on.
A Yorker is a delivery from a bowler that lands next to the batsman’s feet as he stands to receive the ball; as opposed to someone whose Alma Mater is the University of York (such as myself) or a member of the Royal family who is accused of multiple illegal sexual acts against a minor (such as Prince Andrew).
The leg stump is one of the three stumps that hold up the Bails, it being the one closest to the batsman’s legs: the other two being the Middle stump (the centre of the three) and the Off stump, the one closest to the bat.
The Bails are two smaller sticks that balance on top of the stumps to form a Wicket, and their being dislodged and falling to the ground is an indication to show when a ball has hit the stumps.
The term Wicket is the combination of the stumps and bails, but it also refers to the grass pitch that the game is played on. (As every schoolboy knows, a cricket pitch is 22-yards long between the wickets, this being an Olde English unit of measurement known as a Chain). Pitch is also a term that has two meanings: the playing surface and the point at which the ball lands on the ground in front of the batsman.
As a sidenote, to be ‘caught deep in the gully’ refers to a fielder catching the ball in a certain position, as opposed to being seen on the field of play adjusting the middle stump inside your cricket trousers; and similarly, the 3rd Man is not a ‘turned’ Oxbridge graduate of high rank in the British Secret Service, subsequently exposed as working for the Russians with treasonable intent. But instead, it is a fielder placed half-way between the slips (the fielders alongside the wicket keeper) and the boundary.
(I’ll end it there, even though there are still a further 50 or so quaintly named fielding positions available for discussion.)
Rain stop play.
The first day did not get much better for England following this disastrous start: batsman number 3, Dawid Malan was dismissed with the score at just 11 runs and Captain Joe Root was also dismissed for a ‘golden duck’ (meaning he was out first ball – as was Ollie Robinson, batting at number 9). By the time the threatening electric storm arrived overhead, England were all out for just 147 runs. The deluge that accompanied the thunder and lightning prevented Australia from starting their first innings, but it didn’t prevent me from getting completely soaked through as I left the ground early, correctly anticipating that there would be no further play that day.
I waited forlornly for Heather to collect me in her car, and drenched to the skin, I had to strip down to my underpants to prevent soaking the passenger car seat; much to the amusement of our grandchildren, Bethany (6) and Hudson (8), who had asked to accompany Heather on the journey to collect me. And it was a good job that Beth was strapped into her Formula 1-style child-seat, as she could have done herself some serious damage with all the involuntary writhing brought on by the paroxysms of laughter, she and Hudson found themselves having to deal with. Let’s not forget, these kids are Australian.
Day 2 was always going to be better as Heather was with me, plus we had a splendid home-made picnic to share and our seats in the Member’s stand were only a short distance from the Member’s bar. As it happens, England bowled very well. Not as well as Australia had, it has to be said, and errors here and there in the field cost England dearly; and a few unsuccessful leg-before-wicket (LBW) appeals and a couple of difficult dropped catches didn’t help their cause.
There was optimism for a while that Australia could at least be checked (you never know whether your first innings score is good or bad until your opponents come into bat), but the runs kept coming all day for Australia and their score climbed inexorably higher. The day’s play ended with Australia still batting, and already well ahead at 343 runs for the cost of 7 wickets.
The merrie band of England supporters that make up the ‘Barmy Army’ had remained vocal throughout, as their number, greatly reduced by the inter-state and overseas prohibition orders, worked hard to make ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘God save The Queen’ and ‘Jerusalem’ reach the far sides of the ground from their enclosure on the south side; and a full day of hearing their trademark repetitive chant of ‘Barmy Army, Barmy Army, Barmy Army…’ obviously registered with Heather. As we left the stadium after a perfect day’s cricket, and walked through the beautiful Brisbane night, she started singing out loud: ‘Balmy evening, balmy evening.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so proud of my wife as I was at that moment.
Day 3 allowed sport to do what sport does best: that is, it introduces false hope that your side is doing better than it actually is, tricking you into thinking that a result might just go your way, before the opposite happens. Like John Cleese’s terminally frustrated character Brian Stimpson in the movie Clockwise, by the end of the day I found myself stealing one of his best lines from the film: ‘It’s not the despair, Heather. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.’ Me and no doubt the whole of the Barmy Army.
