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December 5 2006 in Adelaide

SK

Beyond the family home Adelaide Oval is among my favourite places. Previously, it was uncluttered and open and big country-townish; more like the St. Lawrence Ground in Canterbury than a modern Australian stadium. Its boundless space and light have been replaced by vertiginous, curved shapes.

It’s the final day of Adelaide’s 2006 Ashes Test. Earlier, in the twilight of my teaching year, between tortuous enrichment activities, I’d watched the cricket in the staff room with some chaps, leaning in towards the screen, increasingly enticed by the grip of the action. Across our city in offices, shops and factories folks were getting itchy. Some mates and I volleyed texts at each other. Let’s get in there. Sorted.

I’d gone on Day 2. Like most I went home assured of an inconclusive match as Paul Collingwood accumulated a double century, while SK Warne struggled to 1/167, in an analysis cheerlessly reminiscent of his 1992 debut at the SCG. Then, after our first innings, the draw appeared more certain.

Indeed, the first four days suggested nothing else.

My most recent Test match experience had been September 2005 during the Ashes at The Oval. Down from Hertfordshire on a sodden Saturday we watched as rain repeatedly forced Langer and Hayden back to the sheds. The urn we’d held since 1989 was slipping away. The Barmy Army’s affectionate Shane Warne back catalogue offered musical entertainment when the sport provided little.

I love speculating about cricket’s fascinating relationships. The Waugh twins. The Chappell brothers, educated at the primary school our boys attend. And SK Warne and pretty much everyone he encountered on the pitch, and off. Like many of exceptional talent he was attracted to those with approximate, but ultimately different cricketing arsenal.

With his infuriating confidence and bird-poop splattered hair, Kevin Pieterson had a curious affinity with our leg-spinner. Shuffling forward and attempting a sweep, he swatted crudely at one outside leg stump. Lobbing in the rough, it stole behind his limb like a spy, and his feebly listing front pad, before spitting poisonously. In yet another wholly engrossing single-act production, the Kookaburra finally, fatally bit his off peg. It had spun several feet. It was the summer’s most compelling moment. KP had been schooled by his elder, and England was in trouble.

By now, each delivery from SK Warne was Vegas show business, but pure in its fizzing, hypnotic joy. And then Ashley Giles registered a duck to a monstrous delivery, while the supporters continued to splatter the ground, as if populating a Monet.

I contemplated my friend BJ O’Sullivan at home in Harrow. Barry identifies as Irish, and had significant quid invested in Australia triumphing in the series 5-0.  At mammoth odds, too, so he’s enthusiastic from afar. Incidentally, I once hosted a party in England, and among the guests were the same Barry of Norf London, Jimmy from Glasgow and Paddy from Ireland. True.

England is skittled in the penultimate session. Australia bowls cleverly in pairs with the blonde one taking 4/49; not spectacular in the seismic sweep of his career, but within this Test, and this series, it’s contextually huge.

From our members’ bench, we look eastwards towards the low, brown Adelaide Hills, noting how these continue the topographic theme established by the squat stands of this cricket ground. With school holidays, Christmas and a languid summer approaching, our mood is brash and buoyant.

The intrigues and narrative complexities gone, Australia is presented with a simple plotline: 167 from 36 overs. Langer clubs the first ball through mid-wicket for four. Vivid as ever, Bill Lawry bursts, “He goes bang. Four. It’s a one-day game.” As should happen the match is to be decided late, in its fifteenth session.

When Hayden goes it’s 2/33, and there’s some frisson. Questions murmur beneath the fig trees, and we bristle, momentarily. But, Michael Hussey is authoritative with 61no, and declares in an interview that he, “Bloody enjoyed it!”

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As the winning run is clipped through midwicket Bill yaps, “Look at the seagulls flying about. They’re saluting the Australians!” Beside a second Ashes victory it’s the locals’ ninth consecutive Adelaide Oval victory. The players rush down the steps next to us in a celebration as demonstrative as a football festivity.

The leaden sky of the previous London summer has vanished somewhat, and with lingering sentimentality, I feel at home, in this, my tiny, flat city, which clings to an inconsequential gulf. Transitions, especially the ones back to familiar places, can be angular and troublesome.

Later, among the eddying ecstasy, Damien Martyn, surely our most picturesque bat since Mark Waugh, clarified his feelings about his spot within this coterie. Richie Benaud had noted that at some stage everyone looks in the mirror, and on this most magnificent of Australian cricketing days, Martyn retires instantly, but with a stylish absence of extended tabloid explanation.

At this time my wife, some of my cricketing colleagues and many thousand others rushed towards Robbie Williams, pop singer of Stoke-On-Trent, who was to perform at Football Park. Curiously, Robbie was often referred to on BBC Radio 2 by Jonathan Ross as the “bug-eyed yelper.” Those at West Lakes enjoy the former Take That troubadour, and his most magnificent show.

Football Park is now abandoned and Adelaide Oval has been vividly reshaped. December 2006 was the last time I would see McGrath, Langer and SK Warne play Test cricket.

Nonetheless, December 5, 2006 was a really good Tuesday.

