December 30, 2010

The Ballad of Nugget and Krystyna

Speaking of a sick-in-the-gut feeling, that’s when it hit me, a creeping unease

There was once a beer-bellied bloke named Nugget who graced TV and magazine ads in one of those old-style cork hats that keep the blowflies off swagmen. Nugget was the public face of Kerry Packer’s range of cricket merchandise. Nugget’s job was to make children nag their parents into buying junk. Seldom did a summer’s day go by without you seeing Nugget. He was as much a part of the living room furniture as Lenny Pascoe’s scowl. Nugget’s beard was scratchy like spinifex and he had tree-trunk legs that his King Gee shorts could not quite contain. A dead ringer for Rod Marsh, Nugget was, except Nugget always wore khaki and Bacchus never sold commemorative beach towels, green-and-gold waterproof wallets or necklaces with little bats on them.

Who remembers Nugget now? Who knew Cricket Australia, no longer in bed with Mr Packer, is still flogging Nugget’s old gear?

Yesterday, day of Ashes retention, was a day of retail like any other, and the white merchandise van parked outside the MCG was trying in vain to rid itself of fluffy lions, fake urns, sombreros, cufflinks, baggy-green fridge magnets, silver-bat bottletop openers, mini-transistors and balls that bounce on seawater.

“Free entry!” announced the Gate 3 loudspeaker at 11.01am as Australia’s penultimate batting pair, Brad Haddin and Peter Siddle, went down swinging and slog-sweeping inside. At 11.02am the MCG Superstore, on level one of the Olympic Stand, was empty. It was empty, that is, but for a blonde shopgirl. The shopgirl’s name was Krystyna. There was sadness in Krystyna’s eyes and cric-a-brac on her shelves: backpacks, bookmarks, rulers, Ashes mini-bats (“Now $20. Was $25!”), Cricket Australia “wicket wrecker” balls, temporary tattoos, MCG snow domes. A Max Walker book of tall tales sat on a perspex bookstand. Roland Perry’s latest inkslinging (about cricket? about war? who could tell?) was there as well. Roland’s cover blurb went: “An inspiring story of the Aussie team spirit – mateship and sacrifice, courage and endurance.”

Speaking of a sick-in-the-gut feeling, that’s when it hit me, a creeping unease. Fourth morning of the fourth Test of a five-Test series is supposed to be a high-wired occasion. But it did not feel that way, lingering outside that Superstore, in the twisty corridors and concourses, the smell of Red Rooster, the field of play out of sight, nothing to guide me but the sound of the crowd, and the crowd on this day being virtually soundless, just a mile-away hum, save for a lone English bugle’s meandering rendition of “Let It Be”. The coliseum was a mausoleum. And soon there was reason to linger no longer. Siddle was caught, Ben Hilfenhaus too, and the Ashes were England’s.

For a full two minutes the ground authorities let this little bit of history sink in. Then some tinny and indiscernible elevator-type music – for once, Icehouse’s “Great Southern Land” was deemed inappropriate – was pumped out across every bay of plastic seats. Give the spectator, by which they mean the customer, a moment’s quiet reflection and he or she might stop buying stuff. So goes the cricket administrator’s logic.

Sure enough, two hours later the Superstore was packed. And there, with shining eyes, was Krystyna. She was behind a cash register. She was run off her feet. She’d called in two helpers. Briefly, our eyes met. She looked flushed, flustered.

But there was happiness in Krystyna’s eyes. And it felt a bit comforting to know that a bad day – the worst day – for Ricky Ponting was just another day at the MCG.

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