How I Won The Ashes, 15 December 2010

Welcome back to How I Won The Ashes.

Those of you new to this may wonder what this is all about.  The concept of How I Won The Ashes was conceived during the legendary 2005 Ashes series, when I did crazy things that helped the England team home.  All cricketers, and fans, are superstitious: lucky sofas, not moving during a long partnership, not walking on a certain side of the street, avoiding the cracks in the pavement; basically, anything that will help their team win.  In my case, it was sticking pins in an effigy of Glenn McGrath after he’d skewered us at Lords in 2005, so obsessed was I with winning the Ashes, so convinced was I that we would not do so while he was bowling.  It was I that left that rogue cricket ball on the Edgbaston turf, which he tripped over and turned his ankle.

This led to a book on the thoughts of an obsessed cricket fan, and subsequently to a blog on all matters to do with cricket.  With the Ashes now in progress, I am going to try and give regular updates on the state of the match and views on the action so far. For those who like tittle tattle, I’ve also got a few thoughts on Warney’s recent activities away from the world of cricket.

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I’ve also been contributing to podcasts for the Barmy Army Ashes website.  You can hear them on

Whew! How good a performance was England’s murdering of Australia at Adelaide? It was right up there with one of the most professional performances put in by an England cricket team in memory, because it was against Australia, in their own backyard.  All the hard work paid dividends: fielding, batting, fitness and bowling.  The Trott run out of Katich and two Swann slip catches in the first three overs left Australia in ruins; England finally started doing what they did in 2005 and posting a strong first innings total; and their fitness enabled them to raise the levels of performance and intensity an extra notch on the last morning, when they knew they were under time pressure to take wickets. The bowling of Swann and Anderson took all the plaudits, rightly so, because it was mightily impressive; but spare a thought for Steve Finn, whose bowling at Hussey was brilliant.  He knew Hussey likes to take on the short ball, but he bowled it just that bit closer to the batsman, forcing him to play it straight up in the air, to be joyously caught by Anderson.  The strength of character was even stronger when you consider that only a few balls earlier, Prior had missed a pretty simple chance to dismiss Hussey when Swann found his edge. Lesser teams might have allowed their heads to drop at that point, as Hussey is not the sort of player to give second chances.  But this England team is made of sterner stuff, and they maintained the intensity.  Even so, his removal was huge – and an equally huge relief for Prior. The next wicket, which of Haddin, was equally crucial, because he was well capable of batting all the way through.  It was a beautiful piece of bowling by Anderson, too: a perfect outswinger, indisputably edged behind.

The comprehensive victory at Adelaide finally laid to rest the ghost of 4 years ago, that ghastly last morning, when we were caught like rabbits in the headlights of Shane Warne’s beady eyes and Glenn McGrath’s noose. I remember how miserable I was, standing on a platform at London Bridge, on a cold foggy morning, utterly distraught at how we had contrived to lose a game that we should have drawn and might even have won. I also remember the smug headlines in the Australian press as the teams arrived in Perth for the 3rd Test: “Home and hosed” they ran, because they knew that English spirits were utterly broken.  That’s in stark contrast with the hysterical reaction of the press and the panicked juggling of players by the Australian selectors, as they try to stem the confidence bleeding from the Australian team.  Compare too Ricky Ponting talking in a high pitched voice at a hundred miles per hour on the radio this morning, clearly feeling the stress, with the calm and relaxed, but firm and realistic tones of Andrew Strauss.  One is in control, the other is not.  But the one in control is English. This is big payback time.

They are even suggesting a recall for Shane Warne, for goodness sake. Just as England struggled to find a replacement for Ian Botham, a once in a lifetime cricketer, so Australia are desperate for another Shane Warne – but he is nowhere to be found. For Chris Lewis, Mark Ealham, Craig White and Ronny Irani read Nathan Hauritz, Jason Krejza, Bryce McGain and Xavier Doherty.  It took more than 10 years before Andrew Flintoff arrived on the scene for England. It may take Australia just as long.  (Incidentally, it is a mark of the strength of this England line up that the initial difficulty of replacing Flintoff appears to have receded.)

