Here is the latest PE. But if you want more than just a video a day, you can always listen ABC grandstand for my talking about cricket while the cricket is on.
I have swapped George (who is going to the West Indies) for Firdose, who is in Centurion with me.
On a lovely, bone dry Centurion morning, a tune played. “Boom! Here comes the Boom! Ready or not, here comes the boys from the South!”
They are the sort of lyrics, when backed up with punchy nu-metal angst, that should open a heavyweight contest. And it was the first music of the Test. There was no anthem, no parochial song, just Dale Steyn’s personal anthem and the world’s best and third-best Test sides starting a series.
But it was a Wednesday, in February. Much like the band P.O.D., it was not quite as “Boom!” as it looked.
The security was so lax that you could walk straight into the ground, president suite and then press box without any pass or ticket. The sun was hot but not oppressive. There was no hint of rain. No real build-up, the players were just out on the field. Occasionally there was even the Spanish horn that plays in the IPL to awaken people.
There seemed to be more sponsored umbrellas around the ground than people. And every part of the ground was zoned off for something fun. The chill zone, the family area, the Castle Lager Terrace. Even a “maidens bowled over” section where women could watch cricket, meet someone from the South Africa squad and have massages and pedicures. You can’t fault Cricket South Africa for trying. They threw it all out there.
But it was a Wednesday, in February. So the crowd wasn’t really there. It wasn’t horrible for a Test at Centurion, but it wasn’t a cauldron, or massive-event-like feeling. It felt like a big Test series, started on a Wednesday, with Christian heavy rock in the back ground.
There were schoolkids on the bank, sitting in front of a few smart locals who had brought their own shade. The real fans were in the grandstand, a battered warhorse that probably looked ok when brand new, and has looked solid and ugly since. Apparently there was a group of people that some sponsors called “sizzlers”, but I never saw anyone who justified a name that stupid. There was even a Mexican wave, but only when the schoolkids spread out around the long-off boundary did it work.
The cricket didn’t need extra areas or corporate tricks to excite people. Steyn started off against David Warner on a pitch that was supposed to be lots of fun. That doesn’t need a rock soundtrack or marketing tricks. People should just want to see it. Those there saw the South Africa team spend a confusing and frustrating day in the field, and Australia find one partnership that worked and keep it going. It wasn’t pretty.
It was the sort of tough uncompromising day of cricket that metaphors and clichés were made for. The proper cricket fans would have appreciated Shaun Marsh’s doggedness, Steven Smith’s strokeplay and complaining about South Africa in the field.
There were a few proper cricket fans there to enjoy it, not many. Not nearly enough.
But it was a Wednesday, in February.
The fact that Australia, England and India have formed a cabal to choke the game of cricket is not exactly new. Like a bum with a sandwich board, myself and others have been walking the streets of cricket shouting this message for a long time. During the Champions Trophy I wrote that only the top three in cricket matter. Before that I started making a documentary on the death of Test cricket. And during this Boxing Day Test at the MCG, I was chatting to ABC Grandstand about it.
If you follow cricket politicking at all (and I do, so you don’t have too), you could see this coming. So it was nice that Sharda Ugra showed that it was not just a conspiracy theory by a few nut jobs. That it was a real takeover of cricket by the greedy and wealthy.
But what does this leaked draft actually mean, and is the ICC financial and commercial committee actually run by giant lizards? I tried to answer a few questions that people had.
In a word, good or bad for Test cricket?
Bad, not just for Tests, but for all international cricket.
If there is promotion and relegation in Test cricket, but Australia, England and India can’t be relegated, isn’t that cheating?
It’s not just cheating, it’s organised fixing. Any individual who signs off on a regulation like this is corrupting the game, and should be banned by the ICC for their action. They are ensuring the result of the competition before a game is played. The integrity of the game is corrupted as much as by any huge no-ball. They might as well only let other teams use five batsmen, bowl with beach balls and field with sponsored flippers on. As long as the sponsorship money is split unfairly, favouring the stronger nation.
Who are the people involved in this secret dossier for cricket’s potential kidnapping?
The names of the people on the committee that the draft came from are Giles Clarke (chairman, ECB), Alan Isaac (ICC president), Dave Richardson (chief executive), N Srinivasan (BCCI), Neil Speight (Associate and Affiliate member, Bermuda Cricket Board), Wally Edwards (CA), Dave Cameron (WICB), Campbell Jamieson (GM, commercial) and Faisal Hasnain (CFO).
