Great sport

In the age of Covid, of quarantines and hubs, travel and border restrictions, it seems unlikely that we might experience one of the best test series of all time – but here we are, having witnessed one of the most exciting and close-fought series of all time between Australia and India.

It ended yesterday with India claiming an unlikely, great win in the final test with just a few overs left in the game. With that win, they claimed the series 2-1. Some are calling it the greatest test series of all time. Certainly, it had great drama throughout and, but for the first test (a thumping win by Australia), close results. In my mind, I have the 2005 Ashes series just ahead of it, but only by dint of the quality of cricket played.

As an ardent Australian, the loss tastes bitter no matter how great the entertainment was. We don’t like to lose, and this loss was totally unexpected, both before the series and then through it.

For Australia, this is a very disappointing loss and some soul searching is in order. I feel as if they never reached the heights of form they hit last summer. Even in the first test, which they won bowling India out for a record low score, the (sensational) result distracted from what – until that moment – had been a mediocre performance. In retrospect, I wonder if that victory gave the team a false perspective also?

With that said, this has been an extraordinarily resilient performance from India. Thrashed in the first test and their test captain and best player returning to India, the expectation is that it would be a whitewash. Instead, they stepped up in Melbourne to beat a lacklustre Australian team. Not only that, they suffered injuries throughout the series to key players – particularly bowlers – and still maintained a great level of competitiveness. In the end, you could argue that Australia was beaten by a second-string Indian side.

It comes as a shock and feels as if someone of the historical roles has been reversed. Growing up, India was capable of great performances and being competitive, but there was always the belief that when the heat was on they’d fold. As they did with many teams, Australia seemed to hold a mental edge. I think we lost it this series.

There’s no doubt that India has become a much tougher unit in recent times. They’re much more aggressive and have an attitude. It’s made for great cricket. In this test series, it feels like India have been the steadier team, and tougher in the clinches – though statistically, the margins are slim. As an Australian having watched Australian cricket for many years, I feel as if we lost our way, and that India played the more coherent team cricket.

I think a lot of that is due to their stand-in captain, Ajinkye Rahane, and their coach, the legend Ravi Shastri (probably my favourite Indian player of all time). Both are strong, calm characters. I wonder if this result would have happened had Virat Kohli – one of the great batsmen – hadn’t relinquished the captaincy going home.

Kohli is responsible for a lot of the Indian team’s attitude. He’s belligerent and combustible, always itching for a fight. Rahane is different – self-effacing, measured, quietly inspiring, and a better tactician. I wonder if Kohli can be a distraction sometimes leading from out front, whereas it appears that Rahane is in their ears encouraging them, urging them on.

They have played as a committed team through the series. Each player has stepped up to do their bit. They’ve been resilient and determined, and there’s no doubt that this is one of the bravest victories in test history.

As for Australia, outside of individuals – and it was all individuals – I don’t think we really got going. We were in positions to win in both Sydney and Brisbane, and in most years would have won both in a canter. That’s not to detract from India, but on both occasions, the Australian attack relied on too few, and other issues became evident.

I think I knew there was a problem when Tim Paine got in trouble in the Sydney test for calling Ashwin a dickhead. Paine has been a guiding light and great leader since the disgrace in South Africa. He’s an intelligent, well-spoken, decent and generally calm character. He’s indulged in banter from behind the stumps, but most of it inoffensive and some of it quite amusing.

I think the controversy that erupted after his comments was a huge overreaction, but it was telling that he resorted to such blunt language. It occurred in the middle of a rearguard action by the Indians to save the test, which they did. There’s no surprise that Paine might have been frustrated, but the absence of his customary wit was suggestive of a man under pressure – and, I would conjecture, a team under pressure.

Quite aside from the Indian resistance, there was good cause for frustration. Cummins was the outstanding bowler of the summer, and Hazlewood excellent, but by the third test, Starc had become a liability and Lyon practically useless. Paine had a misfiring bowling attack as a captain, but that was compounded by some questionable tactics and bowling plans. It felt as if the team had developed a wobble.

After the disappointment of the third test, I thought we needed to freshen up physically and psychologically. Starc was cooked, and Wade had been poor. I thought Jhye Richardson and Glenn Maxwell should have been brought in, but the only change was relating the injured Pucovski with Harris. Is it any great surprise that the fourth test followed a similar script to the third – except that India won.

I think Australia played flat for much of the series, and quite possibly that will pass as patches of indifferent form often do. It was only individual performances – by Cummins particularly, Labuschagne, and Hazlewood and Smith to a lesser degree, that kept us in the hunt.

But – I think some things are worthy of examination. The positives were Cummins, who is quite possibly the best cricketer in the world. Labuschagne was good, and both Green and Pucovski look like long term players. There are holes in the batting line-up though, and disappointments otherwise.

Starc and Lyon were poor. Starc is a match-winner, but temperamental. It felt as if he was out of sorts for most of the series and probably should have been rested. I’ve always thought Lyon overrated, but some of his flaws were on show in this series. He’s very stuck in his ways. He hardly ever bowls an attacking line but can be very dangerous when he does. He has a defensive mentality in his bowling and field placements, and he doesn’t threaten enough. Had either Starc or Lyon been on form then the result might have been 3-1 the other way.

Might have beens don’t count. It’s what you do and what happens that matters and the Indians were magnificent. They responded to every challenge and overcame it. Their leadership and coaching (in contrast to Australia) were top-shelf. Kudos to them. We’ll get you next time.

So, it’s grand final day

It’s funny to think that today’s AFL grand final day. I think in previous years I’ve described it as one of my favourite days of the year. This year I’m in no mood for it, and there’s no vibe around town, as there is every other year.

For the first time, the game is being played outside of Melbourne – in Brisbane, and about a month later than usual. The quarters are shorter, the crowd smaller. And it’s being played at night for the first time. All in all, it feels quite distant – though I say that having enjoyed watching some cracking finals matches in recent weeks.

This is normally a big social day in the Melbourne calendar. If you’re not at the game, generally you’ll be at a grand final party or barbecue. Most of that is impossible this year because of ‘rona. I’ll we watching in my buddy bubble with JV at his home. We planned a barbecue, but it’s been pouring with rain since the middle of the night.

Everyone keeps on saying that this flag means as much as any of the others, and maybe more because of the challenges of the season, but I can’t feel it completely. The shorter games, the low scores, and a distinct drop in quality make it feel a bit like a toy season. It’s a pity because the play-off today is between what I think are the clear two best sides in the competition.

In a lot of years, one side has made it to the granny through a combination of happenstance and a spurt of form. You don’t always get the two best teams playing off, and because of that, the game can sometimes be a disappointment.

There’s no guarantee that tonight’s game won’t be a disappointment, but right now it seems a close thing and I’m hard-pressed to pick a favourite.

I know who I want to win – not Richmond, which means Geelong. Richmond has been the powerhouse the last few years, while Geelong has been thereabouts for years.

They play contrasting styles, which is one of the fascinations of tonight’s game. Richmond is all action, moving the ball forward by any means, and harassing their opponent when they’re in possession. It makes for a fast-moving, occasionally untidy, but effective style.

By contrast, Geelong is much more methodical and structured. They move the ball much slower and with more deliberation, not pulling the trigger until they’re certain of it.

Both have some great players, Geelong particularly. This will be Gary Ablett’s last game, win or lose. He’s not the player he was, but many consider him the greatest player of the modern era. Then there’s their captain, Joel Selwood, who epitomises leadership and courage. And Dangerfield, who’s a game-breaker.

The two big names going into this match are Danger and Dusty, from Richmond. Dustin Martin is a tad over-hyped. He’s a matchwinner and a mighty onfield presence, but I rate Dangerfield higher because he’s a bit more explosive.

Geelong goes into this game in great form and, after recent years of disappointing failures, will be red hot to get the win. You have to be motivated playing in a grand final, but I reckon that there might be more of an edge to it with Geelong.

I slightly favour Geelong to win, but the weather may play a part too. If it’s wet, then it’s advantage Richmond. I expect it will be close either way.