Now Australia have gone for another unknown, Michael Beer.  One wag remarked how symbolic Australia’s demise has been that they are drinking Beer instead of Bollinger.  To be fair to the new spinner, we must reserve judgment until he has played.  After all, he could do a Phil Edmonds or Peter Such and take a hatful making his debut in an Ashes Test.

And we must not get ahead of ourselves.  We have a shocking record at Perth and the Australians will cling to that.  On the basis that no side, particularly not an Australian one, can be so comprehensively outplayed two matches running, we have to be ready for a fightback. How much of a loss will Stuart Broad be?  Although he has made little direct contribution in terms of runs or wickets, his bowling has been tight and aggressive.  Will his absence allow Australia to break the shackles?  Will the replacement bowler fill his boots?

There is much debate as to who that bowler will be.  I have to say that I am relaxed either way, such is the confidence I have in the England set up and their judgment.  If they go for Tremlett, they obviously think that on a fast pitch (albeit not as fast as in the past), he will be the most natural replacement for Broad in terms of bowling style: tall and bouncy, getting it into their ribs.  And Tremlett appears to be a thinking bowler, not someone who just runs up to the wicket and brainlessly pounds it in. On the other hand, they may think Bresnan will get swing and exploit the traditional Australian weakness against the moving ball; and Bresnan does enable us to maintain a reassuringly long batting line up. Or they may go for the outsider, Shahzad, thinking that he will generate reverse swing and give the England attack unexpected sting at the 60 over mark.

We mustn’t be overawed by the Australian record at Perth.  After all, they have lost there twice in the last three years, and in particular were undone by the Indians’ ability to swing the ball in 2008. I think this England team has gained sufficient mental strength to know they have the edge and to maintain that pressure.  I expect it to be closer than Adelaide, but I expect us to win.  For us to lose will require us to lose 4 consecutive sessions, and I don’t see that happening.

Finally, a mention of the irrepressible Shane Warne.  For years Warney demonstrated an insatiable appetite for English batsmen that surpassed his considerable sexual voracity.  He would toy with them, whisper sweet nothings in their ears, make them think they were on top of him…and then nail them good and proper.  Now he is apparently doing the same to one of our so-called “celebrities”.  Enjoy the experience, Warney, if it’s true. Personally, I think you are far too good for her. It’s a cliché, because it’s true: her notoriety (not fame) is based on others’ success.  You are only one of the greatest cricketers the world has known. And she is trouble.  A friend of mine flies long haul for British Airways.  He says when the cabin crew get the passenger manifest before a flight, only three names send them into a cold sweat: one is Naomi Campbell (obviously); the other is Cherie Blair (equally obviously); and the third is your new squeeze: “Do you want to have a f***ing job by the time we land?” This will be a cameo appearance at the crease, a whirlwind innings, with a few lusty blows, before you decide it’s time to send her back to the pavilion. But if she fields for you, presumably you’ll put her at fine leg.  If it were me, it would be silly point.

Perhaps, though, I am being unfair to the lady in question and, as one newspaper suggested, she is actually “taking one for the team”, so to speak. Perhaps she is lying back and thinking of England, so as to prevent Warney from answering the aforementioned desperate calls for him to come out of retirement and perform a miracle. Perhaps her old friend, the cricket mad Hugh Grant, has persuaded her to do this.  Perhaps. I don’t buy it, though. Apart from anything else, her track record suggests she has never done anything to benefit anyone or anything other than herself, her career and her bank account.

That’s all for now.  Good luck to those of you who manage to stay up and watch the first session at Perth (it’s probably the most anti-social start time of any venue in the world for someone watching in the UK).  And of course, good luck to England. On this occasion, it might be worth staying up to watch, if only to hear the banter that Warney will get when he arrives in the Sky commentary box. To give you some reading material while you wait, below is a (fairly lengthy) chapter from How I Won The Ashes (the book), which is reasonably pertinent. And for those of you who know that I have a daytime job, don’t worry, this was all written in my spare time!

 2.            [I DON’T LIKE CRICKET]…I LOVE IT

 I was born on 18 January 1965.  On 12 September 2005, I had been alive for 14,845 days. Australia held the Ashes when I was born.  So from the time I was born until then, England only possessed the sacred urn for 4,820 days.  For the remaining 10,025 days, Australia were the holders of the Ashes: more than two-thirds of my life.

