The first time that Australian and England formally met on the cricket field was in Melbourne, back in 1877. Charlie Bannerman made 165 out of Australia’s 245, an innings that transcended this, and the other, usually low-scoring matches of the day. The Australians won it by 45, a margin that was exactly matched a hundred years later in the Centenary Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where Australia once again got the better of England. The sight of Dennis Lillee tearing in to secure victory is among the most beguiling of cricket’s myriad images. It has been a game for the writers and the photographers every bit as much as for the radio broadcasters and television commentators.
The notion of the “Ashes” was a while in the making. The first reference famously came after Fred Spofforth bowled England out at the Oval in 1882. In a mock obituary, the Sporting Times of London proclaimed the death of English cricket and added “RIP… the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” England’s Honourable Ivo Bligh set sail barely more than a month later in a quest to bring them home, which he duly did. In fact, he brought back the real thing. Some actual ashes ended up in an urn somewhere along the line in Melbourne – apparently the residue of bail-burning by two eager ladies – and the legend began. That urn is on show in the museum at Lord’s today and every day: the greatest nonsense is that the winner doesn’t keep it on display in their own country. England won the first eight series in a row but Australia have been busy dragging it back since. The tally now stands at 32 series apiece – though the Australians have won comfortably the most individual Test matches.
Anticipation is now at fever pitch in Brisbane. Ticket sales are astronomically high – indeed, finding one for any of the first three days is a challenge. Australia start as firm favourites because of their potent bowling attack. England will use any tasty seam- or swing-bowling conditions with skill and wisdom. Both sides have two batsmen of genuine pedigree and plenty of uncertainty either side of them.
Historically the Gabba is an Australian stronghold. England haven’t won there since 1986-87, when Ian Botham ran amok. The draw with which Andrew Strauss’ intelligent team escaped in 2010-11 gave them the confidence required to go forth and plunder. The Gabba has good pace and lively bounce. The new ball can do irreparable damage; the old ball can be slaughtered. England must pay attention.
Inside small commentary boxes, almost exactly behind the bowler’s arm at the Vulture Street end of the ground, groups of commentators will be churning out words to describe and explain the action. Among them are former captains of both teams and many fine players. There are natural broadcasters too – with any luck these will include Jim Maxwell, the Australian, who has fought a battle with illness; and Jonathan Agnew, the Englishman, whose wife has fought one too. Those who love the game will be urging them on. As will those who simply respect the fine work they do.
“Us commentators and callers, snappers and spectators will gather on Thursday morning at the Gabba with light heads and pounding hearts. There will be a skip in our step and a keenness to our eye”
In the little Channel Nine eyrie, Ian Chappell will begin his 40th year talking about the game for television. He was playing World Series Cricket when Kerry Packer first brought the game to his own network, so Chappell’s early forays into this rarified space were as interviewee and guest rather than full-blown commentator. His hand in the game’s move from conservatism to modernism is often undervalued. His commitment to Packer’s ambition was every bit as crucial as that of others more celebrated. He will bring gravitas to the coverage, along with deep knowledge and an occasionally wicked humour.
Preparation for the televising of five such high-profile Test matches all around Australia began months ago with the recruitment of editorial staff, production experts, technology geniuses, 26 cameramen – 26! – commentators, a presenter and many more. Channel Nine hires a nice blend of contracted in-house staff and freelancers: 90 folk who come together for the summer months to bring the game to life in the homes of the many millions who tune in. These millions are not just in Australia but around the world. BT Sport in the UK will, for example, use their own presentation and commentary team but rely exclusively on Nine’s pictures. Supersport in South Africa will take Nine’s whole package. The host broadcaster provides a feed that is universally available under various terms and conditions.
In the early days Nine’s coverage was without compare. Packer’s team blazed a trail that every other production unit attempted to emulate. It had both the best producer and director of the cricket zeitgeist working alongside a commentary team that set a whole new parameter for sport broadcasting. It was led by Richie Benaud and tucked in behind him were first Bill Lawry and then Tony Greig and Chappell. There were others along the way – Fred Trueman and Frank Tyson; Keith Stackpole and Max Walker; Greg Chappell and Rodney Marsh – but the original tight four rolled on, broken only by the immensely sad passing of Greig and Benaud.
