Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Ashes

After the ever increasing fanfare and bullshit of the last few weeks, finally the cricket has begun. Like most Australians I’ve been waiting almost 18 months to reap revenge on the English for the impetuous way they stole the Ashes off us last time. And what a good start today was. Ricky Ponting, I think it’s fair to say, was even more stung than me by our last Ashes defeat. 130 odd not out at stumps on day one, he looked like a man most definitely on a mission. What a great player he is. I’m just looking forward to more and more people acknowledging his place in the game on a higher pedestal than Greg Chappell. I never have forgiven Greg for the way he turned down giving me an autograph all those years ago. Just because I was a 14 year old kid and knocked on the door of his hotel room to ask him. The cheek of some people! Putting his privacy above the pleasure of an invasive little kid. What a cunt! I’ve never forgiven him. That and his susceptibility to the short ball, of which Ricky is one of the finest players ever.

The dark event in question was back in Brisbane around 1977. We were staying in the same hotel as all the World Series Cricket teams. Andrew Kausman distracted the girl at reception while I leant over the counter to find out what rooms all the players were in. We struck gold. Kerry O’Keefe and Trevor Chappell - well perhaps bronze there rather than gold. They weren’t so happy to see us at there door. It was only their looks that told us to fuck off rather than their words, but the meaning was pretty much the same. Richie Robinson (great Victorian keeper/batsman a bit ripped off to have not played more tests) came to his door dressed in just a towel. I didn’t really understand about pedophilia then, and am happy to say that Richie never let the towel slip. More to the point, he was fantastic. Invited us in and was happy to have a chat to us for 10 minutes about cricket. I always loved Richie even more after that. Then came Greg Chappell. The doyen himself. He just more or less snarled at us. I don’t think he used the words fuck off, but he might as well have. It was the coldhearted look in his eye that has stayed with me all these years. No autograph there then. Graham McKenzie was just coming out of his room at that stage and saw the incident. He took us in to have a quiet word about respecting the players’ privacy. He did it in a really nice way. We just wanted to meet the players and having the then Australian record wicket taker lecturing us about knocking on their doors and invading their privacy was as good as any other conversation. We nodded understandingly and tried to extend the lecture out as long as possible. After leaving them and heading back down towards the pool we got in the elevator with Marc Hunter from Dragon. Talk about rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrities! As for Greg Chappell….

Yeah the Ashes. There’s nothing quite like it. I guess it took England beating us finally after so many years to remember the passion. The sad and regular defeats of the 80s had been worn down since 1989 by continued Ashes success. Mind you, I have to say that I have always savoured them. And if I think back, they are like a yardstick against my life. My earliest Ashes memories are from the 1970/71 series. We were in Perth over Christmas and I remember the Melbourne Boxing Day test being abandoned. The series ended up having 7 tests and I thought that this was how long series always were, but in fact they just added the Melbourne test back on at the end. I remember as well the drama of the fearsome John Snow, and the magnificent test century on debut of that great young champion batsman Greg Chappell (oh yeah him). And the sacking of Bill Lawry. And Ray Illingworth leading the English team off the field when someone in the crowd grappled with Snow. All events coloured further in the years since by seeing old footage and reading more on the events. But I remember clearly the feeling as a 7 year old when we lost the Ashes. I was surrounded by cricketers all the time, so probably just picked up the emotion from them. I learnt early that losing the Ashes doesn’t make anybody happy.

And then in 1972, I remember vividly the footage of Rod Marsh waving his bat around as Australia passed England’s score to draw the final test and level the series, although as a 9 year old, cricket on the other side of the world in a different time zone happened almost exclusively while I was sleeping.

It was only really in 1974/75 that I devoured a full Ashes series as it was unfolding. As an 11 year old I was already fanatical. And what a series to behold. England had the Ashes. I remember the pre-series banter about how great a batsman Dennis Amiss was – best since Bradman I seem to recall some journalists saying based on the vast amount of runs he’d scored in county cricket. What they hadn’t fathomed on was Lillee and Thompson. Seeing those guys in full flight and the English batsmen mostly cowering was sensational. I was in grade 6 and I can remember still the first day of the first test in Brisbane. We had a full MCG style scoreboard going, up on the blackboard, detailing the fall of every wicket as Thommo just ripped through the Poms. The summer holidays were spent going from the tv to the backyard where test matches would unfold between myself, Mark Chipperfield and occasionally Cameron Wyman. At that stage we were often using a cricket ball, padding up and bowling flat out at each other, on our uneven grass pitch. We nicked a log seat from the school next door to use as a roller, but it was more for the ceremony of rolling the pitch than actually making it any flatter. During one game on our dodgy wicket, I remember getting a rearing ball from Chipper that I instinctively pulled through mum and dad’s bedroom window. Mum wasn’t happy and sent dad out to tell me off. He suggested that when I played the pull shot I should roll my wrists at the point of contact so as to keep the ball down. Less likely to get caught at square leg he said. Mum heard and he copped more shit than me. I think he was secretly proud. Unlike dad, mum never seemed to understand the important growth gained by the breaking of windows with cricket balls or footballs over the years.

