January 7, 2011

Caught (Dropped!) In The Memory

So ends another Ashes summer

So ends another Ashes summer. It begins, traditionally, with a boy buying the new season’s issue of the ABC Cricket Book, which this summer asked the ABC cricket commentators to recall their favourite Ashes moment. Terry Alderman was actually present, watching on the dressing room TV, at his moment: Old Trafford, 1989, Cook bowling to Boon, the Ashes regained and a pinch of bliss to soothe the still-seeping humiliations of ’81 and ’85…

“The moment David Boon whipped a ball off his pads,” Alderman said, “is forever ingrained on my mind.”

Geoff Lawson, who was watching from the players’ balcony, chose the same moment. Only different. “Boon,” said Lawson, “sweeps to deep backward square leg.”

A “whip off his pads”. A “sweep”. Well, which was it? It could hardly be both. But they remember the feeling just the same. The feeling was elation.

Thirty-three years ago the Ashes changed hands at Headingley when Rod Marsh toe-ended the ball and the ball swirled high, towards Derek Randall, an urchin in a sunhat, who caught it, chucked it away, then did a cartwheel. Randall’s body as he landed looked like an upside-down smile.

I did not see it. I was three. The footage is not on YouTube and the photo that I know exists someplace is nowhere I can find. The image, in my heart, is glued tight inside.

Yet it is strange how scratchy are our memories of those bygone instants when a summer’s high-wired drama reached its natural conclusion. That Randall catch is one of only a dozen Ashes handover moments in three quarters of a century. Who remembers more than a couple? In 2005, most drama-filled Ashes of them all, Harmison bounced four leg-byes off Langer’s shoulder and off everyone trotted, to the boos of the crowd, for bad light. In 1982–83, Sydney, another drawn climax, Miller and Taylor played out time against the offspin of Yardley and the nothing-happening-here left-armers of Hookes. Probably no one alive – probably not even Gideon Haigh – remembers that.

Often has a part-timer been bowling when the final blow’s been dealt. Compton hauled Morris through square leg at The Oval in 1953 to end 19 years of English suffering. Favell reopened the suffering with successive boundaries off Cowdrey in Adelaide in 1958–59. D’Oliveira cleaned up Lillee in Sydney in 1970–71.

Humdrum indeed was the scene at The Oval in 1985. Australia’s last pair was offered the light but could see no point prolonging matters. On they batted, under a sky so dismal that Murray Bennett took off his chocolate-coloured spectacles. Murray never took his specs off. He promptly lobbed up a return catch and Les Taylor caught it – the last thing either man did in Test cricket.

And yet Sydney, 1974–75, that could hardly have felt more fraught, the spinner Mallett brought on, the evening closing in, Arnold on strike, three short-legs circling and one of them, Greg Chappell, plucking the winning catch and leaping airborne in celebration – “his body arched like a young salmon,” wrote Frank Tyson, “surging upstream against the falls” – in a single bound. Even that moment has trickled from memory’s grasp.

This summer’s Ashes did not change hands and were settled one game early, minutes to midday on day four in Melbourne. Hilfenhaus: ct Prior b Bresnan, 0. There’s no knowing what space that moment – a half-tracker, a tentative prod, a swooping catch – will occupy in our minds in twenty or thirty years. Almost certainly it will fade, then blur, until imagination is all we have; and imagination, oh yes, it plays tricks.

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