However, a working committee wrote the draft, not the entire committee. The members of the working committee are not yet known. The winners, if the draft was implemented, would be the boards of Clarke, Srinivasan and Edwards. It is they who will be taking over cricket officially on behalf of their boards. We don’t have the details of who the architects of the plan are, but being that these men and their boards get the best deal, it’s not a big stretch to believe they were behind it and not the chairman of the Bermuda Cricket Board.
What did the FTP do? What does FTP stand for and why does it matter?
The FTP is (was?) the Future Tours Programme. It essentially meant that teams would have to play everyone, and not just who they wanted to play with. It was brought in to ensure that teams had a schedule to play each other and ICC tournaments. It helped sell TV rights and aided smaller nations financially by drawing them up against teams with larger markets and on the cricket field through experience against the best teams. It was a flawed but well-meaning system of sharing the wealth and making cricket fairer.
Wasn’t the FTP ignored?
Occasionally. It was more a nagging aunty than a scary prison guard. I know Australia have played Bangladesh, I just can’t remember when. And Bangladesh have never toured India. Things are moved around on a whim quite often, but it at least meant that if something did happen, like Sri Lanka and West Indies cancelling their Test series, they had to come out and say it, not just silently agree never to play again. No FTP makes it all a bit more covert and easier for board members to ruin things without us noticing.
Why does it matter if the big three countries make more money from ICC tournaments and share the ICC top jobs? Don’t they already own and run cricket?
Yes, they do. But it matters because cricket isn’t limited to three nations, or even ten. There are 106 member nations of the ICC. If this structural upheaval happens, less money and no power will escape this evil cricket cabal. These dirty three will be able to continue to rule cricket forever for their own good. And they’ll have the backing of cricket’s governing body, which will essentially be them in all but name.
Will cricket’s best interests really be looked after by these three nations?
One recently got involved with a fraudulent crook; the second stopped players picking who they wanted to represent them at the ICC level; and the final one wanted all the other nations locked out of the World Cup.
Isn’t the current ICC set-up terrible anyway?
If by that you mean there are no votes at ICC boardrooms, that it’s run by the ten Test-playing boards who are all out for their own good and that India have all the financial muscle, then yes. The Woolf Report, an independent evaluation of the ICC (that the boards never wanted, and of which they ignored all but the bits that helped them keep their stranglehold), suggested that cricket needed to be independently run, instead of by the member boards. But at least the current set-up, as pointless and ignored as it is, gave ten nations a say.
Sport is a business, and this is just a business decision, isn’t it?
It is a business decision. A bad one. A short-term one. Like most decisions made by cricket officials, it follows the money where it is right now. It doesn’t look ahead. It doesn’t grow the game or improve it. It picks cricket up by its underwear and takes what is in its pocket.
Surprisingly, most billion-dollar businesses aren’t run by unpaid men who face absolutely no consequence if they completely stuff up the business. Who would have thought a billion-dollar business run by amateurs with no independent management could be taken over so easily?
Should Bangladesh prepare for a five-Test match tour of Australia, England or India shortly?
Which Full Members outside the trio will be playing Test cricket by 2020?
It is impossible to tell. But this is not a move to lock in the future of the current Test-playing nations. It is a move to lock in the future of three of them. The rest can go to hell, and by hell, I mean more Champions Trophy tournaments.
I’m from outside the cricket cabal but don’t really like Test cricket. Why should I care?
Because the FTP and ICC restructuring isn’t just about Tests. It’s about stopping your country from getting money. It’s about ensuring through financial means that while three countries will have every single advantage, the others will have to live on far less. Money doesn’t guarantee success. But it certainly helps in sport.
I’m from inside the cabal. Why should I care about the other nations?
Maybe you shouldn’t. You’ll have all the IPL, Big Bash and Ashes you can eat. But if the other seven teams stop playing Test cricket, or don’t play enough to make it relevant, you’re going to get pretty damn bored pretty damn quickly. And while you may only watch for your own players, do you really want to live in a world that involves less Sri Lankan mystery spin, New Zealand pluckiness, Misbah-ul-Haq, and the current best Test team on earth?
