First-person reports from the stands
Choice of game
At the present time, in the midst of a World Cup, a dead rubber Shield game between two of the more underwhelming competitors of this season would seem of small significance. For me though a Sunday spent at the WACA is the most divine of all pleasures. I am unsure if Shield cricket has ever enjoyed the same sort of canon of reverential poets as the county competition, (or indeed eulogisers with Duncan Hamilton's most recent book.) If it has they must be long out of print like the fabled works of Fingleton or Ray Robertson I scrounge about for. Surely though it is a contest worthy of such tribute with such an intensity of competition both beguiling and charming in its execution.
Today saw Queensland resume their second innings on an uneasy 58 for 3, 89 runs in arrears of Western Australia. The hosts were looking to enforce a rout and the visitors struggling to bat out a draw. I looked to this as an interesting day's play and, with the slight parochialism of a Western Australian, a deserved victory in what has been a disappointing season for the home side. In several ways the day was about far more than the match though. For the cricket lover the sport embodies something lofty, sublime, and far more sacred than what is otherwise encountered in one's life. Today's Sabbath held particular meaning for it is the final fixture at the ground this season, marking the exit of the sport and with it the summer. Unavoidably then it was to be a bittersweet day.
It was also the end of the season in very visceral terms. Perth has sweltered through a draining wave of excessive heat and humidity these past several months. This has slowly abated throughout the week and seemingly departed today. It was a peach of a day - eternally golden, warm and breezy, with the odd affable puff of cloud gliding across the ground. This is the promise of autumn when the squalid oppressor of February retreats, returning Perth to the temperate paradise she generally is. It was the sort of day which is perfect for just about anything, not least watching a game of cricket.
I felt particularly festive this morning and so wore a pink shirt. Unfortunately I had worn my brown leather leisure shoes though the previous week at karaoke and so had to recourse to a puffy pair of Nikes, relics of the age of basketball. Utterly unsuited to playing basketball in, I am sure they looked the business in 1994. For me today, however, I simply looked an awkward caricature of Jerry Seinfeld.
At lunch I trotted down to the Independent Grocers Alliance in East Perth for one of their magnificent curries - lamb vindaloo, eggplant, and chickpea. Brilliant!
James Hopes was the most exemplary of players in the match and was unlucky in fate today as he has been throughout his dogged career. Queensland stuttered this morning, two routine dismissals in the opening session bringing the captain to the crease. Hopes had already trumped Queensland's figures in the game, high-scoring with 80 in the opening innings and taking four wickets during Western Australia's.
To a situation of panic in the second innings, the captain brought stability, establishing a series of purposeful partnerships that added 113 runs to the total, with 68 runs himself. It was a brilliant innings, positive and unflinching, highlighted by some strong pull shots and magnificent cover drives. This saved Queensland from disgrace and almost made a match of it. He went on in the final innings to be the most tidy of bowlers at 1 for 10 from seven overs, tying Marcus North down completely at one end. With Australia so allrounder-focused in the lead-up to the World Cup it seems cruel Hopes was overlooked. His contribution to the national limited-overs sides has been quietly influential the past few years but now at the age of 32 he seems set to languish in domestic cricket.
Hopes was ably aided by his young charge Jason Floros, who had a blazing cameo of 60 runs from 56 deliveries and showcased some decent offspin. Western Australia, by comparison, though the victors, were clearly lacking today. With Hopes out after lunch, the tail should have been tidied up. Instead a further 90 runs were added by the final three wickets. I am hesitant to stress technicalities but this almost certainly seems to be the fault of short-pitched bowling with the tailend batsman untroubled and free to scythe away. Michael Beer displayed what was evident on his Test debut at the SCG, that he is a tidy bowler but fails to remove batsmen. In sum this was but further exhibition of a problem which almost cost the side dearly against South Australia several weeks back.
