Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes

My introduction to The Ashes was auspicious – the MCG Centenary Test of March 1977. With my older brother, I attended the first two days and sat enthralled as the contest ebbed and flowed. We were among the 90,000 spectators who gasped in unison at the sound of ball on bone as Bob Willis broke Rick McCosker’s jaw that first morning.

The place was electric – like nothing I’d experienced – and I understood, even at 10 years of age, that the rivalry was something special.

Little was I to know that in a matter of months Australian cricket would implode thanks to Kerry Packer’s rival World Series Cricket. I’d just fallen in love with the game only for it to be torn asunder. Do I support the Test team or Packer’s Aussies? I couldn’t decide, so I followed both.

The Englishmen toured Australia the very next summer. With Packer recruiting the cream of local talent, a weakened Australia lost The Ashes 5-1, and it was devastating.

As if to make amends, that summer my brother Ben and I flogged ourselves twice daily in the local nets. We were girding our loins for war: if World Series Cricket was to be a permanent fixture we had to prepare ourselves to represent Australia in the coming years.

And then the war was over. A compromise was reached: Packer was awarded the television rights, World Series Cricket was wound up and things returned to normal (except for improved TV coverage, coloured outfits and night cricket) and Test cricket remained blessedly untouched.

When The Ashes resumed in 1981, the contest see-sawed until Australia caved at Edgbaston, making instant heroes of Ian Botham and Bob Willis. I watched it unfold on black and white as I sat up all night completing an assignment. Courtesy of a faulty pedal arm, I tore cartilage off my knee riding to and from school that year. The injury would end my days as a cricketer 36 years later.

The Aussies exacted revenge in the next home series of 1982-83, though Botham again tormented: at the MCG on the final day he held a juggling slips catch to deny victory by three runs. For the 1985 series in England, the Aussies wheeled out an aging Jeff Thomson but he had none of the menace of his earlier days. We went down to the Poms again but worse was to come: humiliation on home soil in the summer of 1986-87.

We had reached rock bottom, but the seeds of success had been sown in the soil of defeat: Allan ‘Captain Grumpy’ Border would mold his young side into world beaters.

Through it all, I continued to play cricket. At 20, having given up on the dream of representing Australia I was content to play out my three-decades-spanning career with only the scorers for spectators, mostly for the Emerald Hill Cricket Club in the Melbourne inner-bayside suburb of St Kilda. But we played hard: no quarter asked, nor given. I worked on my left arm in-swing, using the sea breeze off Port Phillip Bay to steer the ball at the stumps. When there was no breeze, I bowled fast leg spin just as I’d seen ‘Deadly’ Derek Underwood do for the Poms in the Centenary Test a decade earlier.

I know there will be others like me in the crowd, willing themselves into the contest, lost in the magic of the occasion.

At first, I celebrated Australia’s repeated Ashes dominance that started in 1989. After a decade, it became boring: I longed for the excitement of a real contest. I hated seeing Australia lose but I knew that when there was a chance of losing it made the cricket more exciting. The thrill had gone, and viewers couldn’t fail to notice an almost contemptuous arrogance creep into the Australian team. Especially the bowlers, with Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath openly laughing at and mocking the long-suffering English batsmen.

Then along came the English summer of 2005. Every Test was a gripping contest between, for once, equally matched teams. I watched each winter evening, unable to go to bed until stumps. I turned up for work each day with bags under my eyes, receiving knowing glances from coworkers with equally tired eyes. It was the greatest Ashes series I’d ever seen. And yet Australia lost 3-2. The result was less important than the spectacle of truly great Test cricket: we’d been starved of it in Ashes contests for too long.

At 38, I reinvented myself as a swing bowler after years as a spinner. Tired of relying on movement off the wicket, I would move the ball through the air as I learned to do in all those net sessions 20 years earlier. Conditions were rarely conducive, but when they were it was pure joy. Watching the ball curve inwards as if it had some external force acting on it – like something from a Quidditch game – before it cannoned into the stumps leaving the batsman all at sea. It was sporting bliss. When it came time to bat, I was still trying to emulate my childhood hero Kim Hughes: slashing, cutting, square driving and pulling. Like Hughes, it didn’t come off too often, but when it did life could be miserable for bowlers.

Since 2005 England have had the edge more often than not, a couple of local beltings notwithstanding. To see Mitchell Johnson’s left-arm swing tear the English batting order apart in 2013-14 was a joy shared by all Aussie cricket fans, but perhaps more by the ‘mollydookers’ among us. Aforementioned brother Ben, whose own left-arm pace was highly rated by those in the know as a junior, watched much of the series from a hospital bed in Perth whilst undergoing chemo and radiation treatment for a brain tumour. Via a flurry of texts, we rejoiced in Mitch’s incredible bowling.

It was the last Ashes series Ben would ever see. He succumbed to cancer at summer’s end. I missed my cricket team’s Grand Final Final to attend his funeral. Knowing Ben would’ve been aghast at my missing a premiership at his expense, I silently vowed to summon his presence the following summer.

Due, I suspect, to a combination of global warming and experience, I had the ball swinging more than ever in my last few summers. Twilight years produced a flurry of wickets as the old knee injury forced a shorter run-up. Each year it grew less and less until reduced to a few paces. This didn’t seem to stop the flow of wickets, however: bowling into that same sea breeze, a stone’s throw from the old nets where I’d learned the craft, it all came together one afternoon in late 2014. At the age of 48, with Ben in my mind’s eye, I came on first change with our opponents cruising at 0 for 23. I walked off an hour later, the opposition skittled for 43, figures of 9/9 from 6 overs next to my name.

Two premierships followed but I limped into both finals and, aged 50 and with more than 3000 runs and 350 wickets to my name, knew my time was up. Finishing with a premiership is about as nice a way to finish a sporting career as there is. But a wrecked knee will always be more of a reminder than the premiership medallions already coated with dust in my garage.

This Boxing Day will have added poignancy for me as I join the ranks of spectators whose playing days are over. I will hobble up the stairs to take my seat like thousands of others whose bodies finally failed them but knowing that when the battle starts I will become lost in the contest as I did all those summers past. Just another retired cricketer whose eyes will occasionally lose focus as he inhabits the bowler vicariously… running in with him, hitting the crease, the delivery stride, firing the red projectile down the pitch and willing it to jag off the seam and take the edge of the bat. I know there will be others like me in the crowd, willing themselves into the contest, lost in the magic of the occasion.

And I’ll no longer feel old, the child I once was will live again – if only briefly summoned from 40 summers ago thanks to The Ashes.

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