What will happen to the non-Test playing nations?
Not much will actually change for them. Life wasn’t exactly free beer and endless casual sexual encounters before. If anything, now they have seven new friends who also have no power.
Can saner people in the future undo this mess?
Yes, probably. Even the old veto was eventually taken away from the ICC. Things can change. If the chairmen of the three cricket boards were to change, it could change very quickly. There is also little doubt that at least one of Clarke, Srinivasan and Edwards wants to eventually run the ICC once the main job there is made more powerful. Which means this reign of bullying and grabbing for power may not end anytime soon.
Should these three men step down?
Yes. Anyone who agreed with this draft, whether it was their idea or not, should leave cricket immediately. They won’t, obviously. But they should.
Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
Someone leaked this draft. Someone who saw it realised that cricket fans wouldn’t like this, and instead of it being announced through an ICC press release, it was blurted out before they had a chance to lock it in. In fact, there are many good people working in cricket all around the world. They don’t like this situation any more than we do. Hopefully more of them will step forward with details. That gives us a chance.
What can I do?
Contact them. Don’t be rude, don’t abuse the people who are answering the emails, calls or letters, but contact them. Tell them what you think of all this. CA can be contacted here
, the ECB here, the BCCI here. We have no vote in cricket. All we have is our passion, which is what makes the money that gives these men their power.
They are banking on you not knowing or caring about any of this. Giles Clarke regularly tells young cricket writers to stop writing about administration because it’s boring and fans don’t care about it. What this does is allow cricket’s most important men to run the game while no one is watching. Show them you’re watching.
If you have time to complain about a shocking DRS decision or a terrible cover drive, surely you have time to send an email to the men running the game. Show them you care. Tell them what you think. You have no vote in cricket’s future. But you do have the contact pages.
Andy Flower stood in the SCG giving a sermon. He was surrounded by the entire England set-up. A proper crowd. Most of them big men, some seemingly twice his size. They stood around and virtually on top of this one small, intense man as he preached the good word. Unlike the sort of speeches coaches make in films, this didn’t look like it was uplifting, or would even teach the players a moral lesson. This was a professional coach laying down his law with a solid monologue.
Alastair Cook stood beside him, but just far enough away for it not to be a message he was directly involved in. The older players had steely looks on their face; it was hard to tell if they were genuinely listening, or just a bit over it all. The younger players looked on earnestly. As if they were afraid not to be showing enough attention. Afraid they would be judged.
The words kept coming from Flower. They were delivered at what seemed the same pace. Never exploding into yell or rant, never worrying too much about cadence or drama. Just a steady flow of information from the coach who guided England to No. 1. His hands often moving, sometimes instructional, sometimes to really emphasise one of his many prepared remarks.
The key to great oratory is to keep people listening. You either need to be brilliant, or brief. After a quite a few minutes you could see the fidgeting. The lecture had gone on too long. The England players almost all had their hands behind their backs. Fiddling with balls, or shirts, or just their fingers.
Flower’s line-in-the-sand address had turned into a soliloquy that seemed to have no end.
Before the Gabba, Alastair Cook hurt his back, Matt Prior suffered a calf injury, Kevin Pietersen had a knee injection and it rained. England’s idyllic warm up was drowned and sore even before they got to Brisbane.
Once in Brisbane they faced what they hadn’t faced as a modern England team, a howling Australian press. Pietersen was involved in a never-ending battle with a city that had one newspaper and endless insults. Stuart Broad became a villain, despite doing what Australian cricketers have done since they had legs. And the crowd were angry and loud.
On the field, they picked Chris Tremlett based on unimpressive county returns and what happened three years earlier. But they were about to find out that almost nothing was like three years ago. Tremlett bowled smart, with admirable control, but slower than an elderly couple deciding on a rental car. It was like watching a really boring press conference where a scientist explains that an animal is actually no longer venomous.
What made Tremlett even slower was that Mitchell Johnson was quicker. Way quicker. And more confident. And fitter. And scarier. He’d changed from a plush toy shark into a great white. Jonathan Trott jumped around his crease trying to show how it wasn’t bothering him. He did everything he could to get in behind the ball, and at times almost ended up at point. Johnson only took four wickets, but it felt like ten, or twenty, or maybe even a hundred.
