You Walk Alone With The Ghost Of Time – Australia and Me (Part 1 of a Few)

“Those darling byegone times, Mr Carker,’ said Cleopatra, ‘with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic vengeances, and their picturesque assaults and sieges, and everything that makes life truly charming! How dreadfully we have degenerated!” Charles Dickens

So, Australia. I’ve thought about this for a while now, and remember back to when I did a series on the Blackwash series of 85-6, which people seemed to like, and I enjoyed writing. This isn’t a history of the Ashes, I leave that to wallet chasers like the Analyst and so forth. It’s what Australia means to me. From the early memories, through 81, the 86-7 series, losing the World Cup Final, the juggernaut Aussies of the 90s and early 2000s, to seeing them in the flesh, to the 2010-11 series, the humiliation of 2013-14 to today, and their current plight. It’s going to take a while. If I have the inclination, I can spare the time, as the Pet Shop Boys nearly said. This is a post of Opportunities, after all.

There is, certainly within, me to lurch back to what Ian Botham thought was the curse of Ray Illingworth. “It was so much better in my day”. As India have closed a test series in Australia with a 2-1 advantage and taken home the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, there is time to consider how big an achievement that is for the nation that has most grown the game in the past 30 years or so. But it also makes me look back on the great players of the past that never won a series there for India. While this era may be the time of hyperbole and sell, sell, sell, yesteryear comes with rose-tinted glasses, an in-built editor for the unmemorable, and a forgetfulness for the sub-standard. There was crap authoritarian bullshit in huge supply from the governing bodies. There were players who divided the press, the populace and the players themselves. There were blowhards, know-it-alls, rent-a-quotes and mob rule just as there is today. Today, the players get paid more, and so do the administrators, and even taking for inflation, the people paying this are you and I – directly through ticket prices and subscriptions, or passed on advertising costs for the corporate backers.

So what’s my point, you ask, not for the first time. Well, I’m about to get a bit nostalgic and go back in time a little. The kernel of the idea for this post was planted by Fred’s response to my comment on the current Australian schmozzle over the ball tampering nonsense. I’ve been clear from the start. I think the ban was ludicrous, the reaction over the top, the penance a joke, and the authorities, some of who needed to be taken from the building kicking and screaming, playing the role of sanctimonious, pious hypocrites that I won’t reel back from. These were aided and abetted by a media who have one main role in life – generate heat, to get those clicks and peepers on the TV, to flog advertising. This was a story. The heat generated far outweighed the crime. That it carries on to this day, and Australia submitted meekly this winter to India as a consequence, is bizarre. An act of self-flagellation that will satisfy no-one. A crisis borne of its own self-regard, its own view of the world of cricket. England are not immune from this stupidity. We actually ban players for f*** all, and are told to shut up moaning about it by the authorities, acting with aplomb, the media, acting like ventriloquist’s dummies and the useful idiots in the social media world who clapped the result while not exactly considering what happens next time.

There can be a view taken, and some do, that I hate Australia, and that comment is the basis for what I want to write here. Australia has been the most important cricket influence on me alongside the West Indies of the 70s and 80s. I would watch them at every opportunity. They were an amazing team during the 90s and into the early part of the century. They are the most important series we play in the mind of most.

So with nostalgia firmly in place, for good or ill, let me take you back to my first cricketing memory and move forward. This piece is going to be what Australian cricket means to me, as an England cricket follower, and may take more than one post. Because it’s complicated.

It actually goes back, funnily enough, to a One Day International, probably a Prudential Trophy match, played at The Oval. All I remember about it is that they carried on playing in the pouring rain. I know I remember it because every time this person sat down in front of the TV to watch cricket and it was raining, I would say “well they played out in it in that game at The Oval, why not now?” It appears as though the game may have been this one in 1977 (http://www.espncricinfo.com/series/17145/scorecard/64960/england-vs-australia-3rd-odi-australia-tour-of-england-1977) but my faded memory could have sworn it pre-dated Viv’s 1976 destruction of England – thank god for real facts and not alternative ones. But let’s go from there. Chappell (G) was the danger man. He played the winning innings. Dickie Bird was the umpire in the pouring rain. I have no earthly idea who was playing for England in that game.