Benaud was the master of understatement; Lawry never stopped talking. It worked marvellously and was enhanced by the equally contrasting styles of Greig and Ian Chappell. Benaud was a cult; Lawry not far off. Emulating them is impossible. Benaud’s dry wit and comedic timing were a gift; Lawry’s hype is an extension of an affection for cricket set deep in his soul.
Both performed brilliantly in the Ashes themselves. Lawry first went to England under Benaud in 1961 and immediately made runs in difficult conditions that impressed even those whose talent was way beyond his own. After the first match was drawn, Australia had their traditional victory at Lord’s (England not having defeated them there since 1934) by five wickets on a lively, if not spiteful, pitch. Lawry’s 130, when nobody else on either side made more than 66 in either innings, was crucial. Benaud’s captaincy brought the very best from his players, providing imagination from which they fed, guidance from which they learnt and inspiration from which they were galvanised to win the series against the odds. Even as a youngster, Lawry was something of a joker. Benaud was famous for his attention detail, an attribute that manifested it itself in many ways – on and off the field. His clothes were always neatly hung or folded and his moccasin-styled shoes placed next door to one another beneath his bench. Lawry once hammered a nail into those shoes and as Benaud pulled on his socks the team gathered for the denouement. It did not disappoint. Benaud slid smoothly into his footwear, only to feel his body stumbling forward with his feet rooted to the spot and 15 other blokes in stitches!
They say Ashes cricket defines the men who play it. There is exaggeration in that but the point is worth reflecting upon. Certainly, no young cricketer from either country dreams of anything less than selection for this unique series of matches played between Empire and underling; colony and coloniser. David Warner has called it “war”; Douglas Jardine chose “hate” for his feeling about how to win: “You have to hate them,” he said. Jeff Thomson liked to see blood; the anything but bloodthirsty Michael Clarke told James Anderson to get ready for a broken arm. Such out-of-body behaviour cannot be any more easily explained than to say that cricket matches between England and Australia have never reverted from their initial position of “them” and “us”.
For all that, the true reward of these sporting battles comes from mutual respect and lifelong friendships. No single cricketer’s story has better illustrated this than that of Harold Larwood, who bowled Jardine’s “Bodyline” at searing speed, with sadistic intent and to extraordinary effect. Yet Larwood was a good man – somewhat shy actually – and appallingly treated by the corridors of inflated power at Lord’s. He was later to leave Nottingham and settle happily in Sydney, a cricketer briefly reviled but then widely admired, especially among the people of the country he had long ago set asunder.
Us commentators and callers, snappers and spectators will gather on Thursday morning at the Gabba with light heads and pounding hearts. There will be a skip in our step and a keenness to our eye. The preparation will have been done: our notes to hand, our minds in overdrive. Hours of vision will be ready to run at any eventuality; interviews with the players will be a staple of the days ahead, and splendid, sepia-toned archive footage should make for the viewer’s delight.
We shall think of Jardine and Larwood; of Bradman and O’Reilly; of Hobbs, Hammond and Hutton; Miller, Lindwall and Harvey. Australians will easily recall the deeds of two Chappells, Thommo and Lillee; Border, Waugh and Warne; McGrath, Ponting and Gilchrist, while the English among the vast crowd will wax about Illingworth, Boycott and Snow; Gatting, Botham and Gower; Strauss, Swann and Anderson. Then they will look out beyond the flags of St George and see Anderson, still in whites, lean and ready once more for the call to arms.
At 9.30am Steve Smith and Joe Root will walk to the middle in their blazers, see the coin hang in the air – a moment to be replayed thousands of times across many continents – and one of them will make the first decision of the most important cricketing weeks of his life thus far. Two new captains in an old Ashes game of bat and ball that has not lost a jot of its charisma.