December 1, 2011

What I heard about the cricket

The season's begun in Australia, and there's plenty of talk about the game

Cricket's back today, and in the nine-day hole between the last two-Test series ending and a new two-Test series beginning I heard James Sutherland, chief executive officer of Cricket Australia, field questions from cricket fans. I heard a fan say there's a large discontent in Australia with the way teams get picked and things get misadministered, and with how the administrators don't listen to the fans. I heard the fan wonder if Cricket Australia is aware of this.

I heard James Sutherland say: "I think there are peaks and troughs, I suppose, in that regard."

I heard the sinews and veins in Mitchell Johnson's biceps are so taut he can bounce coins off them.

I heard Johnson won't play in this week's Gabba Test because his left big toe is swollen.

I heard that another fast bowler, Pat Cummins, is so new his team-mates have nicknamed him "Cummo" till they have time to invent something more poignant.

I heard a third fast bowler, Ryan Harris, say: "Two-Test series, in my point of view, are pointless."

I heard that cricket played over five Tests is cricket at its purest and richest, giving space for plot and twists and narrative, summoning the best out of the cricketers not only as cricketers but as men too.

I heard that after Australia's cricketers finish this two-Test series there'll be a four-Test series, then a three-Test series, then two more three-Test series.

I heard that the cricketers of today aren't in fact cricketers at all; they're more correctly termed "athletes".

I heard that Johnson, Cummins and Harris all have injuries and won't play at the Gabba this week.

In Lazarus Rising, the ex-prime minister John Howard's autobiography, Howard declares: "I knew the names of Bradman, Lindwall and Miller before I learned the name Menzies." Six hundred pages later I heard Howard say: "Cricket retains pride of place as our national game, with the Boxing Day Test, traditionally held in Melbourne, having a special place in our sporting calendar."

I heard that the minute stumps are drawn at this summer's Boxing Day Test - on days two, three, four and five respectively - Cricket Australia is cross-scheduling Big Bash clashes between the Sixers and the Stars, the Strikers and the Hurricanes, the Scorchers and the Heat, and the Thunder and the Renegades.

The cricket books John Howard treasured most as a boy were Keith Miller's Straight Hit and Johnnie Moyes' A Century of Cricketers, published in 1950.

The cricket book I have treasured least was Mark Waugh's Mark Waugh: A Biography, published in 2002. It was co-written with James Knight, and sentences like the following one - "Mark collected four wickets in the drawn match, including 3-49 in the first innings" - were seven-a-page.

Last week I noticed radio announcer Alan Jones has written a foreword to Brett Lee's new book, and I heard Jones say of the book: "I am delighted its co-writer is James Knight."


In July I heard that an eight-team Twenty20 competition was launched in the inner-city suburbs of Sydney, where men clad in white have played cricket since 1803. I heard that the Sydney Thunder players rode in astride Harley-Davidsons. I heard that the pink-shirted Sydney Sixers stepped out of a pink Hummer limo. I heard that break-dancing and graffiti exhibitions were staged on the floor and the walls, that cheerleaders mixed the drinks from behind stainless steel bartops, that the eight captains stood on a stage in the company of their own multicoloured holograms.

I heard Brett Lee say: "Yeah, it's great, look, it's all about having fun, very colourful, wearing magenta - not pink - we did come in a pink Hummer, though, which was a lot of fun. But yeah, look, it's brilliant."

I heard Matthew Hayden say: "It's all about engaging our fans."

I heard the emcee say: "On December 16, Australian sport enters an exciting new era… The new phenomenon, this year's sports entertainment revolution, ladies and gentlemen, the KFC T20 Big Bash Leeeague."

Twenty or so years ago Imran Khan said to the Pakistani writer Tariq Ali: "People like you have no idea what it is to be a sportsman. Our careers end in our thirties. We have to think of something new to do."

In October, Imran, aged 59, pulled a 100,000-strong crowd at a rally in Lahore, where he promised to fight corruption, improve the electricity supply, stop Pakistan's soldiers from doing America's bidding, reduce reliance on foreign aid, and fix his country's tax system. He said: "Declare your assets or face the wrath of the people."

In November, Dean Jones, aged 50, wrote in his Saturday column: "In Katich's last seven innings, he averaged only 29. I averaged over 85 from my last seven hits."

I heard James Sutherland say: "World cricket is so much better off for the interest that 1.2 billion Indians have in the game."

I heard James Sutherland add: "Also, I suppose the commercial aspect of the returns that come out of the Indian market, we all need to be cognisant of that."