Because when England eventually went back into bat, after Australia had clocked up a seemingly unassailable first innings score of 425 runs, they looked like having a much better second innings than their first; and even though the openers had gone early, skipper Joe Root and Dawid Malan got their heads down and started to pile on some runs between them. English belief started to fill the air. Australia worked diligently in the field all day, but they were unable to dominate the game as they had for the first two days; and at the end of this, the third day, the gritty partnership of Joe Root (on 86 runs) and Dawid Malan (on 80 runs) meant that they walked off the field knowing that they had both put in a good shift for the side.
Later that night, Andy Bull writing in the Guardian reflected on Dawid Malan’s innings, and quoted his upbeat mood:
‘I actually said to Rooty, when we were both on 40 or 50, or similar scores, and the Barmy Army were singing, I said to him “I’ve really missed this, someone trying to blow my head off, and the adrenaline going, playing against the best bowlers.”’
Press and television pundits all agreed that the match was now delicately balanced; no wonder then that the Barmy Army had begun singing the theme from The Great Escape.
Relax. I’m not going to subject you to a ball-by-ball description of the agony that followed for England on Day 4, other than to say it turned into a disaster for them; but it felt like it was silly, nefarious off-field gamesmanship that was pivotal in pushing the first domino over to bring about England’s early downfall.
The previous day’s profitable partnership of Joe Root and Dawid Malan were tasked with getting back into their groove as soon as possible and to continue frustrating the Australian bowlers for as long as possible. England and Australia were both running down the clock, and a truly fascinating day’s play was in prospect. Australia needed to get England out quickly – whilst England needed to slow things down, dig-in and stay batting all day.
The English batsmen sensibly took the first couple of overs to get settled in and their focus and concentration bore down on the task in hand. Which is why, three overs into the game, the calamitous sound of trumpets blaring all around the ground through the stadium’s Public Address system was an unpleasant and unwelcome intrusion.
As the Death March from Star Wars blared out across the stadium, play was held up so that around two hundred Australian supporters dressed in white Star Wars Storm Trooper uniforms, complete with helmets, could enter the stand and take their seats en-masse. Anyone could have been forgiven for thinking that the main event of the day was the carnival entrance of the Gabbatroopers, as this Australian supporters group call themselves; as opposed to the finely balanced game of cricket we’d come to watch, between two of the best sides in the world.
For a good 5 minutes, the umpires, the two batsmen and the fielders stood around and watched this early Christmas pantomime going on; the Australian players understanding perfectly well that this much distraction for the batsman would require yet another re-focussing of attention when play resumed.
I’m afraid I had a real sense of humour failure and felt pretty incensed about it all, no doubt in a stereotypical, red-faced and stuffy-British way (listen to me going on as if I have a Lords tie and matching blazer); but honestly, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I can see that there’s fun in dressing-up and going to the cricket (we’d gone in tasteful matching Bunnings hats, Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts, for instance) but I thought it was a terrible decision by the Gabba stadium management to allow this side-show to take place at the time that it did, with the crucial opening session so delicately balanced. Why not ensure that these people were in place before play started, or for maximum entertainment value, time it for the morning drinks interval? Hurrumph!
The game was already 30 minutes old when the stoppage occurred, notwithstanding that the gates had been opened for more than an hour before play started. I mean, can you imagine going to Liverpool’s Anfield ground or Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium and half-an-hour in, the referee stops the game and the players all stand around, so that some more fans all dressed up as Minions can pile into the ground? Or the Pace Car drives onto the track at Silverstone in front of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen to slow them down, so that some late comers wearing Nun’s outfits can take their seats in the stand? I’m sorry, but at that moment, I wasn’t able to view it as anything other than a silly, planned diversion – an event stage-managed by the stadium that was obviously going to disrupt the English batsmen’s concentration. How come we didn’t hear the Gabbatroopers entering with a huge kerfuffle whilst Australia were batting on the morning of Day 2?
And then, with ‘I knew it, I knew it!’ inevitability, the first ball bowled after this circus-stunt, saw Dawid Malan dismissed by bowler Nathan Lyon. It was Lyon’s admirable 400th Test wicket, but the celebrations that followed, for me at least, had a hollow, cheap feel to them; and my first utterance was not a normal cricketing term. Luckily, today we weren’t in the Member’s stand.