I set up a spreadsheet to work this out. That’s what a sad git I had become.  Years of waiting for a winning series against Australia had turned me into a lunatic.  Cricket fans (and especially English cricket fans) will understand how I felt.  Psychologists might be curious why a grown, happily married man behaved this way.  Obsessed or bonkers would be two valid observations.  My wife is very definitely in the sad git camp.

But the thousands of people who lined the streets of London and turned up at Trafalgar Square to celebrate on 13 September 2005: were they sad gits as well? Many had driven hundreds of miles from all parts of the country just to be there. No.  That day proved to the entire nation just how important it is to beat Australia at cricket.  Since the game was invented, it was ever thus.  Those burnt bails in the little urn showed how traumatic it was for this country to lose to Australia more than a hundred years ago.

In the summer of 2005, with all the beatings we had taken for so many years, it was even more important.  People who had never shown the slightest interest in the game could now think of nothing else.  On the final Sunday of the series, when we needed to draw to recapture the urn, I had to fly up to Scotland to attend my aunt’s 90th birthday lunch.  We were held up by traffic and arrived late.  One of my uncles, who professed to loathe cricket and had never seen the point of it, greeted me at the door.  Did he say “Hello, how was your journey?”  No.  His very first words were an urgent “Is Gilchrist out?”

It was a very emotional time for me, not just because England won the Ashes, but also through personal circumstances.  My claim is that those circumstances were responsible for our victory.  It is a bold claim; and, of course, frivolous.  I can’t bowl or bat like Freddie Flintoff.  If I could, it would be me, not him, in the side, hitting Justin Langer’s head or stumps, or smashing Brett Lee for six after six.  I did not do the deeds on the pitch.  Yet I did certain things – crazy, meaningless things – which I will always believe helped us to win the Ashes.

This book will be most appreciated by those who see Test cricket as the purest, most absorbing form of cricket; by those who understand and enjoy the little games within games that take place within a passage of play, be it a few overs or a session, way before the climax of a game when one run or one wicket makes all the difference.  Will a batsman reach a century?  Can a first innings lead be established?  Will the follow on be saved?  Will enough time be left to bowl the opposition out?  Miracles can occur in all sports.  The beauty of cricket, and especially test cricket, is that the prelude to the miracle is often as absorbing as the miracle itself.  During the summer of 2005, fortunes swung so dramatically between one side and the other throughout many of the sessions and during the days that it was impossible not to appreciate the subtleties of the game and to see how the upper hand could move so fluidly between bowlers and batsmen and back to bowlers. 

At the Edgbaston and Trent Bridge test matches in 2005, in particular, the final moments were no different to what can happen in a limited overs match that takes a day to play.  Two runs needed by one side, only one or two wickets needed by the other.  Yet three whole days had gone before, each session dramatic in its own right, to reach that final conclusion.  No one day or Twenty:Twenty match could offer as much entertainment.  Even the drawn test matches were nail-biting as Australia clung on at Old Trafford, when England might have won the match right up until the very last ball; and then England batted through the last day at the Oval to secure the prize, when they were 5 wickets down at lunchtime and Australia sensed a last chance.  Draws can be entertaining.

But that is the beauty of cricket, in all its forms, over all other sports.  The rules are complicated and the permutations of what can happen each time a ball is bowled (and sometimes when it is not) correspondingly diverse.  While football is a truly global game, it is pretty simple by comparison.  There are ten different ways for a batsman to be dismissed in cricket.  Some of them, such as “Hit the ball twice” or “Handled the ball” are as rare as an earthquake in London. Nine players can position themselves anywhere on the field their captain and the bowler chooses, with diverse names such as “Fine leg”, “Silly point” or “Third man”.  The batsman can use his eyes, hands, arms, feet and legs to play a wide array of shots: pulls, cuts, drives, slashes and hooks. Many different skills are required and displayed; and some are blessed with the ability to do all the things that make a good cricketer: hit the ball to all parts of the ground; bowl batsmen out with fast balls, or bamboozle them with ones that move in the air, or which dip and spin; and catch the ball when it comes to you.