1977 was the first Ashes series I remembered, and to be frank, it was no big deal. To me, as a growing enthusiast for the game, my memories, my love for the game, and my fear for England derived from the West Indies team. Not Australia. 1976 was the hot summer, the summer of Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding. Immense innings augmented by pace. The game at a different level. I knew not of Bradman. I knew nothing of Bodyline. I had a book that told me we won the Ashes after donkey’s years in 1953 when Compton swept the ball to the Gas Holder. But that was it. In fact, looking back, that book had Randall’s cartwheel on the cover, so I would not have known even that.

1977’s series, won by England, had several memories for me. The Aussie to fear was Greg Chappell. I wasn’t really familiar with many of the others. England gave a debut that series to Ian Botham, and yet his test commencement, great as it was, was overshadowed by a run out. Geoff Boycott, who everyone knew (play a defensive shot out in the street, it would be “who do you think you are, Boycott?) had returned after exile, and came into the team for the third test. A memory of the time is that the series was being played under the shadow of Packer – at the time I never had a clue what that meant (Imagine BOC being around during that!) – and Tony Greig, a favourite of mine, had been sacked as captain but stayed in the team, and some grey-haired posh-speaker had taken his place as captain. The first test (might remember a catch or two, but nothing else) was drawn at Lord’s, the second won by England at Old Trafford. Boycott returned for the third test at Nottingham, and then promptly ran out the prodigal son of Nottingham, Rags Randall himself, and got booed. Mercilessly. I can still picture the head in his hands at what he had done. You can loathe Boycott all you want, but the bloke had some mental resilience. Australia had made 243 in the first innings, and Boycott’s faux pas contributed to England subsiding to 82 for 5. Then came Alan Knott. I remember looking at a TV in some shop window in SE London and Knott and Boycott still being there. They went on, and on, putting on over 200. Boycott made a redemptive hundred. Knott made a match-winning one. Australia set England 180, Brearley made one of his highest test scores to get us on the way to the ticklish total, and Boycott was there at the end for 80 not out. So was Randall. Lovely.

The fourth test of that series was played at Headingley, and this then gets into the realms of how life used to be. I was lucky to be able to go on a summer holiday with my parents every summer, and in 1977 this meant Kalathas in NW Crete. Nothing really happened while we were there. I met my first real-life Americans (they said “hey you guys” a lot and came from the big naval base on the west of the island). My mum had the most momentous strop on the whole family (the only one I ever saw), and as she’s no longer with us, I’m sort of safe to say it. Elvis Presley died. I got stung by a jellyfish – that sort of pain is very memorable. I got wound up by my little brother, turned round to give him a whack, and belted a local kid by mistake (I was 8) – his dad wasn’t pleased.

But the main thing you had to do, before I got a long-wave radio, was to find the shop that sold the British Newspapers. Yes, even at that age I was agog at newspaper writing. I was brought up reading the sports pages of newspapers by my parents. But on holiday finding out football scores and cricket scores was a different, and in some ways much nicer, ball game. If something happened on Thursday, it would be in the Friday paper, which you might get on Saturday, if you were lucky. That weekend, we found one. Boycott had made another hundred. That special one, the hundredth one. Then, every day we tried to find a paper to continue the story. That’s how we found out Elvis died. I’ll never forget where we were – Hania Market. Meanwhile, while Elvis was preparing to leave this mortal coil, England won the match by an innings, regained the Ashes with a 3-0 series lead, and Derek Randall did a cartwheel and ended up on Brian Johnston’s Book of Cricket the following year (a really important book in my cricket life – I still have the remants of it). I saw none of the test, though. Now there’s a problem that still exists today when I go the States. Then you couldn’t watch it. Now you won’t watch it (legally). A game, authorities will never learn.

It never really resonated, the importance of the series, until the next one in 1978-9. By then Australia were decimated by Packer, and the team was a shadow of what could have been put out. It was also the first series I remember where action from far away fields was shown on TV via mid-evening highlight packages. The BBC opened up the geography of Australia to this boy who loved maps. I still wonder to this day when we were going to go to Darwin as we’d visited everywhere else for a test (sorry Tasmania, you were an odd drop at the bottom of the country). We also won, a lot. 5-1. I missed one of those tests on a school trip. Might have been the one we lost. But this was brilliant. England winning easily against Australia. It seemed we reserved our worst performances for Melbourne, but still, mustn’t grumble at 5-1. Of course this was the series of Rodney Hogg. I sort of remember him being really quick. It’s that “sort of memory” we all have of certain sporting events. You think you remember, but you probably don’t. Subsequently, on the recommendation of one of the blog commenters, I got the Graham Yallop book on the series – the fall guy Aussie captain – and it’s superbly bitter. If you can pick it up, get it.