As a general comment, I think neither of these teams would win against grand finalists of ten years ago. That’s the general trend of footy, for various reasons. I’ve had this conversation a bit lately with different people. For whatever reason, I think the skills now are inferior to what they used to be. Even if you go back 30-40 years, you’ll see more dynamic footy with more precise skills.

A lot has changed in that time, and much of it to do with matchday tactics. Much of the game today is set up for and coached to negate the opposition, whereas once the focus was much more offensive. There’s no doubt that the defensive skills are better now than ever before, but at the expense of flair and attacking prowess.

I’ve seen a lot of footy over the years. The best teams I’ve seen are the Essendon team of 1985 and 2000, Hawthorn in 1988, and Geelong around 2007. Carlton in 1995 and possibly the 2003 Brisbane side are next best.

What I like to remind people is, that though the game was less professional back in the day, there were fewer teams, which meant talent was more tightly packed. The great teams of the eighties had more champions per starting 18 than any team today.

That’s a historical aside. I hope Geelong win tonight if only because Richmond has more shit blokes playing for them. I’m not a fan of Geelong, but their best players have more grace and humility – not to mention their supporters, which is another story again.

Who I don’t want to win

This time of year the AFL season is usually done and dusted. There are a few hangovers and annoying fans persisting, but for the rest of us we’re looking towards what comes next – and hoping for a better go next season.

It comes as no surprise to learn that this season has been like no other. At this point, the season has been running for 7 months, with a big gap between the first and second rounds and a few weeks still to go. Normally finals are the province of September – this year it’s October, and the first game played last night.

I can get fired up at finals time. It’s a great contest to start with, and the game itself goes to another level. Then there’s the hype and expectation, not to mention the vibe that infects the streets of Melbourne.

Sadly, there’s another infection now which means that Melbourne – the beating heart of AFL football – has been sidelined. No surprises, no complaints, we’ve known for a while that we’d be watching from afar, but it makes a material difference to the entire feel of the competition. I just hope the good folks in Queensland are experiencing it.

The bottom line is that I’m not as fired up as I would be normally. Some of it’s because it’s been removed from us. I guess another part of it is the abbreviated nature of the game with shorter quarters and much lower scoring. It’s not nearly the spectacle that it used to be, but not all of that can be blamed on the pandemic. And, I would argue, the standard is yet to match previous years, because of interrupted pre-seasons and modified training.

I’ll be watching, however, as I was last night. My team isn’t in it so my interest is to some degree academic but, as any Victorian will tell you, that doesn’t stop me from having distinct views on who I’d like to win it – or, more accurately, who I don’t want to win it.

There are naive and inexperienced followers of football who think that in a national competition we’ll always support the local team. You couldn’t be more wrong. In reality, you end up barracking for the least offensive option. If you can manage to find a local team that fits that criteria then well and good, but often tribal rivalries will nix that. We’d rather see an interstate team win it than the hated cross-town rival.

The best combo is a local team that’s had little or no success and is due for a win. Bonus points if they possess humility, or have ‘character’, regardless of past success.

For that reason, I’m hoping St Kilda will win it this year. Like a lot of Melbournians I’ve had a soft spot for them for ages. They’re a bit of a larrikin club with a semi-tragic history. Their one and only premiership is famous for the wobbly kick that scored a behind in the dying moments, winning them the flag in 1966. More recently, they’ve played in four grand finals for three losses and a draw. With a bit of luck, they should have beaten Geelong in 2009, and they would’ve won the draw in 2010 but for a dodgy bounce.

On top of that, they’ve had a mix of great players – more than many clubs – and great characters. And the stories about the culture are pretty legendary. Plus Saints fans tend to be a bit different.

I hope they win it, but they’re a longshot.

Who do I definitely don’t want to win it? Well, the favourites, definitely – Richmond, who are as annoying as hell, and Geelong. And Collingwood obviously, goes without saying, but reckon they’re a bit of a longshot too.

After St Kilda, I’ll be backing Brisbane, who are a roughy. Then maybe West Coast Eagles and the Bulldogs (who I find annoying).