It is full of quirks, traditions and superstitions, more so than any other sport. Each cricket ground has its own features which are part of the game’s fabric: the slope at Lords and its iconic pavilion; the tree at Canterbury; the gasometer at the Oval; Table Mountain at Newlands; the afternoon breeze at Perth, the Fremantle “doctor”; the fort at Galle; and many others.  And, of course, it is especially vulnerable to the weather, so much so that it doesn’t even need to rain to halt proceedings.  “Bad light stopped play” is, unfortunately, an all too frequent expression associated with cricket, especially in England, and a huge source of frustration for spectators.  Then again, a cricket ball coming at you at 90 miles per hour needs to be as visible as possible, so it is perhaps understandable that umpires and players want this comfort.  Sometimes, of course, it suits a team to be off the pitch and the appearance of a few dark clouds can save a batsman an unpleasant time at the crease before the close of play and allow him to return to the safety of the dressing room, to fight the next day.  At the Oval in 2005, the Australians found themselves having to force the pace to get a result that would prevent England reclaiming the Ashes.  For once, English supporters were heartened by the sight of clouds and rain, as the more time taken out the game, the harder it would be for Australia to win, while England only needed to draw the match.  When Australia were batting, it got to the point on the 4th day when so much time had already been lost that they had no option but to stay on the pitch when, in most other circumstances, they would have accepted the umpire’s offer to go off.  Then, when England batted, the same offer was made and off they went.  To make a point, all of the Australians came out onto the pitch wearing sunglasses, suggesting it was not as dark as everyone thought.

Until quite recently, it was only the batting team that could be offered the opportunity to leave the pitch because it was too dark.  The fielding side never used to be able to appeal against the light, even if they were really struggling to see the ball.  England famously won a match in Karachi in such circumstances, the only time they have ever done so.  At the start of the final day, Pakistan were 88 runs ahead in their second innings, with 7 wickets still standing.  On a typically flat and dead Karachi pitch, a draw seemed the only possible result.  But Pakistan panicked, wickets fell and England suddenly found themselves with a chance of a win, needing to chase 176 in a little over 40 overs.  Time would be their main obstacle, as it gets dark very quickly in Karachi and the Pakistanis seemed pretty confident that if they slowed the game down, night would fall before England could secure victory.  But England were having none of it.  They stuck at their task, maintained a brisk scoring rate and got home literally as the sun was going down and the mullahs were calling the muslim citizens to prayer from the minarets.  It was a wonderful image and would have been thrilling to be there. It was so dark that the batsmen were able to see the ball more clearly than the fielders, because at least they had the benefit of the ball coming out of a white sightscreen.  I vividly remember Inzamam-ul-Haq standing, bewildered, on the boundary as the ball crashed into the advertising boards no more than five yards to his right. He simply hadn’t seen it.  But it was difficult to feel any sympathy after all the time wasting tactics he and his team-mates had used; and the umpires would not let them leave the pitch.

Cricket is also a statistician’s heaven.  Record scores, both by teams and individuals can stand for decades and then be surpassed and surpassed again.  For more than 30 years, Gary Sobers’ 365 was the highest individual score by a batsman, until Brian Lara went past it not once, but twice in the space of ten years.   When Mark Taylor reached 334 for Australia against Pakistan in 1998, he immediately declared the innings closed, not wanting to surpass the 334 scored by Donald Bradman, at that time the highest score in a test match by an Australian.  Such was the awe in which the great Bradman was held.  (Some years later, Matthew Hayden had no such qualms, butchering and bullying a weak Zimbabwe attack for 380 in October 2003, which became the world record only until Lara racked up 400 against England the following April.)

