July 9, 2013

A lifetime on cricket's rollercoaster

The Ashes legacy rests on the players' ability to capture the imagination of the fans, whether they follow it via radio, TV, the papers or live

Here we go again, all aboard cricket's ultimate rollercoaster. This is the series of matches that strip the men who play them to the bone; the matches that keep the rest of us alive by day and awake by night. For six weeks now, we have to deal with the unpredictable and often unbearable tension of Test match cricket. Not for a minute do I think this Ashes series will be a walkover. They said that in 1986 and 1989 and again in 2005. They've said it so often it's not worth saying any more. Forecasting is a mug's game.

The first time the Ashes hit home with me was 43 years ago and through the much underestimated medium of radio. England were in Australia in 1970-71 and the player I most idolised, John Snow, was knocking over the Chappell brothers. We had a small transistor radio and I took it to bed with me each night, enthralled. The voices resonate even now - Alan McGilvray, Jack Fingleton, John Arlott (at least I think these were the voices but they are long lost in the mist of time) and Ted Dexter who, incredibly, had flown his own twin prop aircraft, family onboard, the whole way from London to Brisbane.

Australia, the Great Southern Land, was a fantastical place for me - the place of Miller and Benaud, my father's heroes, and then Lawry, Simpson, McKenzie and Hawke, my own worst enemies. Cricket was at once elegant and raw, fast and slow, left and right, straight bat and cross bat. The men who played it were tall and short, slim and not so and they had idiosyncrasies that rewarded imitation: odd run-ups, huge delivery strides, upright stroke-making and crouched accumulating. Dashing and/or determined, they seemed decent men and worthy of a following.

(Dexter, incidentally, had planned his flight more meticulously than you might imagine, by successfully applying to crew an entrant in the London to Sydney air race the previous year. On that occasion, he got as far as Karachi before being struck down by pneumonia. His wife Susan had the same spirit - she often donned the leathers to join him on his motorbike, so you get the feel.)

Dexter was everything a young boy wanted to be: a musketeer, blessed with fine looks and rare talent. He had retired from playing in 1968 and so now commanded our ear, almost as much as he had delighted our eye.

In McGilvray's eyes, the '70-71 tour changed cricket. In his autobiography he reflected upon the effect left by the 1960s: "This was a decade of turmoil in which youth raised a vibrant new voice and life took on new pace and a new vitality. Measured against its time, the dull cricket of the sixties became an incongruity. That all changed through the Australian summer of 1970-71."

McGilvray also recalled how a young Ian Chappell told him how Snow had forced him to rethink his batting technique, so much so that Ian and Greg found a concrete surface in Adelaide and threw baseballs at each other, short and lifting. By the last Test of the series, Chappell had succeeded Lawry as Australian captain and a more combative and colourful era had dawned. Lawry heard about his sacking on the radio. Chappell relates in his book Chapelli that he turned to his wife Kay and said: "They'll never get me like that." Chappell and Lawry are mates to this day.

For me, the nights could not come fast enough as Ray Illingworth led a gritty team, galvanised by Geoff Boycott's hundreds and Snow's aggressive extra bounce, to a memorable 2-0 series victory. Oddly there were seven Tests that Australian summer. Sydney staged two for some reason and Perth had joined the circuit too, allowing the players the chance to parade their skills on the fastest pitch in the world.

The Melbourne Test had been lost to rain but was reconvened later in the tour, which didn't much suit the England players who were protecting a one-nil lead. They need not have worried for the extra match was drawn and then England won the second Sydney Test to secure the series under Illingworth's shrewd and uncompromising governance.

There was an exciting good guy-bad guy thing going on back then. Perhaps it was brought on by Ian Chappell, who seemed to represent the perfect anti-hero, a position exaggerated by his elevation to the captaincy. Or by the fellow in the Sydney crowd who abused Snow from the infamous Paddington Hill area of the ground and then leant over the picket fence to grab at his shirt and seemingly threaten him.