 

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Boris, The Bunch of Cherries, and The Gatting Ball

AB and me

I can see it now. I’ve a horrifying habit. Too many times, I’ve accidentally chosen to work where the local pub is the worst in town.

St Albans is a fetching cathedral and market town, just north of London, in the glamorous greenery of the Home Counties. It boasted over eighty boozers when I lived there, and most prominent is the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in Verulamium Park, where once stood a Roman city.

An eleventh century building on an eighth century site, it’s the Guinness Book of Records holder of oldest pub in England. Our townhouse was an easy par 4 from the Cocks, but I worked on St Albans’ periphery near the untreatably dreadful Bunch of Cherries. I’d many a pint there with my workmates, although as an example of 1960’s Dismal Brick/Shithouse, it has less charisma than a Heathrow toilet.

I now work in Singapore, a languid 5 iron from Orchard Road. Apparently, Harry’s has our Friday refreshments conquered with

26 premium lifestyle bars targeted at the PMEBs (professionals, managers, executives and businessmen).

My closest Harry’s is set in a shopping mall, and the staff offers rancid lager as well as a merry hatred of the thirsty.

The smallest place I’ve lived is the exception to this cosmopolitan misery. Kimba is half way across Australia, and on a Friday its sole pub was rollicking and happy. Icy beer, roaring jukebox. The core of its community. My first weekend in town, I won the meat tray. How could I not love it?

Geelong-besotted Almanackers identify Kimba as the hometown of Corey Enright. As a young fella who was frequently upright, and possessing of a pulse, I became Boris’ PE teacher. All saw him as a gifted footballer, but I argued that he was a better leg spinner, and could go far. Bowling on concrete decks that bounced and bit like a taipan, he bamboozled men and boys alike.

June 4, 1993 is a Friday, and despite it being Eastern Eyre footy season, a blissful tangle of chaps is inhaling ale. The Kimba pub jukebox blasts Choir Boys, Meat Loaf, and the sing-along gem, “What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes.” Day Two of the First Ashes Test from Old Trafford is on, but it’s beyond a footballer’s curfew, particularly for us modest B-graders. And then, shortly before lunch, AB throws a tubby, naturally non-blonde the ball.

For all the where-were-you-when-you-heard about Lady Diana, 9/11, the Boxing Day tsunami, there are celebratory counterparts. Jezza’s legendary leap, Australia snatching the America’s Cup, and for many, the Ball of the Century.

Ritchie’s commentating. No Bill hyperbole. Mercifully, no screeching Michael Slater.

He’s done it. He’s started off with the most beautiful delivery. Gatting’s got no idea what’s happened to it. He still doesn’t know.

The batsman’s humbled reaction is apposite. What choice had he? Anger and disappointment could have had no useful function. There’s only Gatting’s acceptance something astounding had occurred, that he had not previously seen, nor would likely see again. In the booming beery frenzy, Robbie, Hendo, Klingy, and I know we’ve witnessed a remarkable episode.

Strolling off, Gatting preternaturally knew he’d stolen a cameo role in what would be regarded as cricket’s most illustrious single-act production. Not a tragic narrative, but one approaching the comedic in its enthralling unlikelihood. Shaking his head in bemusement corroborates our shared view.

Australia was then sponsored by XXXX and, much later, so was I when in the skirmish for beer supremacy a grassroots marketing strategy took me hostage. For twelve months I transmogrified into a XXXX Gold Ambassador. As a Coopers Sparkling and Pale Ale aficionado, I call it the year I barracked for Collingwood. I had not gone native. It was abundantly worse. I had gone Queensland.

Given entirely too much XXXX to inflict upon family and friends, I was also required to host a XXXX-infused BBQ and, finally, with my Kimba mate Bazz, sat in the sponsor’s marquee at the Adelaide Clipsal 500. This was telling given my relationship with motorsport is akin to that between Fev and Mensa.

My ambassadorial climax was a Sunday in Glenelg’s Holdfast Hotel with our most significant modern captain, Alan Border.

Me: I must tell you that you’re my Dad’s favourite cricketer. He describes you as being “pugnacious.”

AB: Well, everyone has their own personal style. I did what I did best.

I decline to say that Dad also once remarked if he had to be in a fight, AB is the first bloke he’d want on his side.

Me: Can I ask you about my best ever sporting moment? The Gatting Ball?

AB: Sure. It was a huge occasion.

Me: Where were you?

AB: At that point I often fielded at midwicket, so I didn’t really get a decent view of it.

Me: But you knew it was special?

AB: Yea. At the drinks break Heals said it was, “a pretty fair seed.”

Laconic understatement. Just what I wanted to hear. Sensational.

Me: What did Gatting say?

AB: He knew it was good too. He’s done really well out of it. The Gatt’s dined out on that story ever since. With all the speaking engagements, he’s very pleased.

Warne’s striking proclamation of his genius is leg spin’s enchanted temple. For cricket fans, it generated a global epiphany while the attendant symbolism makes this the most resounding of his 708 Test wickets.