Certain numbers hold fears for different teams.  Australians are wary of 87, as it is 13 short of 100.  111 is a particularly bad number for the English.  Known as the Nelson, it usually heralds the fall of a wicket.  As to why it is known as the Nelson, opinions vary: some reckon it is because Horatio Nelson at the end of his life had one eye, one arm and one testacle; others contend it relates to his three famous naval victories: Copenhagen, Nile and Trafalgar – won, won, won! If the innings score, or a batsman’s score or a partnership stands at 111, everyone prays for another run as quickly as possible.  Some even try to keep their feet off the ground, famously the umpire David Sheppard, who would skip around when he was at square leg umpire when the score stood at that dreadful number.  I myself wrote this additional paragraph when I prepared the first manuscript and found to my horror that there were 111 pages!  Often, when two batsmen put together a long partnership, their team-mates will be ordered not to move from where they are sat or stood, in case it somehow disturbs the fortune that is running with the batsmen.  If they want to visit the loo, tough, they have to wait until the next break in play. Eccentricity, madness, call it what you will: the game, its protagonists and its followers are all caught up in it, as you will see from reading on, if you haven’t already worked it out.

Of course, cricket is associated most obviously with the British Empire; and the nations which play it most assiduously are those where the British Empire had influence. The great tradition of pace bowling in the Carribean is thought to be born from the fact that the colonial gentry preferred batting to bowling in the hot sunshine; but they needed someone to bowl at them.  Thus the slaves from the fields were given their only legitimate opportunity to take out their resentment at the white man – by bowling very fast at them.  Some see this as a reason to despise the sport.  It has horrible, colonial overtones; and, of course, in its earliest days, was seen an elitist sport, the preserve of the privileged.  The fact that a match would take place each year between Gentlemen and Players was, they say, proof of this.

To which I respond: yes, that is all true, and slavery was a terrible thing. But the differences of position were the characteristics of an earlier age when that insidious resentment that is called political correctness did not exist.  It was a more innocent time and it did not matter the way it seems to matter now.  Anyway, cricket has grown up and has moved with the times.  It is played by all sorts of people, all around the world.  That it is still enjoyed, in all its forms, by well over a billion people on the planet; and that it is played to a high standard in most time zones where there is habitable land, apart from the Americas, is testimony to that.

The term “Pom”, which is used by Australians with a mixture of contempt and affection to describe the English, has its roots in colonial history.  Many people think Pom stands for Prisoner Of Mother (England); but that’s them, not us!  The real derivation of Pom is this: in the early days of British involvement with Australia, there were naturally a number of people who left the mother country to seek a new life in the southern hemisphere.  They acquired the nickname “Jimmy immigrant” which was abbreviated to “Jimmigrant” or plain “Jimmy”.  However, many of them were fair skinned and, being unused to the strong sunshine that is such a feature of Australia, they quickly turned purple – roughly the colour of a pomegranate.  So, instead of “Jimmigrants”, they were known as “Pomegrants” or just “Poms”.

I love explanations for words that are steeped in history.  For years I was convinced that Kangaroo meant “I don’t know what the fuck you are talking about” in native aboriginal tongue.  Why?  Because when Captain Cook first arrived in Australia , he and his shipmates saw a strange animal with big hind legs and a long tail bounding around.  Having never seen such a creature before, they naturally enquired from one of the natives sitting on a rock nearby what it was called. The response was a curt “Kangaroo” (because he didn’t understand them.) 

Theories such as these abound all over the world.  My mother grew up in Peru and taught me a lovely story behind the Peruvian slang expression for a “spiv” or a “wideboy.”  It is “huachafo” (pronounced “Wuchuffo”).  It exists only in Peru and is not used anywhere else in the Spanish speaking world.  Its origins are from a group of enterprising English seamen from the East End of London who were taken captive by the Spanish navy on the west coast of South America.  They escaped from their captors and set up shop in Lima, where they quickly established a reputation for, shall we say, commercial agility: ducking and weaving, wheeling and dealing in anything they could get their hands on, they became known as los huachafos.  Why?  Because they came from Whitechapel.

I was recently disabused of the Kangaroo theory by Stephen Fry on an edition of QI; apparently the real linguistic reason is more prosaic, which is a shame, because the Captain Cook story is much more fun.  And kangaroos capture the imagination of non-Australians, with their extraordinary shape and athleticism.  Some friends of mine had an unusual encounter with a kangaroo on their travels.  They were driving through the night from Adelaide to Alice Springs, on a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere.  It’s so remote that there are signs on the road warning drivers to ensure they have enough extra fuel on board, because the next filling station is many hundreds of miles away.  Suddenly, a kangaroo bounded across the road and they hit it full on.  Fortunately for them, they were in a pretty solid truck, with crash bars on the front.  The kangaroo was pinioned to the vehicle, motionless.  Before removing it, they thought it would be an amusing photo opportunity, so they dressed the kangaroo in a jacket, baseball cap and sunglasses, before taking its picture.  But the kangaroo was not dead, only stunned.  The flash of the camera woke it up and it quickly dislodged itself from the crash bars, before bounding away into the outback, fully clothed.  To their horror, the travellers realised that the keys to the truck were in the jacket they had put on the kangaroo, as well as a wallet and a passport.  What stupid plonkers! It was eight hours before another truck went past and they were able to flag it down.  As for the kangaroo, who knows?  It probably went back to its friends in the outback, gleefully reporting that it had just turned over a couple of Poms.  “Jeez, mates, look what I’ve got.  This stupid Pom gave me his jacket, his passport, his wallet and his car keys.”  “Nice sunnies, mate.  Good on yer.”  And so on.

I nearly had a far more serious encounter with another Australian creature.  Not a kangaroo, but a crocodile.  I had been travelling up the east coast of Australia and had been enormously lucky to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef, one of the wonders of the world.  On the way up, we had stayed with old family friends in Brisbane.  They showed us a video called Australian Killers.  My initial thought was that it was a historic drama about Ned Kelly, the bushranger.  It turned out to be a nature documentary about all the different creatures in the country that can kill you: funnel-web spiders, snakes, sharks, box jelly-fish, stonefish and some lethal crustacean that fires a poisonous dart at you if pick it up.  And, of course, crocodiles.  Whether they were trying to scare us or humour us, I don’t know, but it was a sobering thought.

After the Barrier Reef experience, we travelled further north, to Cape Tribulation, a wonderful part of the coast where the reef comes close in to the shore and the jungle is literally the other side of the road.  It really is very beautiful.  There are lodges on the edge of the jungle where you can stay and we booked ourselves in.  We were given an introductory talk, in which we were told some Do’s and Don’ts, but I didn’t pay much attention.  Several nights later, some of us decided to have a beach party.  After the bar had closed, we gathered up wood and beers and went down to the beach.  We lit a fire and had a great time, creeping back to our lodgings just before dawn.  It was nearly lunch time when we resurfaced, slightly the worse for wear, and I became aware of a bit of a commotion.  The lodge managers had heard that some people had been on the beach in the middle of the night and wanted to know who it was.  We owned up and I have never had such a strip torn off me.  We felt pretty stupid and it was obvious from the intensity of the bollocking that we had had a narrow escape:  “You crazy fools.  Didn’t you listen to us? Never, ever go on the beach at night.  It’s when the crocs are hungry and they go feeding.  You are fucking lucky one of you wasn’t taken last night. Stupid Pommie idiots! No wonder you’re so shit at cricket.”

Yes, the Aussies love to hand it to the Poms at every opportunity and much of cricket’s early history stems from this rivalry. The game is steeped in history and tradition and offers an amazingly rich kaleidoscope of stories, characters and statistics.  Above all, though, cricket has always stood for fairness.  The English have often been known for their sense of fair play and nowhere is this better illustrated than the expression “It’s not cricket”, which is still used to describe something that is less than above board. 

It is therefore one of the greatest ironies of the game that the Ashes – the symbol of the rivalry between England and Australia – was actually born out of a dreadful act of unsportsmanlike behaviour by W.G. Grace, the original English cricketing hero.  In 1882, England were playing Australia at The Oval.  It was a tight game and Australia were trying to set a competitive total in their second innings.  A lower order batsman, Sammy Jones, was tapping the pitch between deliveries, when suddenly Grace ran to the stumps with the ball, whipped off the bails and appealed for a run out, an act entirely contrary to the spirit of the game.  Incredibly, Jones was given out, although Grace was such a domineering character that few would have dared to argue.  However, it backfired spectacularly, because all it succeeded in doing was sending the Australian fast bowler Fred Spofforth into a fit of rage. England ended up needing only 86 runs to win the match; but Spofforth charged in like a mad thing, took 7 wickets and bowled England out for 77.  It was the first time Australia had beaten England on English soil and it prompted an obituary to be written in the the Sporting Times the next day, mourning English cricket, which had “died” as a result of the defeat (though not, it should be noted, as a result of Grace’s appalling behaviour.) When England visited Australia the following winter, their captain, Ivo Bligh, was presented by a group of Melbourne ladies with a small brown urn containing the ashes of what is commonly believed to be a burnt stump or bail. This is the same urn which now sits in the museum at Lords, and which has been contested by England and Australia ever since.

It always used to be accepted behaviour that if a batsman got a faint edge to a ball bowled at him and it was safely caught by the wicket-keeper, then the batsman would walk from the crease, even if the umpire had not heard the snick.  This became known as “walking” and was established practice for many years, even at the highest levels of the game.  Not any more.  The generally perceived wisdom now is that it is the umpire’s job to make decisions, not the batsman’s. If he happens to get it wrong and you benefit, take full advantage, because you never know when you will be on the wrong end of a shocker.  To some extent, there is logic in this, because fortune does have a way of evening itself out.  But to the casual observer, the idea that someone stays at the crease when he knows he hit the ball goes against the English concept of fair play.

Which was why the Bodyline series of 1932/33 was another watershed in terms of the cricketing relationship between Australia and England, far more serious than Grace’s running out of Sammy Jones.  Australia had become immensely strong in the late 1920s and early 1930s, most notably through the prodigious batsmanship of Donald Bradman. Nobody ever seemed able to get him out and he assembled innings after innings to drive the English team to defeat and its supporters to despair.  Then Douglas Jardine came up with a plan which involved using very fast bowling to target the batsman and intimidate him into giving his wicket away.  The tactic worked and Australia were battered into submission, with several serious injuries sustained along the way. The fact that Jardine – a cold, aloof man – was seen as the epitome of English colonial arrogance made it even worse and it led to a major diplomatic incident.  It also goes a long way to explaining subsequent Australian determination to beat the Poms as soundly as possible, in all sports, but most especially cricket.

 Bradman got his revenge years later, in the first match between the two countries that took place after the war.  There had been some speculation that he was no longer the batsman he was and he had been in poor form leading up to the first match.  Nevertheless, he was selected.  Shortly after he commenced his innings, he edged a catch, so obviously that it went to the slip fielder standing several feet to the right of the wicket-keeper.  It was clearly out, yet the umpire somehow did not agree, Bradman stayed at the crease and proceeded to score 187, followed by 234 in the next match.  Australia won the first two games by an innings and the series 3-0.  But how different might things have been if he had “walked” in that first innings, or if the umpire had taken the decision away from him and given him out?  Such are the delicious vagaries of the game. His career ended in a glorious last series in England in 1948, which was again convincingly won by an Australian side often regarded as the greatest ever.  And yet, at the Oval, Bradman played his last innings, needing just a single boundary to end his career with a batting average of 100.  He was applauded all the way to the crease; and some reckon he was so choked by the emotion that his usually laser-like eyes were not able to see with their customary precision.  Anyway, he pushed forward to the second ball he faced, missed it…and was bowled.  His average ended up as 99.94: another example of the unique relationship between mathematics and drama that defines cricket.

It’s not just Australians who don’t walk.  Alan Knott, probably the greatest wicket-keeper / batsman England have ever had, famously tore a strip off Dennis Amiss for walking in a test match.  When Amiss confessed that he wasn’t sure whether he had touched the ball but thought he “probably had” and gave himself out, Knott was furious.  Normally mild-mannered, he laid into Amiss: “What the hell d’you think you’re doing?  Don’t forget, this is a TEST match.” Knott’s attitude was that, at that level, you could never expect an opponent to play the gentleman and walk, especially if he was Australian; and you could just as easily be given out when you knew you had NOT touched the ball. So when you were lucky enough to be given NOT out when you knew you HAD touched the ball, take advantage.  Hard-nosed and, when you need to do everything you can to win a match against equally hard-nosed opponents, probably justified, but it’s “not cricket.”

