Sentimental in Sydney
This was the most emotionally charged Test match I have attended, for extraneous reasons rather more than the cricket. It began with a tribute to Tony Greig, included the Jane McGrath Foundation day, saw Mahela Jayawardene stand down from the captaincy of his country, and finished with Michael Hussey's retirement. Very Sydney Cricket Ground, come to think of it - so often a place of hello and goodbye.
Within all this was a gaping hole of reconstruction where the Noble and Bradman stands once proudly stood; myriad temporary facilities, a near-perfect pitch, typical Australian summer heat, presentations to Michael Clarke for deeds during his annus mirabilis, a catalogue of the worst running between the wickets ever seen, and then an Australian victory over Sri Lanka that was, if not quite a true nail-biter, at the very least a nail-nibbler.
To Greig, first. He had died only days before. The Australian papers were full of him, so too the various broadcast networks and the internet. His family now know that any love/hate with Australian audiences was love actually, in its coat of many colours. Greigy embraced the great southern land as his own, had the guts to tell Australians the other side of the story and earned their unconditional respect.
Channel 9 opened the day's coverage with Greig voicing over an aerial view of Sydney, the city he truly loved, from the coverage of last year's Sydney Test. It went on to share views amongst the commentators of his many strengths, before showing a beautiful tribute piece - voiced by Richie Benaud, in which the words were deliberate and broken with emotion and brilliant - and then putting to air a minute's utter silence during which the sounds of Greig's call, strong and specific, echoed in the windmills of our mind. The cricketers of both teams stood with their heads bowed. Tony's family and the 9 commentators stood alongside them, the disbelief still resonating in little rafts of pain. When the announcer thanked the crowd, the crowd applauded instinctively and respectfully, as if Greig, the England captain, was raising his bat before them. Then the match had to begin and young Tom and older Mark, the sons from different marriages, went to the pitch for a look and a hug before doffing the wide brim of their panamas to the emerging players and disappearing down the race for a moment of peace.
At the invitation of the captain, ten-year-old Tom was to spend the fourth day's play in the Australian dressing room. He spent tea in the nets, facing David Warner and Nathan Lyon. Lyon bowled him out. "With one that kept low," Tom said. He went home last night with Warner's bat, Clarke's gloves and Lyon's boots. The previous three days had been in the 9 commentary box, where the scorer and statistician Max Kruger welcomed Tom as his own with a vast knowledge of the game and a diet of Crunchie bars. Tom never missed a ball, nor has he done since cricket became the first love of his life.
I tell these tales because wherever the flag flies, the game tries to take care of its own. On the third day of the match, the Sydney Cricket Ground turned pink. That is 34,000 spectators - capacity while the redevelopment of the stands continues - dressed in something pink. On-field branding, perimeter advertising hoardings, iron railings, concrete pillars, bat handles, stumps, television graphics, commentators' blazers, shirts and ties - pink, pink, pink! Jane McGrath, Glenn's wife, died from breast cancer four and a half years ago. Her long battle was an example to others. From her comes the foundation. Four million dollars now raised, almost $3 million of it from the cricket day alone; 79 full-time specialist nurses, 18,000 families supported all around Australia. If breast-cancer care can be a brand, the colour pink is its signature and the SCG sure signs off on this one.
Sri Lanka had not played a Test in Sydney previously. The ground brought no more fortune than any other - played 13, drawn two, lost 11. Kumar Sangakkara might have made the difference, because Clarke made a howler choosing to bowl first. Another 75 runs and Australian hearts would have pounded in the chase. After a poor tour, indeed having passed 50 in an away game for the first time since 2009, Jayawardene batted well in both innings. It was brave and conscientious to accept the captaincy for a second term but he has had enough of leading a team that plays with its hands tied. Those who control cricket in Sri Lanka must be careful. This team is rocking betwixt and between competence and incompetence at Test match level.
Investment is desperately required to bring the best from the present young talent and inspire its next generation. Living off Lahore 1996 cannot last much longer. First Muttiah Muralitharan, Sanath Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas held it together; now Sangakkara and Jayawardene do the same. They cannot last either. Will Haroon Lorgat's review and recommendations be acted upon? Or is the self-interest of the prime political movers too overwhelming to care? Come on Sri Lankans, rise up.
And so to Michael Hussey. There have been greater cricketers but not many. The game may have spawned finer men but none are obvious. There have been professionals as prepared and as committed but none more so. "Huss" didn't much like the Mr Cricket moniker because it suggested affectation but he never said so until yesterday. Modesty prevailed. Completely dependable Mr Cricket just wanted to fly beneath the radar.
The trouble yesterday was that the team needed him just one more time. When Clarke fell, caught at short leg, the 10,000 spectators who had expected an easy day rose as one to roar their approval of a fine career and their expectation of a man for a crisis. Hussey did not disappoint. He got the job done to the point of ignoring an opportunity to hit the winning run by taking a single and allowing Mitchell Johnson the privilege. Match over. Career over. A few beers with the lads, home to the kids. No-fuss Huss.
He will be back amongst us somewhere soon, and in whatever guise that may be, a success will be made of it - guaranteed. For the record, Hussey averaged more than 50 in Test cricket and only a tad under 50 in one-day cricket. He struck at better than 135 per hundred balls in the T20 format that threatens other cricketers of his time. These are extraordinary figures. And such a good bloke too.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK