The Fawlty Towers of cricket
Monday, July 18
I first came to Lord's twenty years ago as a wide-eyed Australian teenager. The Tower, the Palace, Earl's Court: they could all wait until I'd seen what Sir Robert Menzies once called the Cathedral of Cricket. One of my most vivid cricket memories is of getting off a plane in April 1989 and heading straight for Lord's to watch MCC v Worcestershire, and especially the youthful phenomenon Graeme Hick of whom I'd heard so much. Hick made a power-packed hundred, but my overpowering recollection is of the whispered news that swept the ground of the horrors of Hillsborough. It seemed such an English affair: there we were, a handful of spectators in this quiet county cloister, while, to the north, scores were perishing in an overcrowded football ghetto.
I love Lord's. I hate it too. Marylebone Cricket Club remains a law unto itself, rapt in ritual, cobwebbed in custom. Over a drink a few weeks earlier, my friend David Studham, librarian at the Melbourne Cricket Club, told me a story about a visit to Lord's a few years ago when he overheard an nonagenarian in the Long Room spluttering to the members around him: `I say, d'ya know there's a bally woman talking to Swanton in the committee room? What's the world coming to?' Errr, yes, murmured one of his fellows: it was...well...the Queen.
MCC also remains a state within a state in English cricket. Journalists, for example, must obtain separate accreditation for games at Lord's in addition to their ECB pass. If they can. Clare Skinner, the deputed authority, moves in her own sweet way, impervious to emails and phone messages. When I finally make contact with her, she issues an airy promise to leave said pass at the East Gate - and, of course, it's not there. `No accreditation here,' says the resident jobsworth.
`Well,' I suggest helpfully, `perhaps you could call Clare Skinner and find out why it's not.'
`No,' he says simply.
`Why not?' I ask.
`You call her.'
`That's going to be difficult. I don't have a phone.'
`You've got a problem,' says the attendant, smirking at his mate.
Actually, it's Lord's that has the problem. The rudeness of its personnel is legendary, yet it seems perversely proud to be the Fawlty Towers of English cricket, where everything would be fine if it wasn't for the deuced public wanting to watch cricket there. Looking in another direction as he does so, the attendant finally pushes a piece of paper to me, on which is handwritten a telephone number. I presume that I'm meant to call someone. I find a payphone and call it. It is someone's voicemail. The day is going swimmingly.
Of course, it's nothing personal. They'd stop W. G. if he didn't have the right pass (`Where do you think you're going, beardy?'). The truly baffling thing I learn, however, is that, although the Australians are practising this morning, the public is not allowed into the ground. Two Aussie friends of mine, who have decided to take time off from work this morning to come and watch their countrymen, are disappointed; I am baffled. At the Confederations Cup in Germany recently, 30,000 people turned up to watch the Brazilians practice: the tournament's organisers turned it into a major event, selling merchandise, and laying on food and drink. I suppose when the tickets to your Test match sell themselves - and would half a dozen times over - you probably don't have to think too much about `promoting the game'. I finally get some assistance from a more helpful attendant at the Grace Gates. But grace, I fear, is a word I find hard to associate with Lord's.
Tuesday, July 19
I am covering this Ashes series for The Guardian, so I pop down to its Farringdon Road offices to pay my respects to the sports editor Ben Clissitt. I derive some amusement from what my old cobber Tim Blair, right-wing death-beast blogger extraordinaire, might make of The Newsroom Café, bedecked with wretchedly unfunny Steve Bell cartoons, and serving organic biscuits and fair trade coffee.
When Ben asks for a prediction, I charitably offer 3-1, assuming some rain, and perhaps a consolation dead-Test victory for England, even if I suspect it will probably be even more one-sided. I find the top order that England's named for the Test entirely baffling, with an out-of-form captain, a kid, a debutant and a slogger to follow Trescothick and Strauss. And while everyone is extending sympathy to Thorpe, I think England will miss the injured Mark Butcher more. How many English batsmen have three Ashes hundreds to their name, two of them in victories? When you're between runs - and Vaughan at the moment is - No. 3 is a bugger of a place to recover your touch. These are selections that need everything to go right; Murphy might not have been a cricketer, but his Law that if something can go wrong it will is immutable where English cricket is concerned.
Wednesday, July 20
If I think I've been previewing this series for a long time, that's as nothing compared to my English colleagues, who seem to have envisioned almost every scenario over the last six months save alien abduction. My Guardian colleague David Hopps has threatened to ask his hairdresser to contribute `Ten Ways to Dismiss Andy Flintoff'. On the day before the Lord's Test, correspondents proceed from one press conference to another, seeking the quotes to underpin the next day's lead, trying to spin the straw of cliché into the gold of controversy; Ponting and Vaughan try to give a little but not too much. Some remarks of Hoggard's in The Times about the Australians being a little long in the tooth, for instance, are quoted back to Vaughan. `Eeee said that, did he?' says the skipper. Pause. A smile. `Ah'm right be'ind `im.' Mmmm. Not quite what we were looking for.