England visited Australia again the following year in a curious winter where we played three tests but the Ashes were not at stake. We lost the lot, I remember nothing. Not even the aluminium bat nonsense. I remember us getting into the haughtily named World Series Cricket final and not looking like getting Haynes and Greenidge out in one of the Finals, listened to no TMS when I could get the chance. Given I lived 8 miles from my primary school, the morning run was listening to this day-night oddity on the trek up to Deptford. This was the Australians being flash for flash sake in my eyes. Even then, as a 10 year old, I was quite resistant to the new world order. I loved test matches. ODIs? Not for me.

After I drafted the main part of the post, I realised I had left two main test events out. The Centenary Test played in Melbourne, where the first formal test match was played, and Lord’s for the English version, where the first formal test match in England wasn’t. Summed it up. The first game I never knew was going on, and it passed this young Deptford lad by. Of course, it was famous for Derek Randall’s solo super effort, and the result being the same as the first ever test. The second event was more famous for the Lord’s members kicking off and getting mad about the weather and the reluctant umpires. Oh yes, and Kim Hughes belting the ball into the pavilion. Boycott may even have made a hundred on the final day, but it doesn’t leave a huge impression on me.

I suppose, like most, the mysticism and aura of the Ashes, and beating Australia, derived from the events of 1981. Cricket, it has to be said, was massive in England then. In 1979 we had lost the World Cup Final, and then appointed Ian Botham the captain for the start of the 1980 season. A 1-0 loss to the West Indies was not a bad result, although the weather played a huge part. Botham’s baptism as captain was not helped by the West Indies being on the agenda that winter, and a 2-0 loss barely covered the tour’s story. Thrown out of Guyana, the death of Ken Barrington and an opposition growing into its pomp, coupled with Botham’s loss of form ramped up the media pressure. Without being melodramatic, if Alastair Cook thought that the media were against him in the aftermath of the 2013-14 tour, he’d walked about 2 feet compared to the mile walked in Botham’s shoes at that time. The media were vicious. This was not just the cricket writers, but the front of the paper mob too. Cricketers, and Botham in particular, were that famous.

The first test was played at Trent Bridge. It was a dull, drab, low scoring affair, played under miserable grey clouds. Australia had a little wobble chasing a small total, but got there and took a 1-0 lead. They had an innocuous looking dibbly dobbler bowler (compared to what we’d seen the year before) who kept taking wickets. Botham was out of sorts with bat and ball. England saw the pressure ramping up day-by-day. Botham was a match-to-match captain as Alec Bedser, faced by the froth and fury of a tabloid world, and an establishment mob who saw Botham as an oik, trying to walk a plank that was going to snap.

The concept that Beefy was constantly on trial was not helped when, immediately after the defeat, Alec Bedser, the Chairman of Selectors, announced that Botham was appointed as England captain for the first Test match only. “We have to decide whether the captaincy affects Botham’s play,” said Bedser, with Botham himself trying his best to remain positive over the affair: “It’s better than not being appointed at all.”

Both England and Botham would need a good performance at Trent Bridge to keep the doubters at bay. The Mirror’s “Both on a tightrope” headline summed up the player’s perilous position. – The Guardian – 9 July 2013

After a pair at Lord’s which I missed due to the minor inconvenience of being at school, the legend grew about the stony silence that greeted Botham’s return to the pavilion. As always, it seemed, with Lord’s, this was a bore draw, but England had a big issue. Botham resigned “a minute before he was sacked” (Matthew Engel – Cricinfo). England listened to his sage advice in the now oft-played interview. They picked Brearley as captain. Then came Headingley.