And on that June afternoon I suspect even the desolate types in The Bunch of Cherries squinting at the screen over pints of tepid Tetleys knew SK Warne’s first Test delivery in England was to be cherished.

In Kimba we definitely did.

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How football cost us the 2005 Ashes

2005

Like a crazed nymphomaniac I could not get enough of the punt.

It was perfect to be an Australian in England when we won the first test by 239 runs. My local friends conceded glumly that the 2005 Ashes were gone. Smirking, I imagined how I’d spend my bodyweight in pound notes when we won our tenth consecutive series.

On the morning of the second Test in Edgbaston our summer guests and we take a day trip to Amsterdam. Anne Frank’s House is affecting and crowded. We visit Nieuwmarkt- zigzagging about the canals and museums, and enter the heart- or is it groin- of the Red Light district with its prostitutes behind windows. Tragicomically stricken with zero speech filters, my mate Bazz hollers across to his wife, ‘Hey Annie!’ He then suggests. ‘Pick out which hooker you’d like to join us for a threesome.’

Late afternoon at O’Reilly’s pub near Dam Square, and the stumps score blazes from a TV screen. Over 400 English runs in a day! Ponting had won the toss, and bowled! I then learn that McGrath, fresh from a man-of-the-match, nine-wicket bag in the Lords test, was a late withdrawal. He injured his ankle playing football! At silly mid-off! And Ponting strangely, unknowably, elected to bowl. Shaking my head, I think I must be a passive coffeeshop smoke victim. Despite the last wicket heroics from Lee and Kasprowicz, Australia is defeated. Arguably, football cost us this match, and the Ashes.

Boston made me a fan of three things: New England clam chowder, the Red Sox and naming beer after national idols. The Barking Crab restaurant faces the old Northern Avenue Bridge in the downtown area. Its shanty-like setting appeals to sailors and Harvard professors, and we devour the tasty seafood. The billboard declares, ‘It’s the best place in Boston to catch crabs.’

T-shirts pronounce there are two baseball teams to support: the Red Sox and whoever beats the New York Yankees. Catching a few innings in America’s oldest continuously operating tavern, The Bell in Hand, converts me. Baseball and cricket are both beautifully hypnotic. Both anchor a country’s summer.

Named for Declaration of Independence signatory, Sam Adams lager encourages me to ask why Australia fails to similarly honour their icons. I’d love to be at the altar of my Sunday pub ordering, ‘Two pints of Dennis Lillee, a jug of Gough Whitlam and a bottle of Bon Scott, thanks.’ Boston’s illustrious baseball history provides a captivating context for the fourth Test at Trent Bridge. In this pre-smart phone universe I frequently visit the hotel’s business centre to check the scores. Flintoff stars again. We’re down a test with only The Oval remaining.

Ashes tickets are as rare as sunburn in Sheffield but, back from North America, we score a pair for the Saturday. Taking the Northern Line to the ground, I’m struck by the blissful civility of those waiting to gain entrance. I’m also struck by the industrial quantity of wine and beer allowed. Adelaide Oval banned BYO decades ago. After lunch the Barmy Army is amply lubricated. Many ditties on their hymn sheets simultaneously tease and glorify Warney. Set to the tune of “Amarillo”, I enjoy

Show me the way to Shane Warne’s Villa

He’s got his diet pills under his pilla

A dodgy bookie from Manila

Nursey’s on her mobile phone

Rain restricts play to only fifty overs, but Langer makes his 22nd century, and Hayden achieves his first ton in a year. After tea, with vino bottles spread about like a berserk Neapolitan wedding, I’m startled by the tidy conduct of the Vauxhall End supporters. The gasometer looms benevolently. The Oval is festooned in Wolf Blass advertising and I’m homesick for Australia and the Barossa.

I dreaded going to school on Tuesday September 13, 2005. The previous afternoon England reclaimed the Ashes for the first time since 1989 and I, as fortune would have it, was teaching just north of London in St Albans. Over the next weeks the banter I had as the conquered Australian in a country celebrating a gigantic sporting triumph, was good-natured. Mostly.

As they had not been born the last occasion England defeated us in cricket, I helpfully suggested my students at Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School (named after the only English Pope) should enjoy the victory. ‘You could be grandparents the next time this happens,’ I lectured. Freddie Flintoff celebrated like a Viking and on the first morning after, Mike Gatting asked him whether he had had anything to eat. ‘Yes,’ replied Flintoff, ‘a cigar.’

I trudged the campus handing over cash to numerous colleagues. I also gave each horribly happy Englishman a letter.

Dear Sir

On behalf of the Australian cricket team I’d like to offer my congratulations on a highly deserved victory. It was a most exciting series.

With the Ashes now completed, I can reveal that the ICC, ECB and Cricket Australia were engaged in top-secret talks over the past months. If Australia had won and made it ten consecutive triumphs, then all future Ashes would have been cancelled and a more competitive nation, officially sought to play Australia every two years.

So whilst cricketers from Italy and the Shetland Islands are disappointed, I for one am pleased that, at least for the next encounter, the Ashes will continue.

Your colonial servant,

Ricky Ponting

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