Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas Mark NicholasRSS FeedFeeds  | Archives
Former Hampshire batsman; host of Channel 9's cricket coverage

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

Mark Nicholas

July 9, 2013

Comments: 25 | Text size: A | A

Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke with the Ashes, Nottingham, July 9, 2013
The stuff of dreams: Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke, pose with the Ashes urn © Getty Images
Related Links
Dave Podmore : Boof R Us
Features : Old Boof, new tricks
Mark Nicholas : Clarke has it all to do
Teams: Australia | England

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

RSS Feeds: Mark Nicholas

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (July 11, 2013, 4:04 GMT)

We in India used to do the same things that Mark Nicholas talks about. Smuggling into class, transistor radios with a ear phone plugged into the right ear and long hair pulled down to conceal it !! The English radio commentator alongwith Alan McGilvray in the 1970-71 series was Brian Johnston and in the 1974-75 series was Christopher Martin Jenkins. Lindsay Hassett was the expert in both cases. All dead now. What memories they bring back. PREM PAUL

Posted by   on (July 10, 2013, 20:14 GMT)

cricket at its best ashes is even better then t20 leagues and championships

Posted by   on (July 10, 2013, 19:39 GMT)

Great article. where is any mention of Greg Chappel, Underwood, Tony Greg,

Posted by R_U_4_REAL_NICK on (July 10, 2013, 19:37 GMT)

Way before my time, but pieces like this and reading back through the history and stories of past series... Really great stuff. Fantastic, underrated, underappreciated even - the epic battles and scenes behind the nostalgic series that is The Ashes. My memories of recent series will last forever as well, regardless of who wins.

Posted by Harlequin. on (July 10, 2013, 17:47 GMT)

Great piece Mark. I remember my first Ashes match; the Lords test in 1921. We had been smashed in the first test and needed to show the Aussies we had a bit of backbone about us. Frankie Woolley was the man with a couple of great innings, falling just short of a century on both occasions but the baggy greens still won the test and the series. Being almost 30 at the time, I was a bit of a late-comer to cricket but I have been hooked ever since and have had great fun following the ups and downs ever since. Long may it continue

Posted by   on (July 10, 2013, 17:45 GMT)

Just a tip Mark....Every viewer I've spoken to the last couple of years has said that you speak far too much during Channel 9's coverage of the cricket (and that's being extremely kind). The viewers want to hear from cricket experts. The flowery descriptive stuff is not called for, nor is it even remotely insightful.

Posted by   on (July 10, 2013, 17:16 GMT)

A beautiful and evocative article, thank you! It is amasing how our first experience of Ashes cricket do colour our memories. To me, *the* Australian attack will always be the 1972 one of Lillee, Massie, Colley and Mallett, a beautiful symmetry of names never equalled nor approached.

Posted by gnaniramchand on (July 10, 2013, 16:26 GMT)

I still remember 1970-71 Ashes series in Australia. England known as Dad's Army was led by the great Ray Illingworth with a good batting line up of Boycott-Edrich, etc., admirably supported by some lovely pace bowlers like John Snow, Peter Lever, twin spinners Illingworth & Derick Underwood, with superb support from behind the stumps by the greatest of all keepers ALAN KNOTT, known as "double trouble". Overall it was a lovely combination which won the ashes by 2-0 margin in that seven test series.

Posted by Beertjie on (July 10, 2013, 10:55 GMT)

You got it just right, Mark. I too remember 1970-71, disappointed with the lack of TV coverage, living in London at the time. I remember listening to the final day as Australia fell short of getting the runs st Sydney and lost 2-0. But like you, @Nutcutlet on (July 10, 2013, 9:40 GMT), the enduring memory of my first Ashes took place "on the final afternoon of 'Benaud's Test' (Old Trafford, 1961)". Living in Cape Town, I too followed Arlott, Alston & co describe England's pursuit of 255 to win that vital 4th Test. Although I am a South African, I'd become a fanatical Australian supporter since their previous iconic series against the West Indies a few months before. How delighted I was when Davidson took that last England wicket about 20 minutes before the close! 52 years later, "we" are underdogs but I hope for a revival and hope to return to visit England after 40 years away during the next Ashes series. Hoping for better days from "my" Aussies by then.

Posted by 777aditya on (July 10, 2013, 7:52 GMT)

Mark Nicholas has his own beautiful way with words - they just seem to flow like a river when he writes. Even his voice feels good on the ears when he commentates, not to mention his word play. He is quite clearly the best commentator of his generation and a superb writer. Harsha Bhogle is quite similar when it comes to commentating to Nicholas, but Mark always manages to leave his mark - I have actually managed to run out of words to express my love for my favorite commentator!

Posted by   on (July 10, 2013, 7:26 GMT)

Mark, as always fascinating to read. As a proud Englishman you still come across in a very unbiased way. You really love the game as I do. You are a credit to the game.

Posted by   on (July 10, 2013, 7:20 GMT)

think John Arlott's last game was the Centenary Test in 1980 - I certainly remember him on the radio and tv - John Player League! - throughout the 70s

Posted by Rowayton on (July 10, 2013, 6:20 GMT)

landl47, nice one, I think you're right about johnners. Thinking back, I reckon my greatest Ashes memory was sneaking out of work to the pub next door on the morning that last pair Border and Thommo resumed in Melbourne with about 40 to win. How tense was that? And even though I'm an Aussie, in retrospect it was fair enough England winning as the umpiring in that game was, shall we say, unfortunate. Also the Sydney Test of 74/5, when we won the Ashes late on the last afternoon after what seemed like an interminable last wicket partnership by the England numbers 10 and 11. I was in a pub then too - seems to be a trend here!

Posted by landl47 on (July 10, 2013, 4:49 GMT)

I think the British commentator in Australia in 1970/71 was Brian Johnston rather than John Arlott. Johnston was BBC cricket correspondent up to the time he retired in 1972. I don't recall John Arlott ever doing tours for the BBC, though in his younger days he did go on some as a journalist.

I too watched and listened as a small boy and Ted Dexter was also my first cricketing hero. The first test I ever saw was England v. Australia at The Oval in 1961, a draw which preserved Australia's 2-1 lead in the series and The Ashes. I saw Dexter bat, although to my dismay he only scored 24.

My most memorable listening experience was in 1981 at work, when I sat in my office listening enthralled as Bob Willis took 8-43 to bowl England to victory in the biggest turn-around in test history.

Great days and hopefully more to come this Summer.

Posted by   on (July 10, 2013, 3:46 GMT)

i am late for bed and have to work 11 hours tomorrow but still, I took time to read this article. mark, you are such a good writer. Your explanation of what u heard over the radio paint a clear picture to me.

Posted by Rowayton on (July 10, 2013, 3:07 GMT)

I like the comment about Ian Chappell saying Snow made him question his technique. I was a young opening batsman in Sydney club cricket in 1970/71, an era of buckle up pads and thigh guards made out of stuff that didn't stop the ball very well. Watching Snow bowl that year made me question my sanity, not my technique. It was very nice of the English not to pick him for the next tour.

Posted by disco_bob on (July 10, 2013, 1:50 GMT)

Splendid article, timeless and modern at once.

Posted by Neuropundit on (July 10, 2013, 1:07 GMT)

Goose bumps! Excellent penmanship Mark. You may not realize this but you are part of the same tribe that you mention as reading about cricket too inspires some!

Posted by   on (July 10, 2013, 0:08 GMT)

We share a similar timeline Nicco. My father took me to my first test in early 71 at the SCG. Illingworth led the team off that day after Snowy was 'molested' and Lillee and Greg Chappell sat back-to-back in mid-pitch - I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. From that day the spark was lit. The 70's defined much in cricket, but especially my desire to be like my heroes: Ian Chappell, DK Lillee and 'Dungog' Doug Walters. Forty years later it still burns brightly. Thanks for a great article Mark - and bring on the Ashes. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie...Oi, Oi, Oi!

Posted by   on (July 9, 2013, 22:56 GMT)

Brilliant brilliant article! Goosebumps! Long Live Test Cricket,

Posted by   on (July 9, 2013, 21:56 GMT)

Good One! Waiting for the game of clash of titans.

Comments have now been closed for this article

Email Feedback Print
Mark NicholasClose
Mark Nicholas A prolific and stylish middle-order batsman for Hampshire, Mark Nicholas was unlucky never to have played for England, but after captaining his county to four major trophies he made his reputation as a presenter, commentator and columnist. Named the UK Sports Presenter of the Year in 2001 and 2005 by the Royal Television Society, he has commentated all over the world, from the World Cup in the West Indies to the Indian Premier League. He now hosts the cricket coverage for Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in England.

    'When I became an umpire, I didn't realise how complicated this game was'

Peter Willey on suiting upo against '80s West Indies, and umpiring in England

    'Saqlain was like an English spinner with a subcontinental touch'

My XI: Erapalli Prasanna on a spinner whom even Sachin Tendulkar found hard to bat against

Hitting Warnie for six, and Test stumpings

Think You Know Yourself: Do administrators have their numbers at their fingertips? Not Dave Richardson

    Last ball, last wicket, and Northants' parched spell

Ask Steven: Also, Vijay Manjrekar's nickname, Abid Ali's no-ball, oldest double-centurions, and this decade's leading players

The thing about Australia's superiority to Pakistan

Ahmer Naqvi: Despite their record, the fact that they haven't played in Pakistan for 16 years weighs against them

News | Features Last 7 days

How India weeds out its suspect actions

The BCCI set up a three-man committee to tackle the problem of chucking at age-group and domestic cricket, and it has produced significant results in five years

A rock, a hard place and the WICB

The board's latest standoff with its players has had embarrassing consequences internationally, so any resolution now needs to be approached thoughtfully

Kohli back to old habits

Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala

Twin Asian challenges await Australia

What Australia have not done since returning a fractured unit from India is head back to Asia to play an Asian team. Two of their major weaknesses - handling spin and reverse swing - will be tested in the UAE by Pakistan

West Indies go AWOL

West Indies may have formally played the fourth ODI in Dharamsala but their fielding suggested their minds were already on the flight back home

News | Features Last 7 days