December 6, 2010

Waltzing, not wilting

In 1973 – a year when the Ashes were technically in England’s possession, but not for long – Mary Gates migrated to Australia with her husband and four children

In 1973 – a year when the Ashes were technically in England’s possession, but not for long – Mary Gates migrated to Australia with her husband and four children. Their luggage could have filled the entire back of a ute. But that didn’t bother the friendly customs officer. “Welcome to Australia,” he said, and through they went, into the Sydney Airport arrivals hall, where the handsome new prime minister Gough Whitlam stood beaming, a crowd was singing “Waltzing Matilda”, and the sequel to The Adventures of Bazza McKenzie was being shot. “What a welcome,” thought Mary. “What a country.”

What a bloody country indeed, eleven Englishmen might have been thinking to themselves this morning, for the 16,897th time in 128 years of Ashes rivalry. Graeme Swann was pitching the ball into some loose, black and perfectly round sods of dirt. This was producing substantial spin. It wasn’t gentle, parabolic spin. It was rapid spin, the kind that makes a batsman’s movements jerky and is hard to see off.

Yet see it off, somehow, is what Australia’s openers did. Simon Katich bunted various balls through short leg’s hands, wide of the man at short extra cover, and into the spot where a fourth slip should have been. Shane Watson popped one over silly point’s head and another out of short leg’s reach. All this happened in a handful of minutes. Australia, needing to bat six sessions for a draw, were one session down and no damage done.

Away from the field, Andrew Flintoff had been filling his News of the World column with under-the-blanket reminiscences of winter’s nights spent listening to Gooch and Co get clobbered. Today’s England, urged Flintoff, had a duty to “do to Australia what they did to us for so many years”. Mischief-makers might say Flintoff, who turned 33 today, had a duty to be out here lending a hand. But that’s beside the point.

The point is this: that Australia, however feeble its stock of cricketers, no matter how bad things get – and things right now are pretty darn unambiguously shabby – will never plumb the pathetic and humiliating lows that the woebegone English sides of 1989 to 2003 did. It won’t happen. Not in the friendly, lucky country. Not here.

Seventy-eight at lunch, all 10 wickets intact, and suddenly there on TV was Brett Lee – clear-thinking, no-fearing, brown-skinned Binga. “With the Australian spirit,” Binga proclaimed, “I am sure the boys can fight back.”

The Australian spirit? Binga must have been watching too many Qantas ads. Or reading Haydos’s memoir, perhaps. And yet …

There is something, some distinctive way of playing the game, that Australian teams, even ordinary ones, have. Watson, handed the mission of batting for a draw, opted to cut, drive, slice and dice 17 runs off the opening two overs. Katich eschewed the block, leave and duck in favour of the pull, hook and top-edge. The pair of them got lucky. But they were assertive. And there should be a word for how often luck and assertiveness go together. Call it, for want of something better, the Australian spirit.

Then Katich fell. Then Ricky Ponting skipped straight past assertiveness and into the arms of outright silliness. Then Watson ran out of puff after the crispest of 57s. Crisp 57s might be Watson’s stock-in-trade till the selectors slip him down the order and maximise the gap between his bowling spell ending and his innings starting.

Still, you thought, this match can be rescued, these Ashes can be won, this thing can be done.

And that’s when the ball got tossed to Kevin Pietersen. As if it was written in the clouds. Michael Clarke’s afternoon-long wrestle between recklessness and resistance was over. Resistance had lost. For a moment you wondered, after all, if maybe bankable old runs and wickets did matter more than friendliness and assertiveness. And luck.

Then you got home. You looked up tomorrow’s weather forecast. The forecast is for early, seldom relenting, she’ll-be-right-mate rain.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country