Australia’s second innings mocked their bowlers; England’s second innings was cadaverous. They lost by 381 runs. It could have been infinity.
Trott left the tour on what should have been day five of the Test. At the SCG, England tried their third No. 3 of the series.
The senior England players moped around the SCG. It has been a long, depressing tour and their body language showed every part of it. The new players were anxious and unsure. No one seemed to be smiling. The few conversations seem hushed.
As they stretched and warmed up, they looked like video game characters who hadn’t been engaged by the game play. Trying to look natural, but no one seemed to be looking at anyone. Everyone was facing a different direction and all looked out of tune with each other.
It was much different to how they looked in the previous Ashes, only a few months ago. The professional machine looked broken, it was still going through the motions, but nothing was right.
England had shown a lot of arrogance – and earned the right to – while getting to the top of world cricket. On the days before Tests they would walk around like they owned the ground, and everything in it. They were players who’d had many ups and downs personally but, as a team, they had done well enough to have what the uncool pop stars call ‘swag’. As they were largely made up of players who grew up during the West Indies and Australia years, they knew how the walk went. You had to show people you were the business.
The only arrogant walk any England players have now is on YouTube, when Michael Carberry imitates Viv Richards. Carberry certainly didn’t walk off that way after he played a shocker to the second ball after tea to start the final collapse.
Alice Springs should have been a time to regroup, to tick the unticked boxes, to re-strategise, improve the KPIs and focus a results-based plan that could win England the series. Instead their batsmen did little and their backup bowlers bowled lifeless short-pitched spells and were cracked around by a random group of fringe state players with first-class batting averages in their 20s. Tim Bresnan did well, as he wasn’t there, but bowling in an emerging players team with virtually no one watching.
England didn’t rush in with Bresnan, but instead chose Monty Panesar on the largely untested Adelaide Oval Test pitch. Being that England rarely gamble with two spinners outside the subcontinent, this was the second time they had done it in three Tests – after the failed Simon Kerrigan experiment at home. Monty was marginally quicker than Tremlett but he wasn’t as accurate. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off.
England also chose Panesar’s return to pay homage to him in the field. They dropped, or didn’t even go for, all chance of beating Australia. And they did it on a peach of a batting wicket. Mitchell Johnson could be blamed for their batting. Brad Haddin could be blamed for their bowling. Surely they had run out of excuses when it came to fielding. They were just rubbish. Prior’s wicketkeeping was now as bad as his batting. They were defeated and, after being smeared around the field by Haddin, Michael Clarke, and Ryan Harris (who made a king pair the last time in Adelaide) they had to go out and face Johnson.
The pitch might not have been evil, but Johnson was. If they were mortally wounded in Brisbane, England were buried in Adelaide. The most assured they looked against Johnson was when Ian Bell was playing against him, or when Broad was waiting for a shiny knob on the sightscreen to be fixed. At no other time did they look like they could handle him. They were called cowards and worse. It was bomb-a-Pom time, on and off the field.
They responded by hooking. Cook, the man who didn’t sweat once in the Adelaide heat three years earlier, now tried to show how not afraid he was by hooking. It is the most macho shot you can play, and England played it often, and went out to it almost as often. It was far worse than going out on a flat pitch, because this was the first sign that not only were England no good, they had decided their whole game plan was no good.
By the SCG, they seemed to have no actual game plan but still felt the need to execute it, or themselves, as quickly as possible.
During slips practice, an enterprising assistant coach didn’t throw the ball at the bat for an edge, but threw it miles back over the slips’ head to replicate a skied pull shot. It was Cook who raced back to get it. It started well, he ran hard, and clearly wanted to take it, but then it swirled on him, he suddenly didn’t seem to care as much and then he barely tried to take the catch as the ball hit the ground. Instead of being annoyed at himself, he looked back at the coach and held his arms out.
That moment ended the slips drill and Cook wandered off to take a look at the pitch. He stood at the Randwick End and played a few shadow strokes and leaves to balls around off stump.
He didn’t get much alone time, soon Prior was with him and Prior clearly wanted to talk. It seemed like they were talking about wicketkeeping technique, perhaps Jonny Bairstow’s. Prior was very animated, Cook looked bored and occasionally nodded.
