A Traveller’s Tale – Melbourne 2010Neil Pickup |
Watching England in Australia has undoubtedly caused a great many hardships over the last couple of decades. Indeed, in my cricket-watching lifetime (which dates back approximately to the point when Kiran More shelled Graham Gooch in the 1990 Lord?s Test, the highlights can be counted on the digits of one hand: and a hand belonging to an amputee, at that. Even with that past catalogue of misery stacked up as evidence, I doubt that many Ashes tests have caused me quite as much disruption as Melbourne, 2010… and this is even before a ball has been bowled.
Through the years, the experience of cricket down under has followed a reasonably constant recipe. Broken sleeping patterns, small-hours alarm calls and illicit Test Match Special under the bedsheets. Memories of Vaughan’s 190s and Goughy’s hat-trick merge into “We’ll have a bowl” and Harmison finding second slip, alongside a rather confusing early recollection of Daddles the Duck, and the anguished scenes of David Lawrence’s knee giving out. Bizarrely, I think Syd might be sat within ten yards of me on this Boeing 777 into Melbourne, but I’m not sure how to phrase the question, nor of how a 6’4″ bloke will react to being remembered for the most blood-curdling scream to hit international cricket until Shane Watson saw a ghost at Lumley Castle.
Anyway, I digress. My experience of this year’s Melbourne Test match began a full eight days in advance, on a Saturday morning in Oxford, as the snow began to fall… and kept on falling for the rest of the day. England, as a rule, doesn’t cope well with extreme weather – which other countries can lay claim to “snow stopped play” in a first-class game and “sun stopped play” in a Test match? – but the white stuff can paralyse this country at the drop of a flake, and to a degree only matched by the X Factor final. Aeroplanes can neither take off nor land. Trains are cancelled. Drivers check out the central reservation with an alarming degree of frequency. Motorways become giant car parks. Transportation in general becomes one great, slushy lottery, and Plan A of taking the coach from Oxford to Heathrow was shelved, as every single bus in Oxford stayed in its depot.
Plan B was the train down to Caldicott Prep in Slough, one of Andrew Strauss’ old schools, a night on the floor or in a borrowed dorm room, and then onwards to Heathrow for the 10:50 to Kuala Lumpur. However, waking up to Sky News’ HD broadcast of a snowbound airport swiftly told us that this wasn’t to be the case – no matter how many times Malaysian Airlines? variety of phone numbers insisted that the flight was still on: every plane at Heathrow was frozen in. This was to prove our first experience of the first rule of dealing with Malaysian Airlines – never, ever believe anything you hear or read until it actually happens. As the next 48 hours passed amidst train journeys, cab fares and road trips between Oxford, Slough and Heathrow, date, time and purpose all faded.
A number of our party spent their time shuttling between Heathrow and the airline Head Office in central London, searching for news that would prove more reliable than the tidbits that the rest of us could read online. “No flights at all” became “replacement flight from Stansted”, which became “sorry, the plane’s still in Istanbul”. This was coupled with a neglect to mention the fact that a plane had left that afternoon with a legion of empty seats on board. On the Monday evening, gathered around a pub table in Farnham Royal, the prospect of spending the holiday season watching everything unfold on the other side of the world, in the company of Bumble and the rest of the Sky Sports crew, seemed a very real possibility.
Every line of investigation seemed to draw a blank, and with little expectation I searched my iPhone for arrivals from Istanbul at Heathrow. Maybe the dropped calls from a blocked number meant something? Maybe there would be a flight to catch? Suddenly, there was promise – and a scheduled 8:15 to Kuala Lumpur on the Heathrow departure boards suggested a plane in and out. With the efficiency of any phone lines long since disregarded, there was only one thing for it: back in the car, back into the blizzard, and back to Heathrow… and I was the only one who hadn’t had anything to drink.
This told us that whilst there was a chance of getting the 8:15 flight, nobody had decided (i) which delayed flight for which this would be a retiming, or (ii) who was getting priority on it. The conclusion, then, was that one of us would get our names down on the standby list, whilst I drove back to Slough, and the rest of us caught a 2am cab ride back to Heathrow, which now resembled a refugee camp with all ages and races scattered over makeshift blankets and bedding. I’ve never slept at an airport before, I’m not sure if the hour’s worth of shut-eye whilst crammed between a trolley and a check-in barrier counts as sleep, and I?ve no desire to do so again… but that night did mean that we got our names on the boarding passes. It didn’t go at 8:15 – in fact, it didn’t even manage its rearranged departure slots of 10:00 or 11:00 – but we finally managed takeoff at 12:30.
