In issue 21 of The Nightwatchman, Matt Thacker reminisces on an unforgettable time down under.
I had run a company with cricket at its core for the best part of 20 years yet, for whatever reason, I’d never been to Australia, the tour all England fans dream of. And here I was, mid-December, flights booked but not even looking forward to my trip of a lifetime. Nothing to do with the sense of impending cricketing doom – the knowledge that, despite the bluster, we were just not as good as them. No, it was more that I had grown older, the world had grown colder, and nothing was very much fun any more.
We are going to “AirBnb it”. My companions are Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker, with whom I’ve worked for more than a decade, and pop-star-turned-WCM features-writer Felix White: a winning mixture of wide-eyed innocence and been-there-done-that knowingness. None of us are exactly looking forward to living cheek by jowl; it has the makings of a long three weeks and there is some apprehension as we meet at Heathrow. That is dissipated as Felix tells me a close friend of his who is suffering from cancer has just been given the all clear. Already things look a little lighter, a little brighter.
England have already surrendered the Ashes by the time we take off. I know of people who’ve been on four of these Ashes jaunts and never seen us win a game. And then there are those chosen few who were there in 2010–11 and wonder what all the fuss is about. This time it hasn’t been a massacre. The party line is that we’ve had our chances in each of the Tests but just haven’t taken them. The reality is that they’re considerably better at bowling quickly and considerably better at bowling slowly. And their freak-of-a-batsman-captain is doing considerably better than our freak-of-a-batsman-captain.
We fly for what seems like days, but as we eventually get close to Melbourne, Phil has the window seat and spies cricket pitch after cricket pitch after cricket pitch. Initially wherever there is a clearing in the trees and then, as we approach the city, just bloody everywhere. “Jeez,” he drawls, “it’s a miracle we’ve ever won a single game here.”
We’re blokes, so we’ve not planned this well. Or at all. We arrive at 5am. We can check into our place at 3pm. It doesn’t matter how you play the time-difference game, that’s a long wait. I text Aussie journo-genius Geoff Lemon. I’m not mad enough to call him at that hour. He’s up of course. But not just up. Also up for driving 45 minutes to pick us up, stopping off at the supermarket to buy provisions (including cheese-and-Vegemite scrolls), cooking us said provisions, then directing our tired bodies to cosy corners of the family home. A strange and wonderful man. We’ve been in Oz a couple of hours and we’ve already ticked off most of the lyrics of “Down Under” by Men at Work. Dozing, I hear birdsong the like of which I’ve never heard before and I am vaguely listening to Geoff claiming koalas are never sober and that they love fighting. I close my eyes. I’ve got nets tonight and I need to rest.
Those nets are with the godfather of cricket writing, Gideon Haigh, who has kindly agreed to pit his Vincibles side against a Nightwatchman XI. We rock up late; there’s been a terrorist incident in town. But nets are nets. And this is Australia. One of Gideon’s teammates tells me the pitch we can see across the park is built to the exact dimensions of the MCG so players can get used to it. Imagine that in Regent’s Park…
Gideon is a cricketer who takes the game seriously, running in hard all evening, taking his guard somewhere around off and working it neatly through the leg side. Proper cricket. My hand hurts so much I can’t grip the bat. I’ve no doubt it’s an upper extremity deep vein thrombosis. Gotta be. Affects three in 100,000, and I always knew I was special.
The game takes place two days later. I’ve done everything I can to be ready, and the alcohol seems to have done the trick. I pass myself fit. We’re playing at the rather lovely Como Park, home of South Yarra Cricket Club.
I “lose” a non-existent toss and we bowl first. Only wise. Two decidedly English-sounding lads smash us all over the place, Gideon glides to 30, and our Felix – all Tufnell with his rollies, his Cockney wideboy-ness and his left-arm orthodox gorgeousness – delightedly takes some wickets despite not having bowled in 15 years. We are happy to concede 260 in 40.
Test Match Special newbie Dan Norcross opens up and is only a few seconds late on an early yorker. It doesn’t get much better from there. As seems to be the theme of the trip, they’re better at the batting, the bowling and the fielding. And they’re also annoyingly pleasant. South Yarra have a genuinely warm and welcoming club thing going on, the same sort of atmosphere I remember from growing up at Birkenhead Park on the Wirral – men, women, boys, girls all mixing easily and non-hierarchically, ball games on the outfield, pool table in the bar, barbecues at the day’s end. And chat, chat, chat. Mostly – but by no means exclusively – about cricket.
They seem bemused about our “ability” to play cricket without necessarily wanting, or needing, to win. The concept is utterly alien to them. For the teams I play for, it’s pretty important – on a needs-must basis – to enjoy the games you lose. I have nothing against the attitude of our opponents but for me cricket is a game which offers so much more than a binary outcome. Maybe their carefully cultivated Aussie-ness is a screen and they do actually enjoy playing for the fun of it. If this is the case, they disguise it well.
Christmas Eve. First sighting of the MCG and, despite all I’ve seen and heard over the years, it is still breathtakingly vast. We are there to pick up accreditation (it’s not there obviously – wouldn’t be cricket if that bit went smoothly) and are greeted by huge posters proclaiming “Beat England”. Nice. During the two Tests I see – Melbourne and Sydney – video messages are repeated on the big screens at lunch and tea full of young kids parroting the same line. At some point someone somewhere must have taken the editorial view that this is absolutely fine and normal. It isn’t.
The prices might be prohibitive, the Geiger counter pedestrian crossings might jar but Melbourne is utterly brilliant – a patchwork of exquisite, quirky little villages that somehow manages to form a coherent whole, with beautiful parks dotted generously throughout. It’s hot and you begin to wonder, “do they know it’s Christmas”. But then there are three more generous invites from the Aussie press boys. Jarrod Kimber wants us to come to a Christmas Eve barbecue, Geoff Lemon strikes again by inviting four of us to the family’s Christmas lunch and Adam Collins tells us we’re coming to his evening bash.
Turns out that Jarrod’s dad Peter, a legendary club cricketer who “bowled until his leg bones wore away all the cartilage” (as his son puts it), is the most Australian Australian in Australia. He’s cooking prawns on the barbie at Christmas, offering beer from the esky and talking about a hat-trick he either did or didn’t take in the dim and distant past. There is nothing about this I don’t like. There are even tales about having seen something nasty in the woodshed. Brown snakes. Or black snakes. It doesn’t matter how bland they make the names, they’re still guaranteed to frighten English visitors.
Back at the Lemons the next day, we’re genuinely moved by their thoughtfulness and generosity. We’re missing loved ones and they know it. They provide food, drink, conversation, presents – it’s like a proper Christmas. But in shorts and t-shirts and with people swimming in the pool.
The evening back in the centre of town gets messy in a very English way and we feel right at home. Proper prep for the Boxing Day Test at the ’G.
At the ground most members of the press pack, particularly the English contingent, are jaded, a dispiriting counterpoint to our bright-eyed bushy-tailedness. Many of them have been here for eight or nine weeks, suffering with the team. Having to find a new angle on the same thing day after day takes its toll. And there is no triumphalism exuding from the Aussie journalists either, just a desire for a closer series and more entertaining cricket. I’d say it’s the first time I’ve felt Test cricket is in genuine danger. This is THE series and it’s rambling and mediocre, its subplots not interesting enough to make up for the lack of a suspenseful narrative arc.
But hey, Cook bats like a god, Broad plays one of the bravest innings by a really scared man I’ve ever seen and, when we leave the air-conditioned comfort of the press box, we get an entire row of seats to ourselves at the very, very top of the vertiginous stand right behind the bowler’s arm. I pray I’ll never be jaded enough not to enjoy this. And on his third tour of Oz, Phil finally sees England not lose a match.
At the end of day four, there is a torrential downpour and we manage to fit in a surreal, still-soaked-to-the-skin experience with Adam Hollioake, during which we inject gravy into mini-beef pies while listening to him pontificate on Liam Livingstone as captaincy material, cage fighting, his part in the recent Afghanistan terror attacks, hypnotherapy and Linford Christie calling him a fatty. After that, we head back to base and attempt to persuade Felix to ask Jimmy Anderson on national radio whether he thinks there is a dangerous drinking culture among the English press pack, all while softly playing flamenco guitar over his answers.
Day five brings an unforgettable evening when we play poor-quality corridor cricket in a haunted former nunnery, some of it dressed in an Elmo costume, watched by an impassive passel of possums, with Felix greeting every delivery with a deadpan: “We don’t mind that, Mo”. Broadly good areas.
Sydney cannot live up to Melbourne, despite the advantage of having the harbour from heaven. It’s all too self-aware, too prone to preening, too like other major cities. The Test follows the pattern of most of the rest of the series – England get starts, get out, get frustrated, get beaten. Shoulders are slumped, heads bowed. It might be 40 degrees out there but the journalists are now snow-blind, delirious, just wanting it all to be over. They’re like Shackleton (Ernest, not Derek), gazing day after day on the landscape they used to love, but now consider arid and featureless.
I have a growing admiration for them. The big guns have to write a close-of-play report, say 800 words, at the end of each day. They have to make it different from everyone else’s although they’ve all watched exactly the same events unfold and they don’t know what anyone else is writing. And they have to write it as close to stumps as possible, because being first has become the be-all-and-end-all. And they can’t really write anything until the day has coughed up all it has to offer. So it’s a bit like an exam, when you all sit there waiting for the invigilator to say: “You may turn over your papers now.” Then away they go, genuinely talented writers pounding away frantically at their keyboards for an hour or so, giving it their all. It’s exhausting and it’s admirable.
