Andrew Miller on England in Australia, 2006-07 December 13, 2006

The Ashes in widescreen slo-mo

I walked into a glass partition in the business centre of the team hotel last night

I walked into a glass partition in the business centre of the team hotel last night. It was actually quite an easy mistake to make. They’d moved the pot-plant and given the window a wipe-down, and with lots of wide open space in front and behind it, it seemed the obvious way out. In fact, when another punter did exactly the same ten minutes later, an amused receptionist made a series of urgent phonecalls and a portable rainforest was delivered forthwith to the foyer.

I was still thinking about this indignity as I made my way down to the WACA last night to watch England’s “Legends” take on their Australian counterparts in a floodlit Twenty20 match. If something as obvious and natural as walking through a door can, in the wrong circumstances, become such an embarrassment, then what about something that for 20 years had been your livelihood? Bowling a cricket ball for instance.

“I was asked to play, but I said ‘No way’,” said Nasser Hussain, one of the wise few who avoided the bear-trap that had been set for him. As the 6.15pm start time approached, Nasser was still lurking in the corner of the business centre, struggling to get his head around his new iPod. “Once you’ve retired, that’s it,” he added between curses at his computer. “Still, I might pop down just to watch Fraser get spanked out of the park.”

Extraordinarily, no fewer than 17,147 good citizens of Perth turned up to do likewise, which just goes to show that slapstick will always endure as an art-form. Under the WACA’s gargantuan floodlights, two teams featuring other indisputable legends as Merv Hughes, Terry Alderman, Phil DeFreitas, Geoff Marsh, Kim Hughes and Devon Malcolm went toe-to-toe, with neither giving an inch, but several giving a yard or two - especially on the occasions they were caught napping or chatting to spectators on the advertising hoardings.

It was really rather surreal for the players and spectators alike, as the ghosts of great careers loomed out of their six-way floodlit shadows. Even the clothing had been teleported from another era - a very garish yellow for the Aussies and that puzzling light-blue that England one-day sides used to so favour. It was like watching a Perth Challenge match from 1986-87 on slo-mo widescreen. The characters were squatter and stutterier, but indisputably recognisable all the same.

Fraser’s great surging run and cloud-snagging action was certainly there to see, but it was not half as prominent as his world-weary trudge and shrug, as yet another delivery was belted into the stratosphere by Australia’s recently retired ringer Ryan Campbell, who top-scored with an outrageously brisk 60. It was John Emburey’s teasing off breaks - still effective in his 55th year - that hauled England back into contention with 3 for 20, including a steepling catch for a relieved Mike Gatting on the square-leg boundary. A testing total of 171, and game was very much on.

“Go Old Aussies Go” was the only banner that seemed to have made its way into the ground. An eight-year-old at long-off had made it, and he also managed to collect three autographs - all of them from the publicity hungry syrup salesman, Greg Matthews. Ever the extrovert, Matthews then borrowed the PA’s microphone during the Australian innings to point out bald gits in the crowd who might benefit from a trip to his pet hair-replacement studio.

The atmosphere, which was already humming with good-natured nostalgia, went the same way as one of Fraser’s half-volleys when Dennis Lillee, the WACA’s president and favourite son, entered the attack. At the age of 57, he took the new ball from three paces, with only the barest trace of his majestic coiled-spring action. But what he had lost in pace he had replaced in booming outswing, and Gatting lasted just two deliveries before grazing an edge through to Healy behind the stumps. Lillee saw out the over and retired to the dressing-room, where Ian Botham could be seen grinning maniacally in his unofficial capacity of England team manager and drinks-cabinet emptier. After his mid-week in the Barossa Valley, he too had taken the Hussain route, and opted not to gamble with his dignity.

Despite their set-back, England rallied through that old firm of Robin Smith and Graham Thorpe, who added 119 against the likes of Bruce Reid and Rodney Hogg, and victory was eventually sealed with seven wickets to spare. It was a rare English triumph, and a pleasing distraction from the battle that awaits tomorrow. But the hangovers were still evident the following morning. As a haggard Fraser rubbed his shoulder throughout the captains’ press conferences, Ricky Ponting announced there had been some odd goings-on behind the scenes.

“Dean Jones sent me a text message last night wanting to borrow a bat for the game,“ he said, “and Terry Alderman left a note in Matty Hayden’s shoes, telling him he’d borrowed them.” So long as someone also left a nice scuff-mark right on a length for Steve Harmison, the legends might just have perpetuated the interest in the main event.

Andrew Miller is the former UK editor of ESPNcricinfo and now editor of The Cricketer magazine