Suncream and Baggy Greens

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When Tristan Haddow-Allen reluctantly moved to Australia, he took the opportunity to live his childhood dream of playing Sydney club cricket. In the first of a new series, he discovers not everything was quite as he expected

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“You must be the new bloke. We’ll call you Pom”.

November, 2012

Such was my introduction to club cricket in Australia. The unpromising setting was the sunburnt upper-pitch of Morgan Power Reserve on the outskirts of Blacktown. Blacktown is so called because “There were a lot of black fellas here – still are”.  Blacktown is a lot further from Sydney Harbour in spirit than in the strict geographical sense. Western Sydney is the hinterland of Industrial Australia. Tough, working class, straight-talking, and mulleted.

My welcome came from my new team’s captain and, while everyone laughed, was meant exactly as it sounded – “I don’t know who you are or what you’ve done but you can go and get fucked. And as you’re English, get fucked again to be on the safe side”. He walked as if he was carrying a barrel under each arm and his face was like burnt rock. He never seemed more than an inch from a fight – as likely with his own team as the opposition – and aggression underscored everything he said and did.

It was 40C in the shade (or it would have been if the Morgan Power Reserve had any shade) and I was about to begin what was effectively a mid-season audition for a place in the team. And, as has always been made clear, no one in Australia plays cricket for fun – you play to win at all costs, or you don’t play at all.

This should have been daunting but I was thrilled. Like a punter who sits in the front row of a comedy show hoping to be abused by the comedians, this is what I’d come for.  This was cricket in Australia as I’d always thought of it: the sunburnt country with its hard, unforgiving pitches and its harder and even less forgiving cricketers. This was the cauldron that produced Border and Waugh, Lillee and Thompson.

 August 1983.  Hanwell, West London

A balmy Sunday afternoon in the Bunny Park. The stumps are set up on the flattest bit of grass on the banks of the Brent. My father has bought my brother and me the Ian Botham-endorsed Duncan Fernley Junior Cricket Set. It is the greatest present in the history of the world. My father is bowling, my older brother, Maxie, is the sole fielder at mid-wicket. I move to leg and hit the ball through cover. Little shit.

May 29th, 1989. Lord’s

Today is the third and final One Day International before the Ashes, in the good old days when the ODIs still served as an entrée to the main course, rather than the cheap and unwanted chocolate they give you as you’re walking out the door. England is 1 – 0 up, Gooch has just clubbed a century and Gower a silky 61.

It’s a good time to be an eleven-year-old English boy. This is a golden age. England has won five of the previous six Ashes. What’s more, I play for Brentham CC U11s and we’ve been chosen to be amongst the first to play Kwik Cricket on the outfield during the lunch break. Cricket is the centre of my world, and I’m going to play on its holiest site – even if it’s with a blue plastic bat and an orange rubber ball. This is Lord’s. This is paradise.

Botham fielded in front of us and got heckled by the Australian crowd. A girl streaked. Alderman got Gooch on 136. I was on tv in the crowd. Ultimately England lost the game but won the series. More than twenty-four years later I still vividly remember what the boy next to me said: “Whoever wins the one day series always loses the Tests”. Pah! What nonsense. What did he know?

Even before I was old enough to really understand the game, I knew that it was our games against Australia that defined English cricket. Winning against Australia was everything, and we were going to win. Everyone said so. Border’s was the weakest Australian side ever to tour England. This was my first visit to Lord’s and the beginning of what I knew was going to be a brilliant summer.

And then it began.

I had always watched cricket but the 1989 Ashes was the first where I sat down and watched virtually every ball (I’m surprised I didn’t end up in hospital, the number of illnesses I faked to avoid school) and probably the first where I really understood the context of what was happening. And what was happening, of course, would shape the minds of every boy of my age.

Border, as he said later, was determined not to become the first Australian captain to lose three Ashes series, and so he brought over the first genuinely professional cricket team. Gower and Lamb and Botham were still rocking up to the game from the casino. Cricket was a bit of fun, the gentleman’s game. A hobby they happened to get paid for. But the Australians meant business. They were hard-faced and determined and as one they told the English to get fucked. And just to be on the safe side, get fucked again.

England were ground in to the dirt. We lost 4-0 and only rain really saved us in the other two. We used 29 players, nearly all of whom were crushed under foot. Smith and Fraser had shown up their teammates, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. Australia had come, they had seen, they had conquered, and they were taking the spoils of war home with them. Australia was the power in the world. That was the natural order restored. Australia was the Roman Empire, and all roads led to the MCG.