Sydney grows on me. The Blue Mountains are wonderful, and a couple of friends who live here show me some amazing parts of the city I never would have seen otherwise. Each and every bar has cricket on in the evening as wallpaper. Everyone knows what’s happening in the Big Bash and the Tests. Everyone can hold a cricket conversation. And that’s all also true of Melbourne. It’s ingrained in the culture in a way it never again will be in the UK.
We’ve got one last big set-piece before we fly back home – the visit to Bradman’s childhood home. The man in charge – Andrew Leeming, originally hailing from Manchester but a citizen of the world and now settled in Australia – drives a couple of hours to pick us up from our Sydney digs, then drives a couple more to Bowral, stopping only to treat us to lunch at Australia’s oldest general store (since 1867), the Burrawang General Store & Café, which his wife now runs. This is going to be a good day.
He takes us on to the house on Shepherd Street by way of several places which were central to the life of Bradman the boy. The fields (snake-infested, obviously) where he first played; the hall where he appeared in panto and bested a previously unbeaten table-tennis champ – largely, it seems, because he wanted to see him beaten; the hills he cycled up and down to get fit; the graveyard where his wife’s grandparents are buried. The day gives us a true insight into Bradman the person, son and brother – not just the batting machine.
You hear audio excerpts of Don playing the piano like a pro; listen to him remember the two girls who finished above him at school, names pulled effortlessly out of the air decades later as if that academic defeat still rankled; see the cramped quarters the family of seven lived in. You really do get a feel for how it was. Andrew has not messed around here. The restoration has taken ten years and the results are outstanding – everything exactly as it was, lovingly recreated, beautifully maintained.
Bradman lived at the weatherboard cottage at 52 Shepherd Street from the age of three to 15, the youngest of five children – three sisters and a brother. The girls shared one room, the boys another. The house would have been full of noise. Father George renovating, mum Emily cooking and cleaning, his prize-winning sisters at the piano. And then young Donald throwing and striking the golf ball repeatedly against the water tank, which I had always imagined to be at the bottom of the garden but is actually just outside the back door. Here it was that he “developed the co-ordination of brain, eye and muscle which was to serve me so well in important matches later on,” as he put it. Seriously, he must have driven them mad. Out there in all weathers. Pick, pack, pock, puck. Pick, pack, pock, puck. The miracle of Bradman may be that his family remained sane, not that he became the most effective batsman ever to play the game.
Andrew has added a visitor centre out back with a wealth of material that keeps us intrigued for hours, calling out to each other at each surprising discovery. Thousands of historic photos and documents from the private collections of Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall and Percy Fender amongst others; the pocket book of expenses from the Invincibles’ tour of 1948 (£4 for some shenanigans or other at Piccadilly…); Test cricket’s first triple-century bat (Sandham, not Bradman!); and my personal favourite, a letter written by Charlie Macartney in the 1950s that is startling in its prescience. He writes: “I often feel convinced that the Atom bomb explosions are largely responsible for the changeable and violent weather… Scientists say that this is wrong… I’m afraid I cannot agree with them.” What a treasure trove.
Andrew, naturally, drives us back to Sydney, tired but happy. The next day is our last in Australia. Felix and I fancy a swim in the ocean so we amble down from Bondi to Coogee, a well-worn beach trail that takes us through Waverley Cemetery, where Victor Trumper is buried. We search aimlessly for a good half hour but cannot locate his grave but we do chance upon the resting place of Henry May and Margaret, an imploring angel atop two marble slabs. The names mean nothing to us but the angel’s face compels us to look closer. On the side of the stones are their names and those of their children. Born in the 1850s, the parents lived to 66 and 78 respectively, while not one of their children lived beyond five years old. It puts cricket, and any troubles we may have, firmly in perspective.
We move on towards Coogee and I receive a text from my ten-year-old including a birthday wishlist. The big day is over five months away. The list contains shaving foam, borax, malic acid and a purple chrome Segway. I’ve not had time to process this information and alert the authorities when Felix says: “I might be wrong but I think we just walked past Fulham Academy director and former Crystal Palace manager Alan Smith.” Improbably, I know Alan fairly well, and we both turn round at the same time, do that double take thing, then chat about Fulham’s chances in the Championship, a subject very close to Felix’s heart. We finally end up in the ocean, splashing happily until thoughts turn homewards and we realise we’ve idiotically not thought to bring anything to dry ourselves with. A mere $60 and two towels later, we’re sorted.
And off we go again, from one corner of the world to another. But really Australia, in cricketing terms at least, is just around the corner. So here’s to next time, which I promise to look forward to.
This article appears in issue 21 of The Nightwatchman. Available in print and digital editions.
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