As a 12 year-old I recall the start of Botham’s innings to turn around our fortunes coinciding with attending my little brother’s sponsored walk at Deptford Park. It was a Monday. The first day I knew nothing of the score. The second day coincided with last day of term, so no interest there either. Saturday was sitting in front of the TV, or going out to play football. I saw some of Botham’s 50 in between the horse racing. Then Sunday was a rest day (although we started experimenting with Sunday play in subsequent games – something I welcomed because Sundays were boring), and Monday we were all resigned to defeat. I do remember the Saturday morning being one of the most boring spells of test cricket in my memory. England became shotless. It wasn’t the only time.

So when I got home, England were on life-support, but somehow, someway, Graham Dilley was batting well. Botham was chancing his arm. Now this is what gets a kid truly inspired by the game. Alderman suddenly looked human. Lillee, dominant throughout, not looking too great now. Lawson, tyro Aussie, losing his rag. Ray Bright being ordinary. The deficit decreased. There was still no hope, but this was, at least, exciting to watch. I’d missed many of Botham’s batting tour de forces until then, but now I could watch. Anyone who underestimates the power of visibility in sporting figures needs to take heed of moments like this. You could sense, as the stories of the comeback were being told, more and more people switching over to BBC 2. More and more people willing him, Dilley and then Chris Old on. You sensed it meant so much. The legendary confectionary stall six. The thrashes over the slips, the belt to deep backward point for the hundred, Botham running the first, big sweater on, raising his bat and fist. I sometimes didn’t warm to him as a kid, but you didn’t half love him then. The gesture from Brearley on the boundary to stay there in between the applause for the hundred. All there. Seared in my brain, with or without the endless replays of the game. If this was an epoch in English cricket, mis-appropriated, repeated more times than Dad’s Army, clutched to by England fans during the dark days, then so be it. For it is what sport is about. Victory from the jaws of defeat, attacking and reckless, thrilling and without pressure, it seemed. If you sneer at Headingley 1981, then you are wrong. It made heroes. It gripped people. It is what sport is absolutely all about.

But even me, who did have some grains of optimism, thought 130 to win wasn’t enough. But I was going to watch it all, to the last. My dad was a printer, and he was on the real late shift, so he wasn’t up and about. Mum worked weekdays. My brother didn’t care. So it was me, on my own, in the living room, glued to it. The dodgy first wicket of Wood, who probably didn’t nick Botham’s wide half-volley. Then peace until just before lunch, Australia on 56 for 1. The wickets off lethal short balls to get first Trevor Chappell, and then straight away, the dangerous Kim Hughes, and we were in business. In my head it was now all about one man. Stuff Dyson and his dull first innings hundred. Who could see as dull a batsman as that win the game. It had to be someone getting Allan Border out. Already he had that aura with me. The player to dismiss along with Hughes.

Yallop lasted five minutes, getting another brute from Willis. But with Border there, it was still in their hands. When Old got one through his defences, it was 65 for 5. I thought we had a chance. Willis got Dyson, and then the dangerous Rodney Marsh, who probably brought forth Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ most famous TV commentary “Dilley underneath it….AND HE’S CAUGHT IT”. Lillee gave me heart palpitations before I knew what they were, but when Gatting took the catch at mid-on we could breathe. Willis cleaning up Ray Bright (after two drops in the slips) and then wheeling away in delight had me waking up Dad. I think he was pleased to be woken up with the news.

You can’t put a price on experiences like that. But what did it tell me of Australia? Well, at this time all that had happened was they bothered to put a full team out only at home. They were riven by Packer. They had decent bowling. But they hadn’t embedded themselves in my cricketing soul. The West Indies had. It was important to beat them, but you did not feel like you were beating the best.

I’ll pick up Part 2 from Edgbaston 1981, and take it up as far as I can, probably to the inflection point on the relationship. The 1987 World Cup Final and then the 1989 Ashes. I’d love to hear any memories you have from the late 70s, Headingley etc. All I can say is that I never had a favourite Aussie player, I never particularly cared about playing them, I never measured England on the Australia axis. They were beaten in England, and we could beat them there (I didn’t know any better).

Obviously since those days I’ve bought and read a lot on the above matches. The pictures above are from some of the books I’ve snaffled on Amazon SecondHand Books, or at cricket book stalls. The rivalry is such that now reading about your childhood memories reinforces the views of the day, basked in the hindsight of what was to come a few years later and the Aussie total domination. It’s what makes the game special. It’s why it should be treasured. I look forward to writing Part 2. I genuinely enjoy stuff like this.

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