I actually think Port Adelaide are a lock for the Grand Final and a good chance in this compromised season. If I were to tip it, I’d say they’ll play off against the Tigers – unless the Lions can sneak in.

We’ll know on October 24. No grand final barbie this year I think, but I’ll be watching.

Professor Deano

At about 8.50 last night a notification came through on my phone saying that Dean Jones had died from a cardiac arrest. I looked at it and thought it can’t be true. Fake news, I told myself, more from hope than expectation. Dean Jones – Deano – was not someone I could imagine being dead.

Of course, it transpired that it was true. Deano was in India to commentate on the IPL when he had a heart attack. One of his fellow commentators, and another ex-Australian cricketer, Brett Lee, attempted to revive him, but without success. Deano was dead.

People die all the time, even famous people. Some are shocking, many seem surprising at the time, but mostly we come to accept within a short space of time. That’s the deal, after all, it comes to an end for everyone one day. It’s the next day, and I’m a long way short of accepting – understanding – that Dean Jones has passed away.

I think that’s the same for many people. In the hour or so after the news was announced it was treated with disbelief and shock. Then the tributes started rolling in from around the world, from ex-teammates and opponents, from colleagues in the commentary box and players he’d coached, as well as from the likes of you and me. Tributes can be formulaic, but every one of these seemed heartfelt as if drawn up from deep inside. And some of the names – Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, and so on – huge names in world cricket. Then to read this morning the reaction from Allan Border, his great mate and former captain, how he loved Deano. This is a big moment.

Sitting on my couch last night, I read the news and reaction as it came through. I sent messages to friends I knew it would resonate with, Donna and VJ. VJ couldn’t believe it – Deano? The cricketer? – Yes. Deano was just 59, and that’s something else that gave pause to us.

I’m a few years younger than Deano was, but I grew up watching him play cricket for Australia through the eighties and into the nineties. The early to mid-eighties was a bleak time in Australian cricket. It marked the changing of the guard from the great names of the seventies – Lillee, Marsh, Chappell – to a bunch of relative unknowns who struggled to make an impression initially. I was there, I watched it, I went to the games, and though there were hard times there were also some great moments, and Deano was in the middle of a few of them. When I look back on Australian cricket in the eighties, there are few names that really stand-out. AB was one, and he was immense. Possibly Steve Waugh, but more into the nineties. But definitely Deano. He was impossible to miss.

There were great onfield moments. He was part of the 1987 World Cup-winning side, which came out of the blue. And there is the epic tale of how he made a double century in India when he was almost delirious. It’s an oft-told story, and none more often than by the man himself. He spent that night in hospital on a drip, and the match ended in only the second-ever tied test.

Deano was a talented cricketer whose international career ended prematurely for reasons never adequately explained – I suspect he probably rubbed up the wrong way with the administration. I think he always thought that too and was aggrieved by it. He was charismatic, but was always forthright and could be abrasive. He was one of those dashing characters popular with fans but less so with administrations. Thought it ended too soon, he had a fine test career and was a revolutionary ODI player, which is how most people remember him, I think.

I have such vivid memories of this myself. He was such a busy, aggressive cricketer, in every facet of the game. I can picture him in his canary yellow Australian outfit, a lean figure stepping down the pitch to loft over the on-side, then haring down the pitch and back again (and he was just as quick in the field). He took the game on at a time when most teams sought to build an innings. He exploded that and was remarkably successful – to the point that I would place him in the top 15 ODI players for Australia.

It was his style that made him vivid. He played the game with a swashbuckling, almost pugnacious intent. In a lot of ways, he epitomises how many people came to see Australian cricket, but when he started we were on the slide, and confidence was low. I think his style was important to the team and to the ethos of being an Australian cricketer. In time, we rose to the top again and he was big part of that. The 1989 Ashes probably marks the real turning point, the team captained by his great mate, AB, and he played a big part in its success.

He was a bit of a lair – flash, confident, insolent, he did things his way on-field and off. He ran into authority throughout his career and after, because of that, and I suspect he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he felt he hadn’t been given his due recognition. He could be think-skinned, but I think that’s a fair call, too. He was a better international player than people remember, and he’s the second-highest run-scorer ever for Victoria. He was also a coach and commentator, but while he made it big in the sub-continent he wasn’t given the same respe,ct here. He was not one of the boys.