Cook continued to play shadow shots as the roller came at him and Prior talked – at one stage the groundsman operating the roller had to stop, Cook had barely seen it coming. It was perhaps the nicest treatment he received in Australia. And all it did was delay the inevitable.
Two days later standing in the exact same spot at the Randwick End, Cook absent-mindedly left a ball and was rolled.
England were supposed to do two things in Perth, unleash their battalion of tall bowlers, and lose. They got part of that right. Their six-plus metres of height were not unpacked. Tremlett was already seen as too slow. Boyd Rankin as too raw. And Steven Finn as comically out of form. They instead went back to their Clydesdale draught horse Bresnan. Shorter, and without much match fitness, but reliable and safe. The perfect England selection. Unfortunately, whether they gambled or played it safe, nothing worked. Bresnan was not the secret ingredient to happiness.
England were backing the players who had got them to No. 1, even with the overwhelming evidence that they weren’t the same.
After Haddin saved Australia for the third time, England now had to conquer the world’s most dangerous bowler on the world’s deadliest pitch. England put on an 85-run opening stand, Johnson only took two wickets, but somehow England still ended well short of Australia’s total. And Broad had his foot all but taken off by Johnson.
Australia’s second innings was perhaps the worst of it for England. Broad was getting examined in a hospital. Bresnan tried. Stokes tried. Graeme Swann tried. James Anderson was tired. The Australia top order batsmen essentially played the role of the guys who only come in and fight when the other bloke is near unconscious on the ground. Warner was mean. Watson repeatedly kicked Swann. Bailey went world record on Anderson.
Despite there being 26,000 Test runs between Cook, Prior, Bell and Pietersen, it was Ben Stokes, playing in his second Test, who made the hundred. In Sydney, Stokes left a ball that pitched on the stumps, and hit the stumps.
After his chat with Cook, Prior took Bairstow aside for some coaching. It was on the rubber mat that replicates keeping from a spinner. Bairstow took to it like a duck taking to architecture. Balls hit his hands and rebounded in random directions. Some went through his legs; even the ones he took often hit only one glove.
Every time he didn’t take one cleanly he smashed the rubber training stump in anger with his gloves. Prior remained kneeling, calmly feeding balls when Bairstow wasn’t chasing ones he missed, or taking a short anger management walk. Eventually, after one too many misses, Bairstow just booted the training stump about 20 metres away. Bairstow then moved on to the ball machine, which fired fast deliveries at him. He dropped one of those as well.
All that was still better than this three ball duck to a defensive prod.
Graeme Swann took the pressure off his team-mates by putting it all on himself. It was the worst-timed retirement in history, or the best-timed depending on how you saw it. Selfish or selfless. Maybe it was both. But his bowling certainly wasn’t helping England. His batting hadn’t helped much either. Only his fielding would be missed in his current form.
Trott had run scared they said. Swann had retired bruised they said. England were selfish loser cowards they said. With the series over, they said a lot.
Now, even the English practice sessions became unruly and tired. Instead of the professionalism and precision of before, it was like a bunch of blokes who’d been blackmailed into training in the nets.
England had finally decided to end Prior’s bad run. A big call considering his position as vice-captain, the right call considering how his game had fallen apart piece by piece over the last 10 or so Tests. But their back-up was the batsman they didn’t think was good enough during the last Ashes. A batsman who keeps a bit. Really more of an athlete who can fill in. The sort of guy you give the gloves to if your main guy gets injured on the day. Bairstow is the sort of wicketkeeper who can race after a leg bye with amazing speed and throw with a good arm. But he’s not a keeper keeper, or even a keeper batsman, he’s a batsman with keeping gloves on.
Prior’s demise was slow. It was clear that, despite his previous few years’ good form, he needed to have a break – but it felt like England had no back up. Where was the future proofing?
Clarke gave England their first real break of the series when he decided to bowl first in Melbourne. England took it, stumbled, but as their openers batted in the second innings, they were 100 runs in front and had 10 wicket still to lose. The dead rubber was their oyster. Somehow they managed to collapse twice in the one innings, end with a moderate lead and a nasty, new-ball evening session to play with.
They took no wickets that night. Missed two easy chances the next morning (one from their new keeper not moving, the other from their captain’s broken mind). And Australia cruised to a total that should never have been that easy only two wickets down.
Had it been in the first Test, it would have been one of the best comebacks in years. Instead it was in the fourth Test, and incredibly inevitable. Although, not as inevitable as what happened in Sydney.