Snow had hit Terry Jenner with a bouncer and reacted petulantly when warned for short-pitched bowling by the controversial umpire, Lou Rowan. The Australian crowd loved to hate England's best fast bowler every bit as much as us English kids loved to love him and tried to emulate him. It was tremendous stuff for the listener and brilliantly described by the commentators who, without a suggestion of bias, absolutely captured the drama.

Me and my mates had grown up playing Ashes Test matches in the back garden in West London. I was always Dexter and Snow, though that Lawry crouch was a subject of fascination and Ken Higgs' curved approach, back straight, bum out was a party piece. Black and white television (dare I admit to it?!) showed us something of the story but the cricket seemed dull by comparison with the kaleidoscope of words so cleverly used by those who sold us the game through the wireless. Of course, colour television changed that but radio still had, and has, its place in the hearts of cricket lovers.

The next time the Ashes were in Australia, 1974-75, I was at boarding school and the radio was contraband to stuffy old-school teachers, who prowled the dormitories in search of errant boys. Damn them. Just as Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee were scaring the life out of me - proper x-rated stuff that pair - the radio was confiscated. I'll wager the wretched man who took it was back in his own room, listening to the carnage. Others were keen but not so addicted.

"And Snow turns at the end of his run, long hair caught momentarily in the breeze that has picked up here at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Ian Chappell adjusts his collar and then his protector and chews furiously on his gum..."

Mum smuggled me in another radio and I stuffed it under the pillow, turned the volume down and told the others to shut up. "And Snow turns at the end of his run, long hair caught momentarily in the breeze that has picked up here at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Ian Chappell adjusts his collar and then his protector and chews furiously on his gum..." Can it really be so seductive now? Probably, it can. I guess there will be a few boarding school kids yawning their way through maths and history come November.

Thomson bowled at 100mph and Lillee not far off. Legend has it that English county batsmen who saw news clips of Thommo hid behind the sofa. By heaven, they bowled fast and even on the radio, through the gasps and the disbelief of commentators who understood the rhythms of the game, it came across as frightening. "Ashes to Ashes/Dust to dust/If Lillee don't get you/Thommo must". England's Boycott-and-Snow-less team were slam-dunked. Chappell had the ultimate cricket prize - the tiny, underwhelming Ashes urn - on his CV and we could not help but admire him for it.

After that, I was lucky enough to play with and against many of these heroes in first-class matches, where their presence rewarded those less gifted. From Boycott, Alan Knott and Ian Botham to Rodney Hogg, Allan Border and Merv Hughes. On to David Gower, the Waugh brothers and Glenn McGrath, through to the incomparable Shane Warne before Michael Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen, Michael Clarke and Andrew Strauss stole our hearts.

Richie Benaud became the eminence grise of our television screens and we held dinner parties in cream jackets and went round the table with an impression each. "Quite brilliant from Mike Brearley's team" or "Marvellous effort today from the Australians. Allan Border's men are right back in this match, we can hardly wait for tomorrow. For the moment, its goodnight from Headingley." Done, sold.

Heroes all, in the greatest game of all, for the greatest prize of all. Ashes cricket has a magic that captivates and inspires. Two thousand and five gave us the greatest series of all, with packed houses and extraordinary viewing figures. The parks and playgrounds were full of cricketers, out there for the hell of it and their names were Flintoff and Harmison, Trescothick and Vaughan. The party lingered around Trafalgar Square for days, the victory celebrated with the vigour of a nation sick of beatings from their greatest adversaries.

There is a lesson for Australia in those English celebrations. Take nothing for granted. Watching the other lot leap about the place, covered in champagne, is a ghastly business.

Australia must fight as England did then and, if not able to reverse the current trend, at least challenge it. The balance between the teams is as important as the balance between bat and ball. If the Ashes matches are to excite a new generation they must be competitive. If the fans cling to every radio word and absorb every television picture; if they "read all about it" and if the word on the street is "cricket", we shall know that the Ashes legacy has been cared for.

Without the heroes we have nothing. Now is the moment, men. The next six weeks might define your life in the game, for sure it can lift ours to a level where we are awash with the excitement and joy you bring us. And remember, at some stage, somewhere, a little boy will have the radio or telly on and you will be the stars in his eyes.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK