July 24, 2013

A tale of two depths

Despite the regular despair of the 1980s, there was honour in watching Australia's struggles back then

One of the hardest parts of watching an Ashes tour from Australia is the decision of when to go to bed. During the second Test the choice was easy. "I'll just wait till Phil Hughes gets out," I replied to my wife on Sunday night after watching his first prods at Graeme Swann. We both knew sleep wouldn't be long - and it wasn't.

Australian spectators are not enjoying this unflattering stage of the cycle, with its spin from brilliantly baggy to disastrously saggy. Of course, many younger fans who grew up in the fairest of weather weren't alive to recall the lows that set the base for all those memorable highs. In hindsight, the early 1980s were an awful time to start a cricket-watching career, although it didn't always feel so bad. Not when the mighty West Indians were crushing Australia in what felt like every summer. Or even when Tim Robinson, Chris Broad or Graham Dilley were made to look like Ashes Goliaths.

Those Australian teams always seemed like they were trying, even when they might not have been. Tales of off-field infighting, which occurred through a series of terrible Ashes trips around this time, didn't emerge through court documents. They seeped out, often after the tour was over. Still, nobody pretended the side was just one victory from the return of the glory days. They were players with some perspective too.

On the field the team was always sweating, clothes were dirty from diving, and together they were committed to dismantling the opposition, even if that only happened once or twice a series. When Craig McDermott, then 19, huffed and puffed eight wickets in the fourth Test of the 1985 Ashes, it felt like watching the start of a long success story, not a one-off tale. If any current bowler matches his 30 wickets from that campaign, he must be Australia's Player of the Series.

Back in the 1980s, when the players came out from lunch or tea, they didn't have their hair freshly spiked, or their moustaches manicured. Nobody commented on the way they walked through the hotel or how perfect their preparation had been. When the days were bad, and there were many, the repetitive one-word post-mortem rhymed with "suck". Homework was completed over hours in the nets and on the outfield.

Despite the regular despair, there was honour in watching Australia's struggles back then. A trio of greats had retired and the South African rebel tours had shredded the support group. This team of battlers kept battling. The "I'll-just-wait-till-Allan-Border-gets-out-before-going-to-bed" excuse never worked with my mum. Firstly, he never seemed to get out. Not overtly pretty, always just beard-bristling effective. (Which is a little mean, since he retired as Test cricket's leading run scorer.) Secondly, when he was dismissed, it was best if the children were in bed. His stares and bad moods were fierce, even to friendly fire.

Always remember how bad things were, then enjoy the good times. It was a popular refrain as Australia stepped towards world domination under Taylor and Waugh

During an Ashes tour game in 1993, Border yelled and swore at McDermott just because he answered back at the end of an over. If the attitude of one of the world's finest fast men didn't change he'd be swinging straight home. No QC hearings or appeals processes. No evidence by sanitised press release. Just brutal summary. And that was during the great days. Yep, we loved watching AB. Now even he's embarrassed by Australia's top order.

By the Border-McDermott spray, Australia had escaped the 1980s depression and avoided any fall back into recession. In Border's leadership shadow stepped Geoff Marsh, Mark Taylor and the Waughs, as well as McDermott, Ian Healy, David Boon and Merv Hughes. There was a World Cup win in 1987 and the 1989 Ashes triumph, which was sealed with raised arms on the Old Trafford* balcony and bright eyes across drowsy towns throughout Australia. Towards the end of Border's reign came Shane Warne, who still raves about his first Test captain. All these men were of their own creation, but ones who carried the spirit of AB.

Always remember how bad things were, then enjoy the good times. It was a popular refrain as Australia stepped towards world domination under Taylor and Waugh. It wasn't as much a secret code as an earned one, passed to Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Jason Gillespie, Justin Langer and Co. The ones who had watched the horror days but hadn't been ruined by them. One thing was clear: they definitely didn't want to go back there. Neither did the spectators.

For more than a decade, the attitude drove Australia so far above their opponents that second in the world was a satisfying position. The team was so strong that formidable domestic players could not earn a regular place. It's what makes watching Chris Rogers so fraught. For all the glory years, Rogers was ready to break through but received only a one-match chance. Now the gate has finally opened, he lines up, aged 35, in an outfit resembling New Zealand at their floppiest. In this warped universe it's no wonder that full tosses and straight balls are so potent.

Towards the end of the line of fabled cricket whisperers were Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey. Now that Hussey is gone, Clarke carries the combination, but it seems the ears of others are blocked.

During the Lord's Test, Steve Waugh and McGrath rang the bell at the start of the day. If you were searching for symbolic insight, it did not feel like the obvious tolling for Australia. It was more about these past greats clanging the current crop of players around the head. The T20 twentysomethings have it so easy thanks to men like Waugh and McGrath, who worked so hard. The ones who started off by attempting to win games over five days, not in 40 overs. Men who gained respect by batting through a day for a century, or who bowled through niggles in their hips, calves or hamstrings. Tough cricketers in step with the nation's sporting priorities.

When they were playing there wasn't trepidation if you woke after drifting off past midnight. Switch on the radio and discover who had done what. Checking the phone in the morning after Lord's in the past week was more for a report of the wounded than about rising with any expectation.

The 1980s nadir has now been replaced by a series of Ashes stains. First it was 2005, then 2009, 2010-11 and 2013. There's still 2013-14 to come. At least during Lord's there was the chance to switch over to watch Richie Porte in the Tour de France or Adam Scott at Muirfield. There are still three Tests to go and an entire summer left in Australia. There won't be cycling or golf or rugby or knitting on every week.

So Australia's supporters will have to watch quite a lot of this. It won't be fun, it might be character building. These things do go in cycles, don't they?

*07:30:38 GMT, July 24, 2013: The article originally said Trent Bridge

Peter English is a writer based in Brisbane, and the former Australasia editor of ESPNcricinfo

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