England don’t take chances with selections. Darren Pattinson’s selection in 2008 seemed to scare them all straight. Second spinners aren’t thrown in on a whim. Raw quicks aren’t tested for fun. Young batsmen are groomed slowly. There are plans, plans and plans about plans.
And yet, the XI at the SCG had only five centrally contracted players in it. Of the 11 who do have contracts, three had been dropped, one had retired, one had gone home and one never played. The current team instead had a bloke who was playing club cricket in Sydney a few weeks back. On this tour 20 players have been in the squad, 18 have played. James Tredwell was added for this Test and didn’t play. Finn (centrally contracted) has been on the entire hell tour and hasn’t played.
Finn is 24. Finn is six foot seven. Finn has 90 Test wickets. Finn has a strike rate of 48. Finn bowls at 90mph. And Finn has not played in one Test as his team stumbled from disaster to shambolic, tripped-over farce and then fell face first into a steaming pile of 5-0.
Instead Boyd Rankin played and might end up being remembered most often at pub cricket trivia nights as the last wicket of the 2013-14 series.
The dictaphones were all on the desk. Andy Flower sat behind it. He was talking to a journalist and said “If anything I have relaxed a little in certain ways…” While he said it, he rearranged the Dictaphones in front of him. “If anything, I could bring more intensity and a closer control on certain things.”
Less than three days later the Test was over. It had lasted marginally longer than his soliloquy.
Even though my dad and I rarely agree on anything cricket-related, he is the reason why I love cricket. When I was young he’d bowl at me in the backyard. That lasted as long as his cartilage-less knees did. Then we moved onto cricket theory – watching on TV, or at the ground – and for years after that he coached me in junior cricket.
It wasn’t just him. My whole family were cricket fundamentalists. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone played. Very few could bat. Everyone, though, had their own cricketing origin story. My grandpa had jumped the fence at the ‘G to see Bradman (only for the little Army Lieutenant of fitness to fail). My cousin Joel and I had backpacked across South Africa to see Australia win a World Cup, and got robbed in Durban along the way. And my father was paid to work in a bar at a match that wasn’t even a Test match.
It was 1972 and my dad was 25. He had a flock of hair, a nasty eye condition that kept him out of the army, an outswinger to die for, a suspect goatee, no high-school certificate, and a love of cricket. At school he was the fast-bowling athlete others wanted to be. He was also a rubbish student, so rubbish that he was asked to leave school, which partly explains why on the third day of that January he wasn’t relaxing on holidays but was instead working a second job: as a barman at the MCG, on the mezzanine level between the Olympic and Members’ stands.
When you ask my dad how it was to be a barman at the MCG, he only ever talks about this one day. It can’t, though, have been the very worst job he ever had. It got him free entry into one of the greatest meeting places on earth and, knowing my dad, the odd free drink. On the day my dad talks about, he was pouring the beers at a largely pointless match between the Australians, who were supposed to be playing South Africa before they were turfed out of official cricket, and a chucked-together World XI. How much the spectators cared for this match can be guessed by the gate attendance. On no day did more than 38,000 turn up.
As a cricket fan I find it strange that a contest boasting Gavaskar, two Pollocks, Zaheer, Bedi and Garry Sobers could not pull a bigger crowd. As a Melburnian I get it. This wasn’t a Test. It was a hastily added fixture featuring a few bonafide stars and a few John Benaud-types. Melbourne fans like their sport a bit gladiatorial. This was a beer match; it wasn’t life or death like MCG-goers want it. For the MCG is nothing if not Melbourne’s a***hole. People talk about Melbourne being the smart left-wing city with the cool art and the alternative vibe that makes it oh-so-liveable, but all that shit needs to be blown out somewhere and the ‘G is where it happens. The ‘G pulsates through big contests, yawns at small ones, rips people to shreds and makes heroes out of those who treat them to a show.
A non-Test match involving such names as Hylton Ackerman and Norman Gifford was never going to bring out that cauldron nature. It was far more likely that only the true cricket fans would turn out. For my dad this was a good thing. The fewer punters there were, the less beer he’d have to serve and the more time he’d have to watch the cricketers he loved.