I don’t know. Whether it was an innocent cock-up or a planned conspiracy, the entrance of the Gabbatroopers and the influence it had on the game illustrated perfectly the crude gamesmanship that abounded in this Gabba Test match. The disappointment was not just that it was unbecoming, it was totally unnecessary: Australia were always the far better team in this match.
‘It’s only cheating if you’re caught…’
It’s not the first time that Australia have cheated at cricket: the infamous ‘under-arm’ bowling by Trevor Chappell, under orders from big-brother and Captain Greg in 1981, preventing a New Zealand batsman from being able to hit the last ball of the game and possibly drawing the match, was widely condemned at the time as being not only the lowest point in Australian cricket, but that of any Australian team, in any sport. But was it the lowest?
In 2018, whilst playing a Test match against South Africa in Cape Town, Australian cricketers Cameron Bancroft, David Warner and Steve Smith were found to have tampered with the ball on the field of play, by scuffing one side of it with concealed sandpaper; which had the effect of altering the flight of the ball to the batsman’s disadvantage when it was bowled. Even before the Australians were caught on camera, the commentators were remarking on the surprising way in which the ball was swinging in flight. Evidently, whatever it was that was going on, it wasn’t subtle.
Eventually, the all-seeing television cameras caught this going on and it was viewed around the world; and after an outcry, Cricket Australia eventually handed down an unprecedented 12-month ban on team captain Steve Smith and vice-Captain David Warner, both of whom it declared were directly involved in a premeditated strategy to unfairly affect the outcome of the match.
A crying Steve Smith gave an embarrassing public apology for the disgrace he’d brought on the team and himself; yet rather like a wily politician that makes the decision to promptly resign their office when found guilty of a major misdemeanour, it appears to have done little damage to either Smith’s or Warner’s cricketing career: both were playing in this Gabba Test, and Smith would even go on to captain Australia in the second Test a few days later in Melbourne; due to incumbent captain Pat Cummins falling foul of Covid track-and-trace technology, when he ill-advisedly decided to dine out with friends in a city restaurant the night before the match began, and came within ‘contact distance’ of someone who tested positive for Covid the next morning.
Field of Dreams.
Our Day 3 seats, downstairs in the bleachers, were an enormous contrast to my Day 1 seat and our Day 2 seats, which were in the upper tier. Downstairs we were amongst the heartiest and most vocal of all the Aussie fans: and I’m convinced my mate who sourced the tickets for me did this on purpose… Anyway, I made a point of standing and clapping at any and every hint of England progress; and to the Australian fans credit, there was absolutely no comeback on me for doing this. I was not totally alone, but in this section, England fans were massively in the minority.
Then as the day wore on, two things happened: we got sunburned and I got depressed; despondent that the good humour of the fans in funny fancy dress was comprehensively undone by the spiteful comments that were relentlessly hurled at the England fielders that came close to us, at the fine leg boundary.
England bowler Ollie Robinson in particular took it in spades, but still managed to smile and wave as he signed caps and shirts for the excited youngsters that squeezed to the front; not yet having transitioned into the larger, lager-fuelled louts behind them. I’m probably too serious or too sensitive to be a ‘real supporter’; but be it football, rugby league or cricket, I’ve never been able to shrug-off the kind of spectator behaviour that cruelly targets players on the field as being harmless banter, or all part of the fun of being a fan.
Let’s be clear though – that’s not just an Australian trait, of course; far from it: English fans – particularly those that travel abroad to watch football – have one of the worst, if not the worst, reputations for anti-social behaviour.
How to sledge without snow.
When verbal abuse is thrown about on-field, between opponents, it’s called ‘sledging’; and it’s directed towards a batsman at the wicket, and designed to break their concentration and focus. The origin of this term is disputed, but it was first used in Australia, by newspaper reporters in the mid-1970s.
Ian Chappell, an ex-captain of the Australian national side and one of the three famous Chappell brothers that all played for their country (previously mentioned brother Greg also captained Australia and youngest sibling Trevor was a bowler of some repute – as described earlier, when he bowled under-arm against New Zealand on Greg’s instruction) claims that the term started at the Adelaide Oval in either the 1963 – 1964 or the 1964 – 1965 season, when a cricketer who swore in the presence of a woman was said to have reacted to an incident ‘like a sledgehammer’. As a result, he says, the direction of insults or obscenities at opponents became known as ‘sledging’.