 The thing that most cricketers despise is the selective walker: the batsman who walks when it suits him, but not when it doesn’t. The one who will happily walk when he’s on 65 or 120 or when his side are in a strong position, but not when he’s on 0 or 99, or when the situation is tight.  I have to admit, I have been guilty of this.  Early on in my own lowly cricketing career, I opened the batting for my prep school’s 2nd XI (I did say it was lowly).  We were playing Packwood, our most hated rivals.  Their headmaster was a deeply competitive and aggressive man and that meant it was all the more satisfying to beat them.  We had bowled out our opponents for around 120, but then came up against an opening bowler who was quick and aggressive and on a mission to force his way into the first XI.  He’d already removed my opening partner and I was still to get off the mark when he fired in a fast, lifting ball on leg stump.  It was the mid 1970’s and Tony Greig was the schoolboy hero.  I remember I wore those same St. Peter sandwich batting gloves that Greig used, which had a big fat wad of padding around the left thumb.  The ball caught it full on, ballooned up in the air and was caught by the wicket keeper.  It was clearly out, but the umpire (their own cricket coach, ironically) didn’t see it that way and failed to uphold the shrill appeal that followed.  I remained at the crease and was not out at the end, seeing us home to what ended up being an easy victory.  I have to say that, with our 1st and 3rd XI’s also winning, it was quite satisfying to leave Packwood on the school bus watching all thirty-three of them being made to do press ups on the front lawn by a furious headmaster.  Then I reflected that in the previous summer, I had scored 0 and 1 in the two fixtures against the same opponents.  On the first occasion, I was given out caught down the leg side when I know the ball had flicked my pad strap; and a few weeks later, I was given out LBW when the ball pitched at least a yard outside leg stump. So Alan Knott was right.

One time I had no hesitation in walking was some years later when I found myself being drafted in to a friend’s team to play what was sold to me as a casual game on Wandsworth Common.  I was happy to turn up, but not so happy to find myself being asked to open the batting on a pitch that had lumps and cracks all over it.  The opening bowler was large, surly, aggressive and very fast.  Inevitably, he was also West Indian.  The first two balls whistled past my head and I have no idea how I avoided them.  It’s the only time I can remember being truly scared on a cricket pitch. The third was fuller, I played forward, somehow got a touch to it, the catch was pouched, but the umpire didn’t raise his finger. Never mind, I was out of there, like shit through a goose: I have never been so happy to walk off with 0 to my name!

The modern attitude to “walking” can best by summed up by Adam Gilchrist.  Gilchrist is one of cricket’s gentlemen.  Immensely popular, friendly and softly spoken, his charm belied both the bullying image of the team for which he played and the brutality with which he hit the ball.  And my goodness, he could do that, as well as being an outstanding wicket-keeper. His batting feats are legendary, but one incident stands out. I remember seeing him bat in a test match against South Africa in Johannesburg. Goldfields, the South African gold mining company, had offered 1 million rand to any batsman who could hit their advertising board on the full.  The board was perched at the very top of a stand.  It would require a huge hit, well over a hundred yards, but Gilchrist lined it up and took it on.  One shot sailed only a few inches OVER the board and out of the ground.  The replays showed a close up of his face after he had played the shot, tensed up as he watched its trajectory, knowing that it would be close, and then wrenched in disappointment as it overshot its target.  In another game, Gilchrist got a thin edge to the wicket-keeper.  Being the gentleman that he is, he walked off, knowing that he had hit the ball; but the authorities, in their infinite wisdom, fined him because, in so doing, he had questioned the umpire’s authority.  There are many examples of how the game’s administrators have failed to cover themselves in glory and a number are described later in this book; but that was one of the more fatuous examples.

In this book, I am also less than complementary about some Australians, most notably Glenn McGrath.  That was born out of resentment of his skill and recognition that it stood between England and their followers’ desire to be avenged for all the beatings we had taken over the years.  I would like to say, for the record, that I have nothing but respect for Glenn McGrath, as a cricketer and as a human being.  The dignity with which he has born his wife’s death and previous illness has been humbling to those, like me, who have not had to endure such personal pain.  He was also a fantastic bowler.  It so happened that he was, literally, the difference between the two teams, most especially that summer and therefore became the enemy; and, at around 5pm on Thursday 21 July 2005, I wanted to kill him.


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