I followed him on Twitter. He was there as he was in life, vibrant and larger than life, but also very generous. He gave time to everyone, and though he was proud of his achievements, his humour could be self-deprecating. Because I followed him there, he remained very real to me. I could hear his voice in my ears. Just a few days ago there was a tweet of his with a photo showing the commentating team he was part of. It feels strange knowing his days were marked, and that he would never make it back from there.

For cricket lovers of my generation, this is a big moment, and especially if they’re a Victorian like Deano, like me. Deano was a proud Australian and a very vocal Victorian also. He was part of the furniture right from the time he stepped onto the international stage nearly 40 years ago.

I’ve just spent half an hour talking to Donna about this. She knew him personally. They had a relationship of sorts years ago. In reality, he was a lair off the field as well as on it. She’s told me stories over the years that made me smile, and recounted some of them today. I wish I’d known him. It seems hardly conceivable that he’s gone, and I’m very sorry.

A year without footy

It occurred to me the other day that this year – 2020 – will be the first year since about 1979 that I haven’t attended a VFL/AFL game in person – and 1979 I was living in Sydney. I was in Sydney in 1980 also, but I remember attending a Swans game. And in the years before 1979, when I was still in Melbourne, we had reserved seats at Windy Hill and turned up for every home game. By my reckoning, I’ve been to a game every year since about 1971, excluding 1979, and this year.

This has not been by choice. The extraordinary circumstances mean that the games have been played in a bubble, and far from Melbourne. It’s the last round of the home and away season this weekend, but, excepting round one, every round has been away for us Victorians.

It’s been a strange year altogether, and that includes the footy. I watch every week, but it’s a different product entirely. Shortened quarters make for a different spectacle, and the interrupted season has made for a game of a distinctly lesser standard than usual. Add to that wretched umpiring – for which there is no excuse – and it’s only really habit and tribal loyalty that has kept me watching.

After this weekend, my team is out of it, and the finals begin. I don’t have a huge interest in what happens next, except in the usual way – I know who I don’t want to win it. I’ll be watching still, and I may even get excited at times, but I can’t wait for it to get back to ‘normal’, and to a time when I can sit in the outer again hurling abuse at umpires and cheering on the red and black.

There’s a lot of things I can’t wait for.

Old sport

One of the features of life in lockdown has been all the old sport they’re playing on TV. In the absence of live sport, it’s the next best thing, even if you know the result. As an exercise in nostalgia, it’s pretty good too.

I’ve been getting into it, more or less, watching footy matches from the nineties and old cricket highlights and bits and pieces of the NBA from days gone by. There’s been the Bulls doco obviously, which is compelling, and this week we’ve been treated to a ‘week with Warnie’, where he’s interviewed in the studio telling his stories amid highlights and the many great moments sprinkled through his career.

I have strong memories of most of this stuff. Much of the stuff I’m watching now I’d have watched when it was live the first time around. Many of the footy matches I was actually sitting in the crowd somewhere cheering the team along and saying my piece, not knowing how the game would end up. Same for some of the cricket matches. There are no surprises, but you find yourself recalling moments that had slipped your mind. And sometimes, in the years since, the events are still fresh, but the sequence has become muddled. Watching it all again puts it right.

For me, though, there’s a funny thing going on in the background. I can remember watching when it was fresh and unfolding. There were some snippets from a 1994 test match against England being shown last night, and I had the abrupt recollection of standing in front of the TV watching it with my brother-in-law (dead six years now) on a sunny summer’s day in Melbourne while we were being called away from it by our family to have lunch. I remember the conversation we had about Glenn McGrath.

And what I’m watching is from nearly 30 years ago and in the old square TV format before widescreen broadcasting started. Looking at it it feels dated, like the sort of highlights I would watch growing up of sport played before I was even born. I was there, sort of, but now it’s of the deep past, and it doesn’t reconcile. Really? Really? And yet it was, it is, those days are long gone even if the memories linger.