But the BBC’s commentator and reporter Pat Murphy gives a different account: ‘My understanding is that it came from the mid-sixties and a guy called Grahame Corling, who used to open the bowling for New South Wales and Australia… Apparently the suggestion was that this guy’s wife was having an affair with another team-mate, and when he came into bat, the fielding team all started singing When a Man Loves A Woman, the old Percy Sledge number.’
The legendary West Indian batsman Viv Richards was notorious for punishing bowlers that dared to sledge him. So much so, that many opposing captains banned their players from the practice. However, in a county game against Glamorgan, Greg Thomas attempted to sledge him after he had played and missed at several balls in a row. He informed Richards: ‘It’s red, round and weighs about five ounces, in case you were wondering.’ Richards hammered the next delivery out of the cricket ground and into the nearby River Taff. Turning to the bowler, he commented: ‘Greg, you know what it looks like, now go and find it.’
Listen with Mother.
The introduction of highly-sensitive microphones set into the stumps, and now used to add a hyper-realistic extra to a cricket match’s soundtrack from the bowler’s pounding feet and the click of leather on willow, was prompted by an invention by the English computer scientist Allan Plaskett, in 1995. The mini-microphones were an essential part of his ‘Snickometer’ device: an audio waveform, ball-against-bat technology that was first used on-screen with its oscilloscope waveform display, in Channel 4’s 1999 cricket coverage; and it was designed to forensically examine if a batsman has or has not hit the ball with their bat. But over the years, verbal indiscretions by players have also found their way to air, thanks to sound supervisors leaving these microphones faded up.
When India toured Australia in 2018, Aussie wicket keeper and captain, Tim Paine, gave Indian batsman Rishabh Pant a torrid time verbally in one of the 5-day Tests, taunting him about being replaced in the one-day side by M.S. Dhoni. TV viewers heard Paine ask Pant about the spare time he would unexpectedly have, saying ‘Do you babysit? I can take my wife to the movies while you watch the kids.’
After the game, at a reception held at the Australian Prime Minister’s house, Paine’s wife Bonnie posed for a picture that she later posted to her Instagram account, showing her standing with Pant, and him holding her child. She captioned the picture ‘Best babysitter’.
And Paine has form with winding-up opponents to the point that umpires have had to intervene: such as in the 5th day of the 2018 Perth Test against India, when his conduct towards the Indian captain Virat Kohli was viewed by officials as having crossed the line from banter to abuse. And that’s the crux of the issue, both on and off the field: what Aussies laugh-off as banter when challenged about it, others can’t, don’t or won’t. (India, by the way, won both the four game 5-day Test series as well as the 3 game One Day International series on that 2018 – 2019 tour of Australia.)
But there’s another unfortunate twist to the Tim Paine story. In late November 2021, Paine, still the Australian captain, suddenly no longer figured in this 2021-2022 Ashes series, after an unpleasant story resurfaced in the press about him sending sexually explicit photographs of himself to a female colleague in the Australian camp.
In quick succession, Paine first stepped down as captain and was then dropped from the team altogether. It’s still too soon to say how his prompt decision to resign, the distress caused to his family and the reports of his own mental health being badly affected, will impact on his statistically impressive cricketing career, or his personal life.
All good things must come to an end…
sadly, I’d been right in my assumption that the Gabba Test wouldn’t run to 5 days. Our Day 4 seats had been once more in the bleachers, but this time close to the sight screen at the Vulture Street end of the wicket, and thankfully, we had found shade; as opposed to the slow-roasting we’d endured in our Day 3 seats further round the ground, in the heart of the die-hard Aussie fans.
And in our hearts, we had suspected all along that Day 4’s play would be us watching the finale. England had only managed a score of 147 in their first innings, but improved with 297 in their second session, yet Australia’s mighty first innings score of 425 meant they only needed 20 runs to win, which came quickly; and even after demolishing our picnic during what day’s play there was, we were back home by the early afternoon. (With me still steadfastly maintaining – to anyone who would listen – that the off-field nonsense that preceded Dawid Malan’s dismissal that day, completely turned the game.)
Looking back with fondness, now that the hurt of witnessing such a drubbing at first hand has faded and eased a little, I have to say that my first Australian Ashes experience at the Gabba was certainly visceral; but like Australia itself, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any bit of it it for the world. There had been a possibility that I wouldn’t be able to attend due to an on-off, on-off engagement for work; but that once again failed to materialise, and I did get to go.