Coming out to bat at the start of that day, day three, was Zaheer Abbas, and with him was Sunil Gavaskar. My dad always admired batsmen like Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott. When I was growing up, people would ask him if he wanted me to bat like Viv Richards. And instead of grinning and going along with them, he’d say: “No. I want him to put a price on his wicket like Boycott.”
So there might have been a bit of sadness in my dad when Gavaskar got out to Terry Jenner, who back then was just another Australian legspinner yet to taste the slammer or fly around the world trying to create another Shane Warne – although maybe my dad enjoyed the wicket anyway, because he also loved spinners and was forever going on about hacks no one had heard of, people like Peter Sleep and Ashley Mallett and Trevor Hohns. When I was nine my dad decided that since I was only average at wicketkeeping and bowled slower than any other kid my age, he’d make me into a spin bowler.
Not long after Gavaskar got out, Graeme Pollock followed. This brought Garry Sobers to the crease.
It was 13 years since Sobers had made his 365, and quite a few years since his six sixes in an over. It is probably harsh to say he was over the hill; even now he’d be a better batsman for the Windies than Kirk Edwards. But he hadn’t made a Test century in 23 months. Not that he was under pressure. This was a glorified exhibition match and he was Garry f***** Sobers. He was coming to the end of a special career and giving the ‘G one of its last glimpses of his magic.
When I ask my dad who else played in that World XI, he has no idea. He has no real memory of who was on either side. He thinks Dennis Lillee was there for Australia, along with Jenner or maybe Kerry O’Keeffe (actually they both played). He’s not sure if Barry Richards was in the World XI or not. Part of this is down to age. My old man is past 60. Partly it’s to do with the way Sobers has taken over that game in the memory of anyone who was there.
The first thing my dad tells you about that day is the effect Sobers had on the bar. He emptied it, instantly, the moment he entered the ground. That was not so surprising. This was Sobers, world record-holder, suave strokemaker, ladies man, one of the finest cricketers ever. His charisma alone was probably worth 70 runs. You would leave your beer behind to watch him. Even if you only see a few balls, you’ve seen Sobers, perhaps for the last time, perhaps not, but why risk it?
Myself and Joel once had a similar experience at the ‘G. India were playing on Boxing Day and we hadn’t caught up in ages, so we decided to do something we never really did, which was to have a few drinks while the Test was underway. Early on it was easy, as Rahul Dravid and Wasim Jaffer played two of the most defensive innings of all time. Jaffer made 4 off 27. He looked like a man waiting to cross a busy road. Dravid was going through a career-defining crisis – namely, he’d forgotten how to score. His 5 off 66 balls (which oddly led to me getting married) was more painful than it sounds. He was dropped, mocked and booed. It was too much for Joel and me so we kept on drinking.
Dravid was out on lunch, a mercy kill, and we were humming. Three beers in the first session, a couple more that lunch break and we were off to the sort of flyer Rahul Dravid would have paid good money for. There was no doubt this was going to be a huge drinking day.
After lunch, Sachin changed that. We gave him a standing ovation and I nursed my next beer. Joel drank his straightaway, then didn’t ask for another, which wasn’t like him. All the talk went to Sachin. Randomly we struck up a conversation with a young Indian father who had brought his children along just so they could say they’d seen Sachin bat. That was the moment things changed for us. We realised that we had to focus on this innings. That this might be the last we’d see.
Sachin started scratchy, not scratchy like Dravid or Jaffer, but nervous-scratchy, as if even he knew he may not play again in Melbourne. He was not exactly out of form, or in any actual danger of being dropped, but his tennis elbow and his struggles to make consistently huge runs had him looking human, and this was the closest his career ever came to fading out. A few brave people were whispering retirement.
Sachin’s batting sobered us up. From a medical or blood-alcohol point of view I cannot explain it. But while Sachin was out there I noticed every tug of his pads, every ruffle of his gloves and readjustment of his helmet. Every little thing was important to me. I could not look away. Suddenly he began playing a shot a ball. His innings went from nervous-scratchy to frantic-nervous. Boundaries were coming. He was treating the spinner Brad Hogg like Hogg was something stuck in his teeth. For a second we thought we were about to see a Sachin hundred. Then Stuart Clark bowled and Sachin played on to his stumps. From that moment we got as drunk as we could.