This ought to have been the end of the travails, but there was more to come. The flight was simple, but on landing in Kuala Lumpur, we discovered that there’d been no provision for the delayed passengers to make their connections – so, we were blithely told – there were no flights whatsoever until Christmas Eve. Thankfully, London had taught us the first rules of flying with Malaysian, and we proceeded to ask somebody else until we found an answer that was more agreeable. That answer turned out to be one night, full board at the Marriott Hotel outside KL, and a connection to Melbourne the following morning. I’m sure I could have made more of this evening, but with a negligible amount of sleep on the back of several hours’ jetlag, I spent 14 hours asleep, throughout the Malay afternoon.
One of the side-effects of this, as well as avoiding a night amidst the brothels of the city, was that I was in no state to sleep on the final airborne leg of the trip, from KL on to Melbourne. Aside from scribing the blog, and leafing through a few chapters of Fermat’s Last Theorem, I struggled through a couple of in-flight movies: Unaccompanied Minors and The Winning Season. The former is set in an airport when snow grounds all flights – far from the reality of an icebound Terminal Four, whilst the former is an underdog story where the good guys end in tears. Let’s hope both films prove to be as far removed from reality over the next couple of weeks. After a 115-hour trip door-to-door, we’re due a little bit of good fortune.
The good fortune I had hoped for following that tortuous journey from Oxford came on Sunday morning: amidst cloudy skies with the hint of a shower in the Melbourne air, Andrew Strauss called correctly as I joined the masses gathered outside the MCG. With Australia’s eggs all in one seamer-shaped basket, this was our chance to make an omelette: but having an opportunity was one thing, and making the most of it was quite another. Dropping Shane Watson twice before he had scored wasn’t the way to start.
These two spills, however, were possibly the only English errors on a first day that came as close to perfection as any performance I have seen before, by any team in any format of the game: and I’m writing this four days later, giving the hyperbole a chance to fade. It was dream-sequence cricket: the sort of which is usually punctuated by the harsh tone of the alarm clock and the reminder that you’ve got to teach Year 8 in thirty minutes. On Boxing Day, the only downer was that I’d managed to squash my sandwiches in one corner of my rucksack: and perhaps the thought that this was it: the best day’s cricket I would ever see in my life. I was in the Olympic Stand at the MCG, the sun beating down from a cloudless sky, Australia were all out for 98, and we were 157/0 in reply: how could this ever get any better?
Tremlett, Anderson and the (slightly) surprise inclusion of Bresnan were immaculate – shy of a couple of half-track looseners that Jimmy doled out to ease Punter into double figures. We caught everything after those two early lapses – with Matt Prior equalling an Ashes record six catches in the innings – and never offered the Aussies a sniff throughout the extended evening. It was a privilege to have been one of the 85,000 there that day – although I imagine that three-quarters of that number will have seen it as a curse.
After Boxing Day, it was a case of finishing the task. With Johnson unable to reproduce the late inswing that had made him such a threat in Perth – and seemingly at a loss to explain why – the home attack was misfiring, with the exception of the magnificent Peter Siddle. Wholehearted (I’m sorry, I had to use it, ABC radio said it approximately 74 times during the England innings, and it’s now a reflex action in my mind) and finding just enough assistance in the wicket, he caused all the batsmen trouble. Enough trouble, in fact, to entice a series of logic-defying hook shots from England’s middle order, who had seemingly forgotten that they didn’t need to force the pace against Johnson, who was perfectly capable of serving up dross without any further pressure. It’s unusual for the Barmy Army to come up with a chant for an opposing player – Super Mitch now has two.
There was solace, however, in the technology that allowed (i) Australia’s exultant celebrations at Jonathan Trott’s apparent run out to be curtailed as he was, in fact, not out. (ii) Australia’s boorish insistence that KP had nicked behind to be jeered as he was, in fact, not out, and (iii) Australia’s sniff of a fightback, when Matt Prior edged a Johnson no-ball, to be correctly quelled as he was, in fact, not out. Combined with an unflustered century from Trott – 87% of which came through the leg side – day two wasn’t bad at all.
The third day was Australia’s up until teatime: barring the mindless run out of Phillip Hughes, the irrepressible Siddle had helped restrict England’s lower order, whilst Ponting hung in grimly with Watson. Having reached his half-century, however, the opener swiftly found his customary self-destruct button when he forgot he was meant to hit a straight ball from Bresnan, who had clearly been playing close attention when Siddle had him caught behind earlier in the afternoon. Operating with miserly efficiency and precise control from the same Members’ end, the Yorkshireman took the ball both ways in a spell of 3/5 that tore the heart out of the hosts’ middle order. For a player whose role in the side, and ability at the highest level, had been questioned, a matchwinning burst to ensure the retention of the urn was a perfect riposte.
As Clarke tied himself in knots against Swann, and Smith succeeded in getting himself out against Anderson, the only question on the final morning was how long it would take to apply the last rites – and the answer was 83 minutes. Johnson gave the Army more singing practice and Siddle and Haddin had a hit, but it was only a matter of time – and, fittingly, it was Bresnan who made the final breakthrough. Mission Accomplished. Ashes Retained.