It’s the same when I watch old footy and listen to the commentators I grew up listening to, now all gone. I was there for a lot of it, and it never felt old or dated then, but it is now. And that’s the realisation, I guess, obvious as it is, nothing stays as it was.

If I go back to my brother-in-law, he was there beside me, there he was and he commented, and I responded and it was all authentic in those moments – except now it’s all these years ago now, and he’s not even around anymore and what was true in those moments was only true then – it no longer is.

Last dance

Like much of the sports starved public yesterday, I tuned in to watch The Last Dance. In case you’re living under a rock, that’s the long-delayed and much-hyped documentary about the champion Chicago Bulls team of the nineties, Michael Jordan, and particularly their final championship year in 1998.

I was hooked from the get-go. I love docos like this – quality, in-depth, and candid. And as subject matter, doesn’t get much better than this.

I got into the NBA earlier than most people in Oz. I remember happening across it one night at my grandparent’s home in Strathmore. They were in bed, and it was some time after 10pm, and here on TV was some basketball match from far away between Philly and the Knicks – this was when Doctor J was still going around, and every player was in tight shorts. It was exotic and novel for a kid brought up on cricket and footy, and the Olympics every four years. It had a noise about it that kept me watching.

I reckon that was on the ABC, and after that, I made an effort each week to watch it. It was a great time to get into it because it coincided with the rise of the Celtics and the Lakers and the great rivalry they’d be enmeshed in throughout the decade. I got caught up in it big time, and after my early preference for the Sixers, found myself a dedicated Celtics fan, mainly because of Larry Bird. And because I guess, I had an instinctive and Australian aversion for what I perceived as the show ponies in LA. That was unfair, of course, but I was just a kid. Later I became a fan of Magic Johnson too, but I barracked against him.

I was watching still when the unfashionable Pistons rose to eminence. I had a soft spot for them too because they were hard at it and played it tough, which were qualities an Aussie growing up on footy could appreciate. They didn’t always win because they were the better team, they won because they went at it harder. I thought Isaiah Thomas personified leadership, as well as being a cracking player. He was silk, and backing him up was a talented team long on grit.

You have to remember that basketball in general, and the NBA, was a marginal sport here back then. What changed all that was Michael Jordan. The sport exploded here, and almost everywhere, on the back of his incredible athleticism and scoring ability. After a long period of mediocrity, the Bulls became a legendary team, largely on the back of Jordan, but there was a fair roster behind him. Suddenly the NBA was on TV every Saturday morning in Oz and highlights were in the news. Jordan was lauded as a supernaturally gifted player capable of doing just about anything. In short time he became the most popular sportsman in the world, and the media tie-ins and partnership with Nike made him just about the most recognisable too (even an appearance in Space Jam!). Looking back, it seemed an incredible vibe.

It didn’t last. The NBA has a fair profile here now, but not as it was then. Now it’s the aficionados of the game – and there are lots, but back then it felt as if everyone had an opinion on the game, and the Bulls, and Jordan. It was that spurt of interest that got Australian basketball going, and though it’s had its ups and downs we’ve got one of the best teams in the world and a swathe of quality players playing in the NBA. It’s going forwards, not backwards.

But back to Jordan. There was a lot of talk ahead of the doco about how he’ll be perceived throughout it – hard-nosed, arrogant, demanding, even cruel. I don’t know if that was a huge surprise to me. It was always clear that he had a competitive streak that matched his athletic gifts. It was what made him great – he was a great scorer, but he was also a great defensive player. He only ever wanted to win, and expected it, of himself, and others.

It was easy for him. He was the best player in the world and its pretty easy to be self-assured when you know that. It’s harder for others in the shadow of that. It comes as no surprise that Jordan was demanding of others. Last night we even saw him being cruel on occasion, to those he had no respect for. Not surprisingly, he had a significant aura about him. I figure even his teammates were in awe of him.

