Tuesday, January 09, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: More Gideon Haigh

Here he goes again. Hats off.

Game over but Aussies aren't done
Guardian, 8.1.07

As journalists deliberated over their summaries of the last day at the Sydney Cricket Ground aloft in the media centre, far below them on the outfield a telling pageant was unfolding. As the players finally left the field about 2.30pm, three fathers and their boys began a game of cricket involving two metal rubbish bins, plastic bats and a tennis ball.

The game continued, improbably, for the rest of the day, taken up by ground staff, bar staff, caterers and a few straggling supporters. Over the course of the afternoon, as the SCG resounded to cries of triumph, clangs of failure and the kerplunk of tennis ball on plastic, as many as a hundred people passed through the game, as young as six, as old as 60, and including a score of young women. Adam Gilchrist, still in his whites and baggy green, even came out to watch for a while.

As time passed, in fact, the game seemed every bit as significant as that which had gone before, lasting long after any imaginable equivalent English game, which would have dissolved for the sake of taking the piss out of one another at the pub. Australians are a much-foibled, many-follied people, but the fact that they find it hard to walk past a game of cricket without wanting to get involved is not showing any signs of changing.

Despite four barren days, almost 800,000 tickets were sold to this summer's Ashes series, and television audiences even for the dead Test in Melbourne reached two million. This was not simply because Australia were winning. Much of it derived from having lost in 2005, the fillip that provided for the game's popularity, and the brooding desire to set the world to rights.

Success, of course, tends to legitimate the forces perceived to be behind it, but Australia were shown in such consistently flattering light that there must be something instructive about the contrast of the teams. After 2005, where the rivals' cricket cultures seemed to have converged, with England the attacker and Australia their quarry, the two countries this summer reverted to more familiar archetypes.

The Australians prepared exhaustively for this series, Cricket Australia effectively providing an open chequebook and an undisclosed sum for the campaign; the England and Wales Cricket Board, in contrast, let the bowling coach Troy Cooley slip between their fingers for the sake of a few bob.

Importantly, the players led the effort. At their training camp in October 2005 at the Australian Cricket Centre of Excellence near Brisbane's Allan Border Field, it was players who spoke first, with the sports psychologist Phil Jauncey as facilitator, about how they wanted their training regime to run. Consider, by contrast, Steve Harmison. Asked in Sydney how he would approach preparation over the next four months, leading up to the first Test of the English summer, he replied that Duncan Fletcher had not told him yet.

The Australians, too, have no hang-ups where the turnover of players is concerned, as they illustrated again when the taciturn Damien Martyn stalked out silently after the Adelaide Test. The lack of sentimentality is because Australian players know they are promoted and demoted on performance, where England seem to have selected this summer on the basis of the theory du jour, whether general (eg multidimensionality) or geographical (eg the choice of James Anderson in Adelaide because he was "skiddy").

This is partly because there is so little form to judge players by; it also smacks of making cricket complicated to the point of self-mystification. If Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath shared one characteristic it was that they kept cricket simple and fun. Fletcher's attitude to Monty Panesar recalls Lord Home's description of the critics of Ted Heath: impatient gardeners, apt to gauge a tree's progress by digging it up to examine the roots.

Few events in Australia, meanwhile, restore national self-regard so reliably as beating England, or provide such opportunities for reflected glory, the basking therein. The Sydney Test was attended not only by the prime minister, John Howard, revelling in his abiding role as national tragic-in-chief, but also by the new leader of the Labor opposition, Kevin Rudd, revealing his hitherto unknown prior career as a wicketkeeper while working as a diplomat in Beijing - the inference, presumably, being that he owns a safe pair of hands. In some countries the aspiring leader must point to a career of civic accomplishment; only in Australia, perhaps, must they furnish a highest score (Rudd's was 15 not out).

Australia is much more like England than its people will sometimes admit, but it is an older England, because white settlement and spread here coincided in the mother country with the rise of organised games. Australia might be a more plural and cosmopolitan nation than of yore, but it pursues sport with an earnest avidity. Neville Cardus's lines are still apt: "The Australian temper is at bottom grim; it is as though hot sun has dried up nature."

Ironically, that sun and its nature-drying tendencies may be Australian cricket's chief enemy at the moment. English supporters who traversed the terrain praying for rain were not the only ones. Participation rates in club cricket surged up to 30% in some areas after the Ashes of 2005; draconian water restrictions, introduced in response to Australia's five-year drought, now threaten an already overburdened infrastructure. The big grounds have had to get smarter - the new MCG pipes all the run-off from its roofs into underground tanks. But many local competitions have been scaled back, and some have been abandoned, threatening clubs with extinction and damaging the continuity of junior development.

Fortunately, the sensations of this summer suggest that the love for cricket in Australia is abiding. I cannot say how long the garbage-bin game at the SCG went on because it was still in progress, after four hours, when I left. English fans have long fantasised about what Ashes contests might look like after the retirements of Warne and McGrath. The differences may not be so pronounced as they imagine. In the words of the retired baseballer Dan Quisenberry: "I've seen the future and it's much like the present, only longer."

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