Thursday, July 21
As a cricket correspondent, the first thing for which you try to get a feeling every day are the conditions: not those for cricket, but those for writing. There are six Guardian correspondents at Lord's for the first day of the First Test today: Hoppsy, chief cricket writer Mike Selvey, chief sports writer Richard Williams, Lawrence Booth, Paul Kelso and myself. Paul is calling us G6, although we could be the full-fledged G8 if you include our columnist Ashley Giles and that legend of the game Dave Podmore. What on earth are we all going to write about?
In fact, cricket provideth: 17 wickets fall, 13 from the Pavilion End, for 282, and there should almost be a revolving door in the pavilion. Australia bat as if still in the grip of a one-day fever, scoring six in every ten of their runs in boundaries. England bowl first with menace, in the person of Harmison, then persistence, in the form of Jones and Flintoff. Having enjoined the crowd to throw their verbal might behind England, Pietersen first elicits a roar of disappointment, granting Ponting a reprieve at the finer of two gullies, diving to his left but incommoded by the sunglasses perched upside down on the back of his head. (This is an old Australian custom for confusing marauding magpies - Duncan Fletcher has clearly delved deeply into the antipodean playbook.) But it does not seem to matter. Leaving the field, England enjoy a standing ovation that sends a shiver up the spine.
Then comes McGrath. I remember the first time I saw McGrath's action. About twelve years ago, I was sitting in the Adelaide office of Richard Done, then the bowling coach at the AIS Cricket Academy. He had on his desk a strip of freeze frame photographs of a bowler bowling towards a camera, and showing off an action almost unimproveable. `Who's this, Richard?' I asked. `That's a kid called Glenn McGrath,' said Done. `You won't have heard of him. But you will.' Now he is running from the Pavilion towards me in the Press Centre, and the action is more or less the same, wrist cocked, knees pumping, almost brushing past the stumps as his glides into his delivery stride. It's just as well, because Gillespie is still unhappy in his work, and Lee's two wickets come a little fortunately: Australia will need more from both of them.
The only note of discord is provided by the outside world: the latest suicide bomb attacks. Mind you, this does afford me a chance to play Wenlock Jakes for an ABC morning show host who calls from Melbourne to ask for a description of `the mood on the street'. This, from where I am, passing the pubs and bars on Upper Street in Islington at 10.30pm, is rather buoyant, if not paralytic. `London can take it,' I reassure him. It reminds me of a story retailed by my friend Stephen Fay of a trip to Haiti for the coup that installed Baby Doc. The correspondents, having phoned their copy home, had adjourned to the pool of their handsome colonial hotel and were savouring their rum punches when they overheard the Express man begin reading his despatch to the copy takers in London: `In this sun-soaked isle of terror...' I give Aussie listeners something similar, remembering all the while that these are not the acts of `terrorists' but of `victims of western imperialism acting out of legitimate grievance'. After all, if you're going to work for the Guardian, you might as well go the whole way.
Friday, July 22
Another absorbing day from which the watcher dare not avert their eyes, and most did not, except for MCC members bumbling behind the bowler's arm (latest MCC folly: England's players apparently couldn't even get parking places for their cars during this Test; maybe it is felt the Australians deserve them after 71 years).
Australia bat far better at their second attempt, Michael Clarke rehabilitates himself at Test level, and opens out attractively after tea, getting himself out when a century is his for the taking. He is chaperoned skilfully by Damien Martyn, who spends three-and-a-half painstaking hours over 65. Martyn provides the other golden moment of the day by haring along the Grand Stand boundary, looking over his right shoulder at a soaring slog sweep from Pietersen, and leaping at the last possible instant to intercept it - a catch that should rank with Syd Copley's or Fred Grace's but which scarcely seemed in doubt. It secures Australia a 35-run first-innings lead, which while insignificant in terms of runs is psychologically important as an advantage they can work on enlarging; by the close the Test seems out of England's reach.
Saturday, July 23
Some Tests are won, some are lost; this is both. England begin the day needing to amputate the Australian tail pronto. In fact, it grows, until it's almost wrapped around their necks and tightening. In the first innings, England had been like a beagle pack on Australia's scent; in the second, they are like Scotland Yard on the trail of Moriarty, too slow, too clumsy, and languishing a growing distance behind. Gillespie is an obstinate sticker; McGrath might still elicit a cheer when he scores a run, but he is no longer a negligible batsman at Test level. England underestimate them, and they help Katich extend Australia's lead by 95 over two hours.
