Hopes turn to Ashes

At this year’s series, bubbles will mean not Veuve Clicquot but protocols designed to ensure that the ball is all anyone catches Down Under

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Hattie was only four weeks old but she was quick to learn the anguish of following an overseas Ashes series.

Shortly after tea on the first day of the first Test in Brisbane in 2010, my plan to stay up all night watching cricket with my first born having been squashed by sleep, I was woken by a sharp cry from her cot. Like any anxious new father, my first reaction was to turn on Test Match Special, where I discovered that Alastair Cook had just edged to slip, followed in successive balls by the wickets of Matt Prior and Stuart Broad.

 Tours used to start soon after the end of the county cricket season and the players were lucky to return home by Easter

A hat-trick for Australia’s Peter Siddle, a collapse by England and, sleeping 10,000 miles away from the Gabba, Hattie had clearly detected a disturbance in the Force.

Things improved immensely for England. It would take Australia another 697 balls to dismiss Cook for a second time, by which point the Brisbane Test had been saved and they were well on the way to victory in Adelaide. After a hiccup in Perth — there’s always a hiccup in Perth — England won easily in Melbourne and Sydney to win the series 3-1. Hattie must have thought it was always like this.

Except, of course, it isn’t. That series win was England’s first triumph Down Under since 1987 and only their third in 50 years. They have toured there twice since, losing 5-0 in 2013-14 and 4-0 four years later, Cook carrying his bat unbeaten for ten and a half hours in Melbourne to prevent another whitewash.

Even though Australia have played only four Tests since the start of the pandemic, winning just one of them, hopes are not high of bringing home the Ashes.

For the England fan battling sleep on the other side of the world, dreams can soon turn to a nightmare. I remember a pocket cartoon in The Cricketer by Nick Newman before the 2006-07 series (another 5-0 walloping) that showed a man nodding off in bed with the radio commentator saying “ … and Strauss moves on to 7” and waking a few hours later, England having collapsed and been made to follow-on, to hear “ … and Strauss moves on to 3”. Nick once told me this actually happened to him in an earlier series, when the batsman was David Gower.

This winter’s series almost didn’t happen. From the first players arriving in Queensland in early November to start a fortnight’s quarantine (five others came on later) to the end of the final Test in mid-January is just over ten weeks. A long time to be away on tour.

Yet it is nothing compared with what it used to be, when tours started soon after the end of the county cricket season and the players were lucky to return home by Easter.

John Woodcock, the former Times cricket correspondent who died in July, was the last surviving member of the touring party in 1954-55, when there were 71 days between leaving Tilbury on the SS Orsova and the first Test match, 24 of them before they even spied Australia through a porthole.

The 18 players, with a three-man support team of manager, porter-cum-scorer and physio, and 19 journalists, struck up friendships over cocktails and games of deck quoits that are unimaginable today when access between players and press is strictly controlled.

Work for the press was light on the way down. Wooders once told me of “the journalistic bliss of an unexpectant office” as he had to file 300 words by Ceylon and another 300 by Fremantle. On arrival, however, there was a frenetic month of travelling from state to state with seven matches before the first Test on the other side of the country in Brisbane. With the time-difference, lack of live television and the crackliness of the wireless, it was a good time to write for an evening newspaper: three went from London and three for Yorkshire.

It would be 1962 before England went part of the way by plane. Ted Dexter’s side flew to Aden and boarded the luxury liner, Canberra, for what was described as “an 11-day cocktail party”. The Duke of Norfolk was the England manager and joined the squad in Colombo like some grandee in a Savoy opera with three of his daughters in tow.

“You may dance with them,” he told the players. “You may wine and dine them. But that is all you may do.” Colin Cowdrey did, in fact, later marry one, Lady Anne Fitzalan-Howard, but it was 23 years after they had met.

The Duke of Norfolk was the England manager and joined the squad in Colombo like some grandee in a Savoy opera 

Times were changing, though, and deference was beginning to vanish. The distinction between Gentlemen and Players, amateurs and professionals, was abolished before the tour finished and the duke made his own nod to equality by telling the press that since this would be an informal tour they need only address him as “Sir”. The players, he added, would generally call him “Your Grace” but “in the bath they may call me Bernard”.

This winter there will be no dukes to pass the soap to Joe Root’s team and little in the way of cocktail parties. For them, bubbles will mean not Veuve Clicquot but Covid-secure protocols designed to ensure that the ball is all anyone catches Down Under.

Few give the tourists a hope — Australia’s experienced bowling attack should be too much for them on home pitches — and yet we on the other side of the world will still dream with optimism, hoping to wake, for once, to happy news

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