We’re now members of the Gabba which should mean that in future we can secure seats more easily for big games and sit higher in the ground, all of which has three distinct advantages: the seats are fully under cover from rain and sun, the view of the wicket is clearer for the seats being elevated and the members bar has shorter queues than the public bars. (And no, I don’t think that’s elitist; it’s entirely practical…)
Woe, woe and three hundred times woe!
If a Gabba Test is an unnerving and dispiriting venue for the first match of a long series (which it certainly was for this England side) their woes only got worse after the game: match referee David Boon (himself a retired Australian international cricketer) took it upon himself to fine England their entire match fee of $300,000 AUD for ‘slow play’ when they were in the field (whilst they were playing in 37 degree heat, England were deemed to have bowled 30 balls less than they should have done throughout the match).
Considering Australia won comfortably within 4 days, and with 9 wickets in hand, this seemed to me to be a harsh penalty to hand down; and smacked more of Boon happily doing Australia a favour by doling out a psychological blow to England, on top of their crushing defeat.
It could also be said that England didn’t really get the run of the ball with some non-dismissal decisions in this game, too. (By the second Test in Melbourne, even the Australian press were questioning how on earth David Warner was surviving so many calls on the decision review system (DRS)). It’s often the way when you’re down on your luck in sport, but those England appeals against the Australians, when reviewed by the TV umpire on DRS, certainly seemed to have outcomes that heavily favoured the Australian batsmen, upholding the original ‘not out’ decisions of the umpires: themselves both retired Australian professional cricketers, Paul Reiffel and Rod Tucker. Even the TV umpire who made the ultimate decision, after reviewing the available footage from several angles and with the aid of computer simulation, Paul Wilson, was an Australian ex-international cricketer.
Considering that the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) rules on the appointment of umpires and referees states that the prime considerations are that they are ‘Independent of the countries involved in the match/series’ and ‘The best available umpires for the match/series’, it seems to me that the officials chosen for this match were emotionally at least, all a bit too closely connected to the host team for impartiality to be assured. No doubt Covid was the catch-all, cop-out clause again with this however; and let’s not forget, Covid remains a very fluid situation.
Australia was undoubtedly the better side in this match; and the better side deservedly won. England bowled well – better than the score would ever suggest – but with the bat, they were no match for a relentless and unstoppable Australian attack. Which makes the theatrical antics and gamesmanship that inevitably surround any game involving the Australian national cricketing side, so unpleasant and discomforting to watch.
I’m not by any means suggesting that a mindset of ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts’ will ever be a guarantee of high-level success; but in sport, like politics, the manner in which winning is achieved is important: be modest in victory and gracious in defeat, for goodness sake. I couldn’t help thinking that the boorish, adolescent and ungracious manner with which this game was played, and won, did a gross disservice to the enormous talent and quality of the individual Australian players, and the team as a cohesive whole.
There are two tests left in this Ashes series, Sydney and Hobart; and I have two hopes: the first is that if you hadn’t previously had any kind of interest in cricket, this article might have kindled at least a passing interest in this most peculiar of commonwealth contests. The second is that England avoid the ignominy of a 5 : 0 white-wash.
Sport… It’s a metaphor for life, isn’t it? And The Ashes is not just about cricket, is it? When England arrived at The Gabba on the first day, an Australian fan shouted at the team as they made their way to the entrance: ‘You’re playing the whole country, mate!’ But I’ve no doubt that the England players would have laughed this off and known that it was only a bit of good-natured banter. I mean, ‘Come on, mate… This is ‘Stralia!’
Still to come…
I’ll tell you what’s still to come – and that’s our furniture, our personal belongings and my three motorcycles. The container arrived in the Port of Brisbane on November 28th; yet the earliest delivery date we have been given for our stuff is January 21st. A cool 8 months since we left the UK. Will it all really be here on the 21st? Am I really speaking to a human when I contact Allied Pickfords in Brisbane (‘The world’s oldest and most trusted removalists’), or am I actually conversing with an online algorithm, like Ikea’s virtual assistant bots, ‘Anna’ and ‘Billy’? The latest excuse is not just ‘Covid’, our delay is now specifically due to the border opening up again between NSW and QLD. But then, I suppose I do need to remember that everything is very fluid at the moment.
Cover picture: The Gabba viewed from the Member’s stand. [All pictures © Neil Hillman 2021 – 2022]
I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.