Chasing down Queensland's miserable lead, (which should never have even been acquired), Wes Robinson was captivating in his opening blitz of 41 runs from 28 deliveries. Marcus Harris showed little of the form which brought him 157 runs in the opening innings. It was the players of the greatest prestige, Michael Hussey and North, who were the most deplorable however. His prolonged and unassertive defence fell apart in a weak dismissal after feathering a loose delivery to third slip. North played a similarly dull defensive game, completely disregarding any thought of run-chase. Together the pair derailed Western Australia's momentum and for close to 40 minutes bored what remained of the already unimpressed spectators to something approaching rancour. Fortunately Adam Voges replaced Hussey and brought the game home.
I attempted to count those assembled at one point during the day and made out barely 100 visible to the eye. It seems absurd for me to imagine that crowds once flocked to Shield cricket. Rather one feels part of a strange small community attending a Shield match.
The member's area is reminiscent of the Anglican church - a collection of aged and ageing, genial, mild-mannered and silver-haired devotees. When walking past there is an urge to extend a hand and offer a "peace be with you". Like the church there is a sense of a crumbling ghost town, and I suppose a certain air of doom surrounds. This wonderful bunch mostly inhabits the top tier of the Lillee-Marsh stand.
In other climes the most steadfast regular is a wheelchair-bound gentleman whom I believe is named George with a spot in front of the player's rooms. Such is his dedication he seems practically a fixture of the ground in his unwavering attendance. Further along in the general area a few stray youths play games upon the grass bank.
The final collection of spectators congregates at the base of the Prindiville stand. Here are more of the elderly, seated on deck-chairs brought from home, and thumbing through books from the public library. There are other drifters too: a few father-and-son duos, and a collection of portly, rubicund gentlemen talking horse-racing and loudly offering advice to North on how to win the game.
As one enters the empty bar in the Prindiville the barman fixes an importunate look of the deserted upon you before selling a ridiculously overpriced bag of crisps. A few weeks back there was a rather batty chap sitting in the sun with a shortwave radio, screaming malicious and presumably unwarranted insults at Graham Manou. Now there was excitement!
What is so refreshing about Shield games is the lack of any enforced entertainment. It is the ultimate case of make your own fun or, better still, watch the cricket. There is no irrelevant music pumped unbearably loud to deserted stands or glaring screens endlessly replaying dull advertisements. Thankfully sponsors have realised the utter lack of commercial prospect in this unglamorous format and washed their hands clean. The result is an impressive and serenely beautiful silence that washes over the ground and brings with it content.
I worry for the Twenty20 Big Bash in this regard. I had hoped that the extension of the competition would see the inclusion of New Zealand teams in some trans-Tasman contest. This ambitious scheme of split city franchises will not only further commercialise the Big Bash, but also carries a premonition of failure. This is potentially disastrous given Cricket Australia's forecasts to eventually fund half their expenses with Big Bash revenue. Unlike the IPL where cheese has charm, the squark and bang of the Big Bash is noxious. It does not make the game any more compelling and is not a long -erm solution to bring the masses back to the game.
Watching the players depart the pitch through my field glasses, I focused upon Hopes, a lonely and dejected figure a world away at the front of his players. After the shaking of hands and the descent of what children were in attendance upon Hussey for autographs, I lowered my glasses to find myself strangely alone in the Lillee-Marsh stand. I lingered awhile in the picturesque and nearly always abandoned Queen's Park Gardens which adjoin the ground and dwelt upon the match and cricket in general. Were I not so already, I grew sad and wistful. An ending is always sad, especially when something one loves is lost. I hope I don't sound too pathetic or self-indulgent as I write this. Perhaps there was something in the way the old acquaintances dwindled out of the ground through the afternoon, wishing each other well and stressing they would see one another in six months that struck a chord. Perhaps it's the change of the season or the very real loss of cricket from my life. During the nadir of the afternoon, during Hussey and North's flat stand, I wondered whether I had not erred and squandered a heavenly day. In truth though there is no greater place I could have been (barring the exotic locales of one's imagination such as Port of Spain or St Lucia). It was a frustrating day of cricket and an uninspiring display by Western Australia. Dote that I am however, I shall treasure this memory and what has been a marvellous summer of cricket.
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