Officials from the cricketing outposts of Darwin and Cairns thought it would be Christmas in July. Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan were expected in the Australian tropics to duel for one of cricket's most coveted records - most Test wickets. It would have been like Tiger Woods and Ernie Els turning up at the municipal pitch-and-putt to shoot for golf's No. 1 ranking. Sadly, only half of the fairytale came true. Warne, whose place was threatened when he damaged a finger playing for Hampshire, made the trip, but Muralitharan withdrew for "personal reasons" four days before his side left home. He claimed he needed a break, but there was no doubt sorrowful memories of Australia helped make up his mind. Not only had he been no-balled by three Australian umpires on Australian soil for throwing; on his most recent visit, in 2002-03, he was viciously taunted by Australian crowds, the low point being a humid night in Brisbane when he was catcalled after breaking down with a hamstring injury. And the English referee, Chris Broad, who had reported his action after the home series with Australia in March, was to preside again.
Australian prime minister John Howard may have sealed the boycott in May when he branded Murali a chucker at a political lunch. Muralitharan was then touring Zimbabwe, where he claimed top spot by overtaking Courtney Walsh's record of 519 wickets, and told Howard to mind his own business. The Northern Territory government, anxious to entice Murali to Darwin, sent an official to Colombo to beg him to come; he wrote a touching letter saying he appreciated the gesture but needed time away from the game.
The rivalry between Warne and Muralitharan, the most dominant slow bowlers in cricket history, developed an icy edge through long-distance media taunts, as both were inevitably pressed to assess the other. Warne, who needed 11 wickets in two Tests to gain outright ownership of the record, branded Muralitharan "thin-skinned" for pulling out. After taking ten, to finish the series tied on 527, he said he felt they were not on a level playing field - unlike Warne, Muralitharan had home wickets prepared to favour him, and was guaranteed to bowl more overs, given Sri Lanka's weaker attack. Even the sight of Warne equalling the record gave Cairns's unpretentious Bundaberg Rum Stadium a highlight worthy of Lord's on a balmy July evening or the MCG on Boxing Day. Still, Warne could not claim it outright, or complete the victory that would have given Australia their second whitewash of Sri Lanka in five months. They had crushed the tourists on a seamers' pitch in Darwin, but a friendlier strip at Cairns saw Matthew Hayden score twin hundreds and Sri Lanka hang on for the draw.
The Tests had a curious feel. The sound of willow hitting leather in Australia in July still seemed as incongruous as a Christmas carol. But the ICC's ten-year plan demanded that the Tests be played some time, and there were undoubted pluses. The warm, sunny climates of Australia's two newest Test cities were perfect for winter cricket. Northern fans, starved of topclass sport - the Bangladesh Tests in 2003 fell some way short - rejoiced in the chance to play host, and attendances of 4,000 to 5,000 a day were considered pass-marks. The players enjoyed the warmth of the weather and the people. At a series launch overlooking Darwin harbour, Sri Lankan batsman Kumar Sangakkara delighted local dignitaries when he said: "We were not sure what to expect here, but Darwin reminds us of home... we are loving it." The chief negative was the pitch, dropped in after being prepared off-site, which befriended any bowler who could hit the seam and bedevilled any batsman who was half-committed.
For all their quaint charm, the future of these venues is not assured. Cricket Australia announced in September there would be no further Top End Tests until at least 2007, when Zimbabwe could be posted there. Though the goodwill generated has been substantial, series in the far north are perceived as expensive and awkward to manage. It is a shame, because the northern cities are developing a taste for top-line action.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Northern Territory Chief Minister's XI v Sri Lankans at Darwin, Jun 24-27, 2004