Appeal to the Gods
It was hard to find an appropriate image for a day when I want to talk about events in Australia: the fourth day’s play in the second test match from Adelaide. This rock art is the best I could come up with. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it could be taken as a God to which to offer an appeal and a prayer for the England team tomorrow. It will be interesting to see if any locals here in Ilkley recognise it. Located no more than a quarter of a mile from home, I only discovered it myself quite recently.
It’s getting close to fifty years ago that I used to wake up with my dad to listen to the radio commentary on the cricket in the early hours of the morning. Happening every four years, this is now the 12th winter Ashes series that I’ve followed from the other side of the world. Honours were shared fairly equally for twenty years, but once my lads were born the Aussies became utterly dominant. They won every home series from 1990 through 2007, winning no less than 18 test matches to our paltry three. They were painful experiences. After the absorption of so much cricket and so many disappointing games, there is an expectation of defeat that gets hard-wired into your brain at a core level. I passed that on to my kids. The only good thing about the anticipation of being beaten is that when you win against the odds, it is so very much the sweeter.
The sweetest day of my life watching cricket, and no doubt for the boys too, was Boxing Day 2010 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was the first day of the fourth test match and we were sitting in a crowd of over 80,000 people. We bowled the Aussies out for 98 and posted 157-0 by close of play. It was possibly the most one-sided day of cricket in the whole of Ashes history. And the three of us were there to witness the miracle. It was a very, very special day to share with my lads. The only downside was the temperature, which at 10 deg was, rather perversely, cooler than it was back home in England. Not being wise to the vagaries of the local weather, we shivered all day in shorts and T-shirts. It was a small price to pay. We went on to win that match, and the series - the first for 24 years.
Unfortunately, four years later, it was back to being humiliated and a 0-5 whitewash. That is the context, another four years on, to this current series. There is a very real prospect of another demoralising whitewash. It was being widely predicted two days ago after the calamitous start to this second test match, and after losing the first. The signs were not good at all. Cricket is all about momentum, and we seemed to have none.
But then a very strange thing happened. The Australian captain, Steve Smith, decided not to turn the final screw when he had the chance. Quite inexplicably, he went soft. It was very un-Australian. Instead of pressing on to inflict the inevitable crushing defeat, he presented us with an unexpected reprieve and the tiniest glimmer of hope, one which we have totally seized upon. Very much like my day on Sunday, he continued to make poor decisions, reaping the consequences, and the momentum, quite unbelievably, is now going all our way. It’s been an extraordinary thing to witness.
What I’ve always loved most about cricket are its mind games. I love seeing the psychology of the sport unfold before your eyes. And the crowd plays its role too. The so-called barmy army of English supporters have been doing their bit to get inside the head of the Aussie players, and especially their captain. Seeing all the exasperation and frustration on his face was a huge delight. He even dropped a catch. Under extreme pressure, when things start to go wrong, the ability to make the right decision can desert the greatest. As undoubtedly the best batsman in the world, I think I can be forgiven for basking in his current misfortune. It was a spectacularly tense and riveting day of cricket
I’ve been watching cricket long enough to be far more realistic than most about our chances tomorrow. We’re exactly halfway to victory, needing another 178 runs with 6 wickets remaining. It sounds easy, said like that, but history is not on our side, and history takes a lot of beating. I know that history doesn’t get made that often. It teases us often with the possibility, but almost always whips it away at the final moment, to leave a reality of disappointment. I expect us to get close but, although I dare to dream, I find it hard to believe that we can pull this one off. There will be a dozen key incidents tomorrow where it could go one way or the other. They all have to align in our direction. We have to be on the right side of every one of those pivotal moments.
All this goes some way to explain why Ashes cricket is the best sport in the world. Its depth of history. The keenness of the rivalries. The length of time the players are on the field, during the day (and night in this case) and the match and the series. The huge emotional investment in the outcome. To those who understand the game, to those who are partisan, this is massive. I can’t remember anything mattering so much to me in a long while. I want us to win for myself, for the boys, for all my fellow English cricket lovers, for the game itself, for the incredible joy it would bring us all. Win this match and we will have witnessed history being made. Most of all, it will keep the series alive. I’m convinced these are two closely matched teams. I don’t want the series to die with this game. I want it to go down to the wire. If it was the other way around, I’d want Australia to sneak this one, for my love of cricket … well, actually, perhaps not, as it’s Australia. Too much history. I will be setting an early alarm, with vast amounts of hope and just a soupçon of expectation.
The words of Kahlil Gibran come to mind (as they often do) …
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
Cricket mirrors life.
Let us all make appeal to the cricket gods to give us the right result. I don’t ask for much.