The match that turned the Ashes?
The seeds of Australia’s revival in the Ashes were sown not in the nets at Adelaide, where Mitchell Johnson appears to have undergone some devastatingly effective remedial work, but across the Nullabor at the University of Western Australia, where a hitherto little-noticed cricket match has gone on to have a massive effect on the morale of a battered nation.
At least, that’s how the Australian media are seeking to portray it, after their Pommie counterparts were flayed in the revival of a fixture that had been in mothballs since an encounter at Radlett during the 2001 tour of England – a match which had finished in a similarly unflattering result.
In hindsight, therefore, it was perhaps unwise to accept the challenge thrown down by John Townsend, aka “Skipper”, the combative correspondent of the West Australian newspaper, and a veteran of that fixture a decade earlier – the result of which had been superimposed onto a tour T-shirt in place of England’s Test victory at Headingley, to give the impression that Steve Waugh’s men had completed a 5-0 whitewash. It clearly mattered to the Aussies. A lot.
As chairman of England’s selectors, it fell to me to rustle up a squad with the competence, fitness and time to mount a challenge – no easy challenge when the match was scheduled for the afternoon of the squad’s arrival in Perth.
Fortunately, the sheer distance involved in travelling from Melbourne to Perth means that time effectively stood still for the four hours in which we were in the air – we took off at 10.45am, and landed at 11.45am, allowing a reasonable turnaround time for an Andy Flower press conference, and a gawp at the England squad’s emotion reunion with their families. As it happens, the sight of Paul Collingwood’s daughters hurtling across the hotel foyer to a loud squeal of “Daddy!” trumped KP’s embrace of his “little man” Dylan as the most heart-string-tugging moment for the assembled cynics of the press corps.
Thereafter it was straight down to the James Oval at UWA, a ten-minute taxi ride west of the city centre, to a gloriously well-preserved venue with an ominously spacious outfield. This was the club at which Ian Bell cut his teeth in grade cricket a decade ago, and Owais Shah also spent a season there in 2000-01, shortly before his England debut. The pedigree of the players it had nurtured was self-evident from the proud photos in the pavilion, and as our rag-bag ensemble of scribes and photographers sidled into the changing rooms, wearing a motley selection of shorts, T-shirts and whatever sportswear they could muster, the likelihood of a long hard day of yakka grew and grew.
England fielded first, and the new ball was taken in tandem by Cricinfo and the Wisden Cricketer, with yours truly selflessly volunteering to bowl into the Fremantle Doctor, and immediately wishing I’d chosen to pull rank. It was no great consolation to be presented with a brand spanking new Kookaburra ball either. Despite looking and feeling really rather exotic, it came out of the hand like a lump of molten cow-hide. Between the intensity of the heat, the buffeting of the wind, the flatness of the deck and the mowing of a pair of Aussie openers who viewed midwicket with the same avarice as Matthew Hayden did against Hoggard at the Gabba in 2002, it wasn’t the happiest three-over burst of my career.
I did find the edge once, but it flew low past first slip for four, before a steepling slog was dropped at mid-off, but I couldn’t exactly get chirpy about the fielding. In a moment reminiscent of Monty in Mumbai, I allowed another skier to plop five yards behind me as I misjudged the extent to which it would be held up in the wind, before in the same over a tracer-like drive burst through my fingers in the covers.
Tom Shaw, the Getty photographer, helped restore some pride for the hacks with three wickets in his spell, while Lawrence Booth, the Daily Mail’s attack dog, picked up a couple as well, including an lbw against The Australian’s most rabid dingo, Malcolm Conn, that possibly owed a touch to the nationality of the umpire who gave it. Certainly it would not have been upheld by the Aussie at the other end, who might as well have followed every squawk of “norrout!” with “... you Pommie bastard..!” as Phil Tufnell was said to have experienced on the 1990-91 Ashes tour.
England’s reply was launched by the red top pairing of The Sun’s John Etheridge – who smacked a four straight down the ground before being bowled in the same over – and The Mirror’s Dean Wilson, a former club colleague of Angus Fraser’s at Stanmore, who top-scored for the Poms with a hard-worked 46. He and Sam Peters of the News of the World kept the chase on course until Peters was run out for 9 to trigger a scramble for pads.
The end was ignominious, as the rate rose like the water in an ice-bath, from 7 to 9 to 12 and beyond, and the Poms’ challenge drowned in a sea of slogging. The Guardian’s David Hopps tried to switch-hit Townsend and couldn’t even justify a reprieve from the Pommy umpire, while Cricinfo managed four miscued singles before a wallop to mid-on. Reggie Hayter, the Matt Prior beard-a-like from the Mail on Sunday, tonked a pair of morale-lifting boundaries over midwicket, but the final margin of 20-odd runs was singularly emphatic.
Watching on throughout were the Barmy Army hierarchy – Jimmy Saville, Billy the Trumpet et al – who had turned up under false pretences believing that Michael Vaughan would be playing, but stayed on to watch and sing nonetheless, a gesture that earned them a sheepish clap of gratitude as their beaten pressmen left the field. In the end, the only former international on show was The Guardian’s Mike Selvey, whose decision to sign up as the Aussies’ coach earned him a chorus of boos as he arrived.
Despite the result – for which I immediately tendered my resignation after the match – it was a fine way to spend our first afternoon in Perth, and it was made even better by the beers and barbeque that followed. Nevertheless, the significance of the result did not hit us until it was thrown to Ricky Ponting as the first question in his press conference on the eve of the third Test. He’d not only heard about the match, he’d also absorbed its finer details. We should have known there and then. Victory is ingrained in the Australian DNA. Give them an inch and they’ll claim a country mile.
Andrew Miller is the former UK editor of ESPNcricinfo and now editor of The Cricketer magazine