There is again some mercurial fielding, Giles at last finding a way to hit the stumps in this Test by throwing Lee out from cover. But England take its log of dropped of catches to seven, most savouring of insufficient concentration rather than inadequate technique, of players contemplating their second innings rather than Australia's. The Australians, by contrast, field brilliantly. The way some critics have written of this team, it is as though Bill Brown is ripe for a recall. In fact, so far they have fielded better than the side in 2001, which caught fallibly, even if it was not forced to pay much of a price. Lee's sprint to a return catch from Strauss eats up the distance in a few strides, his eyes never leaving the hovering ball. Hayden makes an awkward slip catch bouncing from the rough via Trescothick's edge look deceptively simple. Ponting pulls up a snick to fine third man with an inch in it, vaults the npower sponsors' fortification at the Nursery End, bounces off the rolled up tarpaulin and bounds back over the signage to hurl the return to Gilchrist. Katich is adept at short leg, Clarke busy at cover point.
Warne is frustrated by the imperviousness of umpire Aleem Dar, who spares Trescothick on the stroke of tea from a pad-bat-pad lbw; at various times, it seems like the only thing preventing him pulling his hair out is attention to the needs of his sponsor. But then Bell walks into the usual fielders' convention, which, fresh from a couple of wickets, looks to be as noisy as a cage of cockatoos. He takes his time between deliveries, trying to slow the heart rate, and dilute the adrenaline, but perhaps too successfully, for he chooses the worst possible means of dismissal, padding up to the slider which in recent years has dealt many a coup de grace. Once Vaughan has gone, painfully, and Flintoff, perhaps tiredly after 38 overs, the Australians have regained their strut of old, and England are thinking about their chances in 2014-15 when Test matches will probably be played on a neural network without anyone leaving home. Pietersen alone gets going; indeed, he is strung up to concert pitch. When he is hit by Lee, he falls down, then turns to watch the replay. He heaves Lee a retaliatory six into the Tavern; he slogs Warne against the spin into the Grand Stand, first in front of square then behind, then with the spin down the hill to the Mound Stand boundary. It is an inclusive innings. A pity his team-mates can't get involved.
Sunday, July 24
It rains - quite a lot, but not enough. For a time, it looks as though there might be enough to wash away the day; in fact, at fast-drying Lord's, play gets underway quickly these days, and the final rout begins soon after the heavens close. Pathetic really. One imagines Fred Trueman complaining: `Call that a rain? In my day, it rained for weeks at a time. Three of our seamers drowned at Southend. That Noah, `ee could play a bit...etc.' The rain will have to lift its game if Glenn McGrath's 5-0 prophecy is not to be fulfilled. Can a rain academy be set up?
Geoff Boycott's campaign for four-day Tests then gets another boost as England's resistance is eliminated in 61 balls. When Jones misses being bowled by a whisker, Warne misses perhaps his last opportunity to get on the famous Lord's honour boards: he has to make do with 4 for 65 and his portrait on the wall. With 4 for 27, McGrath completes a shut-out that has taken fewer than 250 overs. Lord's will be an Australian citadel for at least three-quarters of a century. Perhaps the stewards can learn politeness by the time I return.
Monday, July 25
A day at my digs in Islington writing, and also reading some very good words, including Simon Barnes in The Times: `Kevin Pietersen's cheerful six-hitting at the end was like the V-sign you give the headmaster ten minutes after you've left school. It makes you feel a bit better, but it doesn't affect the balance of power'. And it's still the case that nobody crafts a more waspish metaphor than Martin Johnson in the Daily Telegraph: `He [Geraint Jones] has a pair of wicketkeeping gloves that appear to have been hewn from a trampoline, and his attempt to catch Jason Gillespie by sticking out an arm was less like watching a professional athlete as one of those old Morris Minors with a semaphore trafficator.' Say what you like about England's cricketers, they are superb sport for columnists.
Tuesday, July 26
One of the great traditions of English defeat used to be `naughty boy nets': the penance served by players on the days they had been scheduled to play the Test they'd just lost by several thousand runs, even as the tabloids crafted their faces into turnips. Remember the grand old days when there would be pictures in the papers of the grim-set features of Micky Stewart or Keith Fletcher supervising the players serving their detentions? It seems to have fallen into disuse; nowadays the players don't even play. While Australia heads to Worcester for a game they barely need, the English players disperse and are either rested or given a run-around in one-day cricket. Freddie Flintoff's preparation for Edgbaston will be playing in the Twenty20 finals on Saturday, while Michael Vaughan is slated for one-on-one sessions with Duncan Fletcher ahead of a totesport League game on Sunday.
This is in keeping with what Vaughan says in his diary of last year: `If I have a bad day or hit a bad shot, I'll think about what has happened, analyse everything and then work on eradicating the flaw or problem. Once I wake up the following morning I am ready to move onto the next issue.' Easy really. Mind you, one wonders why he hasn't done this already when his form for the last six months has been so erratic. An illuminating piece in the Guardian today by my colleague Alex Brown describes Warne's pre-match practice ritual with Terry Jenner. Since they were introduced fifteen years ago by Rod Marsh, Jenner has come to know Warne's technique in intimate detail. His arrival also has a talismanic quality for Warne, who associates him with the feeling of being on top of his game. With England, by contrast, games seem not so much built as constantly under repair. At least one local tradition is intact: that of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer, who is covering the Ashes tour for the Guardian. His diary will appear on Cricinfo every week