And for sixteen years it continued, time after time, thumping after thumping. Such is the stain all Englishmen carry. The indelible mark, the feeling, deep down, that Australians are better than us. As a child, the image of Dennis Lillee – tall and muscular, tanned and mustachioed – typified the Australian male for me. He just looked tough. Chappell and Boon and Waugh and Hughes were just more of the same. If one man really cemented the mythology of Australian cricket in me, though, it wasn’t any of them, or even a Test cricketer at all. It was Peter McConnell.

It’s Christmas 1990 and Phil Tufnell is bowling at the MCG. He turns to the umpire and asks how many balls are left? “Count ‘em yerself, yer pommie bastard”

Did you hear that? Did you hear that?!? In Australia even the umpire sledges you!

A few balls later and Boon gets an edge to Jack Russell that would make Stuart Broad blush. ‘Owzat?’, asks Tuffers. A big grin comes over McConnell’s face. “Not out”.

That was Australian cricket to my twelve-year-old self. They played it hard, and not always very fair. They had an inner steel we didn’t possess, they would do whatever it took to win.

Australians were tough. They were special. It wasn’t just Test cricket, though, or even Sheffield Shield, which we knew to be far superior to our wimpy County game. Australian club cricket was just different from ours.  We had all heard the legend of the Grade competition, where youngsters played alongside Test veterans and stars were born. It was the Agoge which turned boys in to Spartans.

I had heard so many stories it was almost a mythology. I wanted to see this magic place. I wanted to see Australian club cricket. I wanted to play Australian club cricket.

 But I never did. Not then, at least. Not while I was any good. When I was in my late teens I played county league cricket – the rough equivalent of grade – with and against the occasional first-class player, and was a fair player myself, although never likely to set the world on fire. I planned a trip to Australia to play when I was nineteen but, for one reason or another, I never went. I drifted away from the high end of competitive cricket after that – work and girls and booze becoming an increasing distraction (all right, just girls and booze) and played most of my cricket for the mighty St Anne’s Allstars, the touring side familiar to many.

Maximus: Rome is the light

Marcus Aurelius: Yet you have never been there. You have not seen what it has become

Morgan Power Reserve, November 2012

I wasn’t the only thing that had changed. In the years that had passed England had regained the Ashes in what was arguably the greatest Test series in history, only for Australia’s decline and fall to seem premature when they thrashed England in 2006/7. But then England won again, and again. For the first time since 1987, England had won the Ashes in Australia, and by an enormous margin. England had won three out of four, and looked ahead by a country mile.

We’re barbecuing some sausages and drinking beers out of an eskie. It takes two days to play a game in Australia and we’ve spent most of them in the field. Jokes are made, the Ashes comes up in conversation. I get ready for the counter attack, ten against one, but there’s something odd going on.

They’re not attacking me, they’re not taking the piss. They’re talking about Anderson and Broad, KP and Tremlett. And Trott. Don’t get them going on Trott. And then it dawns on me. They respect us. Fear us, even. It doesn’t seem right. I mock them, provoke them in to having a go back, but they just take it.  The fire’s gone from them. Somewhere inside, they know we’re better than them.

It was the same story on the pitch. The fight was missing. Soft dismissals, easy wickets. No one sledged me, no one bounced me, there was even a discussion about whether something was fair. Fair?? What’s happened to you people? The ball of aggression we called a captain stood out because he was an anachronism. Forty and from a different era. He could see the dying of the light.

September 2013

I’ve moved across town to the leafy old-money enclave in the north of Sydney and I’m looking for a new club closer to home. Darren Lehman’s on TV, talking about the Ashes. Apparently if they’d scored a few more runs, been a bit luckier with injuries, umpiring decisions, DRS, maybe taken some more wickets, played a bit better in the important sessions, and if Stuart Broad had walked, they might have won a game.

To hear a proud Australian grasping at straws, talking woulda coulda shoulda like that. Reminded me of the day I looked at my old dog and knew I had to get the vet to put the poor bugger out of his misery….

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Next time: the new season dawns. Will Tristan make the grade?

3 comments

  • Ah the 1989 series. The first one I sat down and watched live too (have a video of 86/87 that got worn out) .
    Vivid memories – Steve Waugh, even though I’m English you couldn’t help but be amazed by his performances, to this day he is still my favourite non-English cricketer
    Jack Russell’s century, the fight we needed with hardly any help from anyone else, oh how we wasted his talent over the coming years.
    Drayton Manor Park. On a day trip in the school holidays, on one of the hottest days of the summer, Dad listening to his transistor all day. Mom telling him to turn it off. I will after the next wicket he kept saying. 301/0 the score at the close of play. i think we went on 4 rides that day.

    Ashes cricket – The pinnacle.

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