I heard that the Sheffield Shield competition is the pinnacle of domestic cricket, the envy of the world, the dreaming place of Trumper, Darling, Noble.

I heard there'll be no Sheffield Shield matches for eight weeks between December 9 and February 2. I heard this is unprecedented, except in wartime.

I heard 31 Big Bash matches will be played during that period.

I heard an ad man, Ben Coulson, say of the Big Bash TV ad he created: "We think it's a fantastic, big, glamorous, colourful, really cool entertainment kinda-ad-slash-video-clip about a brand new version of cricket."

I heard Marcus North, captain of the Perth Scorchers, predict: "The WACA will turn orange and hopefully we'll turn it into a furnace."

In Adelaide, I heard, they're turning the oval into an arena. I heard that cranes and bulldozers will be camped in the shadows of the fig trees, the 100-year-old scoreboard and the cathedral of St Peter's. I heard: "The new design has exceeded the Australian design standards for stadium toilet facilities by 20%." I heard $550 million will help "create a recreational dynamic that will allow the people of Adelaide and their visitors to enjoy - in their thousands - the River Bank Precinct". I heard the old turf pitch is being dug up. I heard portable drop-in strips that don't require year-round watering and nurturing will be used instead. I heard the ground will still be known as Adelaide Oval but the names of the bars, grandstands, viewing boxes and other amenities are up for grabs to the highest bidder.

"The only one that we would like to keep is George Giffen and the old Giffen Stand," I heard the local association president Ian McLachlan say.


In 2010 I saw these words of Christopher Hitchens. "Listen: the paper has a whole separate section devoted to people who want to degrade the act of reading by staring enthusiastically at the outcomes of sporting events that occurred the previous day… All I ask is that they keep out of the grown-up parts of the paper."

I heard Brad Haddin has been named fill-in vice-captain. A TV interviewer asked Haddin who was Australia's first prime minister. I heard several seconds go by in silence, then I heard Haddin say: "Nup."

Last cricket summer, Greg Baum's match reports of the five Ashes Tests made the Age front page 17 times.

In August the Argus rescue report into Australian cricket was released, its goals many and well-meaning: to "position the Australian Cricket Team to return to leadership in all three formats"; for "cricket to be Australia's favourite sport"; to overhaul the "sub-optimal incentive structure"; to adopt the "matrix management structure proposed [which] facilitates open collaborative discussion to achieve the desired outcomes".

A new job title - team performance manager - was coined. Fifteen seconds into Pat Howard's inaugural press conference I heard him say: "But, look, I have a great interest in cricket, I love the game, but at the same stage I do have a high-performance background."

Fifteen seconds after that I heard him say: "In the meantime I'll be working very closely with James at Cricket Australia to get processes underway to keep moving forward on the plan that we've got going."

And then he said: "I had a quick phone call with Michael Clarke earlier just to introduce myself, nothing more, just to be able to try and engage with the community. At this stage, it's all perception."

I heard Mickey Arthur, the new team coach, say: "I'm all about squad and not team."

I heard Usman Khawaja, a newish batsman, say: "I just have to go out there and make sure I control the uncontrollables."

In a fresh innovation, the Australian team captain will now sit on the selection panel, which has prompted a small minority to query whether a conflict of interest might arise should the captain bat or bowl so feebly that his own selection falls under scrutiny.

I heard James Sutherland say: "Down the track… Heaven forbid… The simple format there would be that the captain would be excluded from those discussions… Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

I heard that John Inverarity, the new full-time head selector, has a plain-talking way with words and an inquisitive, sophisticated mind.

I heard Brad Haddin has been named fill-in vice-captain. A TV interviewer asked Haddin who was Australia's first prime minister. I heard several seconds go by in silence, then I heard Haddin say: "Nup."

I heard Shaun Tait say: "Winston Churchill?"

A friend telephoned wanting to know who was responsible for the decision to make Haddin vice-captain. "If Brad Haddin is vice-captaincy material," I heard my friend say, "who next?" Greg Matthews? Matthew Elliott? Eliot Weinberger?

I read that Mike Atherton, who led England to three series victories in 13 series as captain, was born in Failsworth.

Warren Bardsley, who opened Australia's batting till the age of 43, came from Nevertire.

Peter Roebuck was born in Oddington.

At a cricket club function on Saturday night I heard a first-class cricketer from Tasmania get asked if Twenty20 was "a crock of shit or what?", and he said: "I think so."

But the cricket's back today, in Brisbane. I hear the weather forecasters are forecasting rain, and thunder, then sun.

(Thanks to Eliot Weinberger for showing me how.)

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