I always liked Jordan. For me he’s clearly the GOAT, the only question is who comes second? As much as I loved the way he played I always found him fascinating as a man. There’s plenty of champions who are uninteresting people. Jordan had a swagger to him, an attitude that made him interesting. He was more than just a supreme athlete, he was smart and driven and determined. You can say he was a great player, but he made himself that. That’s what he set himself to be, and he did the work to become that. He is a product of his will, and that makes him exceptional and fascinating.

I may end up revising my opinion by the end of this program, but for now I’m settling in to enjoy it.

The last time in 1987

The Boxing Day test match against New Zealand has just concluded with a resounding victory to Australia. Throughout the game, there was a lot of commentary about how New Zealand hadn’t played a Test in Melbourne since 1987. That was a famous match, and all the talk reminded me that I was there.

Actually, I was only there for the last hour or two. I may have attended a day earlier in the match – I don’t remember, but what I do remember is getting off work early in the city and walking down to the MCG on the last day to catch the exciting conclusion.

It’s a famous match because New Zealand was heading for what appeared a certain victory when the last two Australian batsmen came to the crease – Mike Whitney and Craig McDermott. They were up against Richard Hadlee at the peak of his powers. He took ten wickets in this match, and a whole pile more through the series – and I still reckon he’s one of the best five quick bowlers I’ve ever seen (Dennis Lillee and Wasim Akram head that list).

I was working at NAB at the time and probably following the match in the office. This was a tough era to be an Australian cricket fan, probably our lowest ever ebb. A bunch of champions had retired, a rebel tour to South Africa decimated our cricketing depth, and the very reluctant captain in Allan Border had taken over from a tearful Kim Hughes. At best, the team was competitive, though it was building (and it did win the World Cup in a shock result).

I got down to the ‘G with the team about eight down and staring down the barrel. The doors had been flung open, and the crowd had swelled with people like me dropping in on the way home from the office.

I think I was by myself – funny the things you forget, and the things you remember. I do recall how gripping a contest it was when the ninth wicket fell, and it looked odds on that the Kiwis would win.

The game went on, though. In my memory, it was about 30 minutes of steadfast defence. With every ball, you held your breath. Each ball survived meant you could breathe again. There was a big appeal at one stage, LBW against McDermott. Had there been DRS those days he might have ended up out. The umpire ruled not out though, and the game went on.

Finally, it came to the last over, Richard Hadlee bowling to Mike Whitney. Again and again, Hadlee probed, again and again, Whitney defended. With every ball survived the crowd would clap. Then came the last bowl – and Whitney prodded the ball back down the pitch, and raised his arms.

It’s a famous moment; a famous image. I remember the feeling, as if we’d won. We don’t normally like to celebrate draws, it’s un-Australian, but this time it felt pretty ripe because the team had managed it against the odds.

For me, in the crowd, it was a great day to finish a working day.

Sadly, a few years later, I rocked up after work on a similar occasion against England and watched as the much unheralded Dean Headley swept through an Australian side searching for victory. I reckon I saw the last four wickets fall, and the loss that resulted. That was a much different feeling – though it was a much different side. By then we were top of the heap. We lost that match but won that series, and most series after for the next 15 years.

This year, 30 years on, we flogged ’em.

Checking my crystal ball

In recent years ahead of the AFL season I’ve peered into my crystal ball and given my prognosis on the season ahead. Now that we’re on the cusp of the Grand Final it’s worthwhile to check how I went.

First up I have to admit to getting a few things very wrong. For a start I tipped Melbourne to be premiers and they ended up finishing second last. It was a disastrous year for them, but in my defence, that’s a tip I think every single commentator got wrong. I think it was an aberrant result, and all Melbourne supporters will be hoping that I’m right.

I also tipped Adelaide to finish high up, and this one I’m kicking myself about because I made this prediction despite my better judgement. I’m not usually one who’s swayed by popular opinion, but on this occasion I fell into line even though my gut feel was that they might struggle. In the end all sorts of internal issues sabotaged any chance of success.