While not actually an Ashes series, the Centenary Test in 1977 was a major milestone. I was in year 9 by then. Old enough to go to the cricket by myself. Are 13 year olds old enough to venture on their own to the MCG these days? I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to work that one out in the next 7 or 8 years. I even wagged school one day to go to the test. Every single player who had ever played in an Ashes test was invited to attend, and most living players had accepted and gone along. John Axton’s father was a member and so he got to sit amongst all of these great old players. I was so jealous. That’s what inspired my wagging I think. I left after lunchtime and got to the ground some time before tea. I made my way around to where the outer meets the members and watched the game from there. And what a game. Derek Randall was fantastic for England. I saw the first 87 of his 174. And Lillee, as dominant a figure as ever. Great players on both sides performing at their peaks. During the tea break I dropped the tennis ball I’d brought with me on to the ground and jumped straight over to fetch it. The cops weren’t quite as vigilant then so I didn’t get rugby tackled and have my face ground into the mud like happens today. Instead I retrieved the ball and climbed back over the fence, except this time, into the member’s enclosure. Very happy with the way I’d brilliantly outwitted the establishment, I went hunting around with my autograph book to seek as many signatures as I could find. Some players I could recognise, many I couldn’t, but there were legends everywhere. I knew many of their names and deeds even if I didn’t know what they looked like. Meeting Jack Ryder was a highlight. I couldn’t see Bradman anywhere, which really annoyed me because John Axtons had met Bradman and got his autograph. Still, I was in bliss. And it was the first time that I gate crashed the MCG members.

And so began the dark ages. World Series Cricket. All of our best players still in their prime. We were the best team in the world, and then all of a sudden, none of these players were allowed to play test cricket any more. How depressing. I couldn’t get into the WSC as much as I wish I had. A lot of the greatest players the world has seen, but it just wasn’t real test cricket. All that was at stake really was the personal pride of the players, like in any exhibition match. That did make for some great cricket undoubtedly, but there was no real competition to it with history like the Ashes. It just wasn’t the same. Yet we still had to play England in 78/79 in the “real” tests. They had hardly anyone who’d defected to WSC so still had a pretty full and strong side. We had players like Trevor Laughlin and John Maclean. Alan Hurst was opening the bowling while Dennis Lillee was unavailable. Graham Yallop and Peter Toohey were our number 3 and 4 batsmen, instead of Ian and Greg Chappell. And things didn’t get any better for a long time. After WSC finished and the players came back there was a huge rift in the side. We were fucked for years. England used to just turn up and win the Ashes. We should probably have won the 1981 series that England look upon so fondly. Some memorable performances by some of their champions helped along by some woeful performances by us. And then a procession for what seemed an eternity through the 80’s of Gower, Gooch, Gatting, Botham, Lamb. They even brought along the most boring cricketer to ever play the game in Chris Tavare, just to torment us at how shit we were that we couldn’t even beat them with players such as him in the side. Tavare was so boring in his batting, that during one innings, a spectator ran out on the ground with a chair for him to sit in. And their bowlers who always seemed so innocuous but always seemed to get us out pretty easily – Pringle, big fat Eddie Hemmings, Geoff Miller. Even Gooch would bowl a few down. And we’d just seem to crumble. Another batsman out hitting a Botham half pitcher down mid-wicket's throat! I hated cricket in the 80’s. At least I admired the West Indies. In fact the only salvation of cricket in the 80’s was that even though the Poms came over and would give us a whipping, they were mere fodder for the might of the great Windies teams of the 80’s. It seemed to me that they were doing to the English what we should have been doing. We were just too shit to do it.

Until 1989. And finally, with the English press having given us a big pasting as the worst ever Australian team to land on English shores, we shat on them. 4-nil. The dawn of a true golden era of Australian cricket. Border, Taylor, Boon, Marsh and of course Steve Waugh. Finally we were back to where we belonged. The winning so enjoyable after the pain of so much losing. The West Indies still kept thumping us for a few more years. But at least we had the Ashes.

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