So I understand why, on the day Sobers took hold of the ‘G, no one came in asking for a beer – although I always push my dad on this point. Surely, I say, someone came in? I mean, I understand cricket religious reverence, but it’s the ‘G. Also, this bar was just about right behind the bowler’s arm, up a few levels. And it had a balcony. If you are going to see Sobers, why not choose that outstanding location? And when you do push my dad on this, there was, it turns out, the odd person who came into that bar. Not many, though – because the barman was out on the balcony watching the game.
My dad’s favourite quote about that day is: “If my boss had come in I would’ve been in strife, but I would’ve said sack me, I’m watching the cricket.”
I am never sure whether to believe this or not. My old man might have been a big cricket fan but to give up guaranteed income from a second job is not in line with his devout working-class ethic. Still, he believes it, and he was the one watching Sobers and the one telling this story.
When you prod my dad for details of the innings, he finds that hard as well. It’s not so much because of his failing memory this time – it’s because of how much Sobers gave him. “Forwards, backwards, front foot, back foot, he had every shot in the book, he was just a genius, over the top, along the ground, he just did it. With grace.” He is not a man for detail at the best of times, my dad.
Yet when you really drill him on it, especially if he is sober in the retelling, he remembers cover drives off the leggie, and how Sobers played Lillee, the way he dismissed balls on his pads and the way the ground lifted every time he played a shot. Mostly my dad talks about how the bowlers looked like they were coming in to feed Sobers. It didn’t matter what they tried, Sobers could see what they were trying to do. He always had the answer before they’d finished working out the question.
In my dad’s story, Sobers isn’t Sobers but Batman with Superman’s powers.
And of course once I’ve got those few details out of him, I can’t help myself: I mention to my dad that some people reckon Jacques Kallis to be the better allrounder. I don’t believe it myself. But I know it will get him upset. “Jacques Kallis,” says my dad, ‘is a great allrounder, but he wouldn’t even look up Sobers’ bum.”
Dad does not tell the story in chronological order. He does not fill in the gaps, such as whether Sobers started off strong and then consolidated before attacking the spinners later, or whether it happened the other way round. He doesn’t even distinguish between the two days, the one where Sobers made 139 and the other where he took it to 254 (or 252 as my dad tells it). He explains it more the way a born-again Christian describes their moment of conversion, as if the ground they were playing on was a pitch made of clouds.
It’s not anything like a match report, it’s all personal, like Sobers was there for his pleasure, all the stars aligned. My dad was at his ground, watching his favourite player, in an empty bar with a balcony just perfect for viewing. That’s why the detail is not important: he wants you to know how it feels.
My dad is not a big talker. I know nothing about the moment he met my mother or how he proposed. The story of my birth takes him only a few seconds. If you want to know something about him you have to get him drunk, or wait till he uses the information in a separate argument. Yet this Sobers story has been told to me a hundred times. Occasionally I prompt it, just because it’s been a while since I’ve heard it, and other times he segues into it like he’s moving into his comfy clothes before watching the Pies play on a Sunday afternoon. The details can change, depending on how drunk he is or the point he is trying to make, but he always tells it the same way, like he saw God.
The other thing that stays the same is the ending: “I got paid to watch one of the best innings of all time.”
And then he goes a bit quiet. You can see he is reliving it. But he looks frustrated, too, that he cannot articulate it better, as if the story is too much for him to ever get out. That’s he’s let me down by being vague and ethereal. He’s wrong, though. I know everything I need to know about that innings simply by looking at his face and listening to his voice.
Recently my dad found footage of the innings. He was desperate to show it to me. I held off for as long as I could, hoping he’d accidentally delete it from his DVR. I didn’t want to see it, because I thought it might ruin the memories that I had of him telling it to me. But one day, before I realised, he put it on. Even with the camera set up at one end of the ground, grainy footage, and a lack commenters telling you how special each shot was, Sobers’ 254 was one of the most amazing innings to watch. The innings that Bradman said was “probably the greatest exhibition of batting ever seen in Australia”. No matter how good he was through mid-on, or slashing through point, or the way he played every single ball from the spinners, it wasn’t the innings I remember hearing from my dad. This was Sobers’ 254.
The innings I’ll always remember was the Sobers’ 252, the one that belongs to my dad.
This is an edited extract of an article included in the book Australia: Story of a Cricket Country