I also tipped Geelong to slip. This was popular conjecture also, but I was right on board with this. Geelong were an aging team that seemingly had been found out. This was true. What I didn’t anticipate was that they would reinvent themselves. For the first half of the year it was a stellar coaching performance and they were the best team in it. After the bye they reverted to type – no amount of coaching tricks could paper over the gaps. They finished top of the ladder when I tipped they’d finish out of the finals – but they’re out of it now and no-one is surprised. For what it’s worth, I reckon they’ll struggle next year too – they’re not getting any younger, and I expect they’ll lose Ablett, Taylor and Kelly in the offseason.

Now for the good stuff. I’m very happy to take credit for Brisbane, which I tipped would be the big improver and smoky for the 8 – they finished top 4. I predicted the Bulldogs would improve and the Swans would miss out.

Now the only game ahead of us is the big one, the Grand Final. Richmond take on GWS. Most people think Richmond will win while hoping GWS will get up.

GWS are an interesting case. They found the one thing they’ve lacked in recent years when striving for a flag – their mojo. Their win on the weekend was outstanding (and beautiful to see all those little Collingwood hearts broken for another year). I give them a chance as they’ve met every challenge so far and will have belief. They’ve done it against the odds, which has worked in their favour – the suspension of Greene was a disgrace, but I thought it might steal them for the big match. And it did, the old us against the world trope works.

This week they’ll have the crowd against them, though the neutrals will probably be onside. They’ll go into the game much strengthened on paper where Richmond are likely to be weakened.

Richmond deserve to be favourites but GWS will give a good account of themselves. It reminds me a little of 2017 when Richmond when in as underdog against Adelaide and took it away. Now GWS go in as underdog, but with decent momentum and nothing to lose.

One thing’s for sure – I’ll be barracking for them. They’re less offensive than Richmond and I don’t think I could bear another year of cocky Richmond supporters. And I hope they do it for Sheedy. He’s one of ours, but they had a lend of him. Good enough for me.

Great time of year

It’s a great time to be alive if you’re into Australian sports. AFL finals kick off tonight, and the 4th test in Old Trafford started last night. In the background there’s the basketball world cup, and the premier league kicked off a few weeks ago. For me though, it’s all about the footy and cricket. Let’s start with the cricket.

I have memories when I was just a kid of going to bed with the expectation that Australia were heading for victory only to wake up to the shock news that we’d lost due to an extraordinary performance or set of circumstances. You only have to mention Headingly ’81 for a sneer to develop on my face. As a kid, I was devastated.

As it turns out I’m just as devastated as an adult, and unfortunately I have to add Headingly 2019 to that wretched list.

I was pretty quiet about the cricket last week. We had the game just about in the bag and still managed to lose. I’d watched until midnight on the last day of the test and had been reassured that victory was likely, if not certain. Restless in bed, I’d picked up the phone to check the score just in time to watch the eighth and ninth English wicket to fall with a good buffer of runs up our sleeve. To wake up the next day to find we’d managed to lose was like a punch to the gut. What made it worse were the circumstances, truly extraordinary, including a dropped a catch, a simple run-out muffed, and then the most howlingest of umpiring howlers when England just a few runs shy of winning. After the World Cup final the poms can only believe that God is an Englishman, though I prefer to believe he’s setting them up for a mighty fall – or perhaps it’s just some small cosmic recompense for the disaster of Brexit.

None of that is much consolation to me. I couldn’t talk about it, much less accept the reality of it. When it came up on the news I switched stations, though I saw enough to know how totally ballsed-up it was.

But anyway, you get over it, and ultimately it only adds to the drama of the contest – and so far this Ashes series has been a cracker.

For what it’s worth, I’m tipping this test match will be a draw (rain) and they’ll go into the last match level with one win apiece. I’m glad, however, to see Starc back in the team. I’m not always a fan but he can be a devastating bowler. I’m dead-set certain we’d have won at Headingly with him playing because he’s lethal against the tail. And, he makes Lyon a better bowler.

So, to the footy. Tonight my team take on the Eagles in Perth. The Eagles are hot favourites and that’s fair enough. They’re the reigning premier and are playing at home. I have a good feeling, though. I’m not saying we’ll win it, but we’ll go close. We have to go for broke. Get going and we’re hard to stop.

Great time of year.