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.

One nil

Like a lot of the country, I stayed up late last night to watch Australia win the first Ashes test against England. In the end, it was pretty easy.

You couldn’t have predicted this on the first day. Not long after lunch, Australia had fallen to 8-122. In the end, we made 284, thanks to the tail wagging mightily and an out of the box innings by Steve Smith. It was a handy effort considering, but come the turn of the innings we were 90 runs in deficit and lost the openers in quick time. From there on in it was all Australia.

The batters played committed aggressive cricket. Smith played another great innings for his second century of the match, Wade made another hundred, Head a fifty, and the tail went the tonk big time. Coming into the last day England needed not much under 400 to win, and a whole day to bat if they wanted to survive. In the event, they didn’t make it to tea.

It was another committed effort, this time by the Australian bowlers. Lyon got six wickets, Cummins four, but all were good. England was bereft and demoralised, all out for 143.

This was a great win, and particularly satisfying. In his first test match after the ban, Smith reminded everybody why he’s the best batsman in the world and probably one of the best ever. And in the face of a feral and hostile crowd, the Australian team became a tight and determined unit. By the end of the match, I’d suggest all the carry-on and abuse affected the English team more, while it served to steel the purpose of the Australians.

It’s particularly nice to win in these circumstances. Off to Lords now, where Australia has an excellent record, and where Starc will likely be unleashed. This is a good team.

How not to decide a championship

If I were a Kiwi, I’d still be feeling sick, three days after the final of the World Cup. They were stiffed out of the title, not once, but in a succession of unlikely events. Mostly it was bad luck, but it becomes more than mere luck when every 50/50 call goes against you. There was the incompetence of umpires as well, as well as, ultimately, being defeated by an arcane and unfair rule cooked up by an administration that has no feel for the game. Worst case scenario, New Zealand should be joint winners right now, but play it all again, and odds on the kiwis would come out on top.

Let’s recount the events. New Zealand bat first and make a moderate 241. The first ball of the England innings Roy survives an LBW appeal on umpire’s call. Regardless, inside 20 overs England is four down. They rally, Stokes is batting well, and Buttler joins making a half-century, but then they lose wickets. Eight down they need more runs than balls remaining. It’s probably a 50/50 game, maybe the Kiwi’s in front, just, but then the first bit of ill-fortune strikes.

Stokes hits the ball towards the boundary. Boult is there on the boundary line waiting for the catch. He takes it, but as he steps back with the momentum, his heel touches the rope. In an instant, what was almost certainly the match-winning wicket of the danger man is now six runs off the target. Then stokes hits the ball to the boundary again. It’s fielded, and Guptill makes the long throw to the keeper hoping to effect a run-out. The ball never makes it to the keeper. Instead, it hits Stokes’ bat as he makes his ground and rebounds to the boundary. What were a rushed two runs is now ruled six runs. It’s wretched bad luck for New Zealand.

And here is the first bit of contention, and it comes in two parts. Firstly, it should only have been ruled five runs by the umpires, not six, because the batsmen hadn’t crossed when the ball was thrown in. The real significance of that is that instead of being on strike for the next ball, Stokes would have been at the non-striker’s end, leaving a tailender to score the winning runs. None of this emerged until after the match.

The game goes on, and England finish on 241 – tying the score, all out. What happens now? Super-over!

England bat first and score 14. Then the New Zealand batsmen take strike and on the last ball of the over – having scored 14 – are run out attempting the winning run.

So, theoretically it’s a tie still, but no – and this is where the arcane, ridiculous rule determines the victor.

England is ruled the victors, and why? Because they scored more boundaries in their innings than New Zealand did! Such an arbitrary ruling is nonsense. You might equally rule that New Zealand are the victors because they played fewer dot balls than England. But really, if there should be an administrative tie-breaker like this then clearly it should come down to wickets lost in achieving the score. On that count, the Kiwis would have won because they lost eight against England’s ten.

But any administrative ruling is inadequate and unsatisfactory. After 46 days of intense and compelling competition, the championship must be decided on the field, not in the rule book. As I see it the common sense approach would have been one of two ways – either the two teams are named joint winners because the deadlock couldn’t be broken; or, logically, they keep playing super overs until one team wins it. Shouldn’t take long.

This match has been called one of the greatest ODIs ever, and for drama, you can’t argue that. It’s left a lot of people with a sour taste in their mouth though because it feels wrong. I can’t help but think that New Zealand has been dudded. I won’t call them moral victors, but, on balance, I think they were the more deserving.

On the Kiwis

I sat on my couch last night exchanging text messages with JV who sat on his couch a few kilometres away as we both watched the world cup semi-final and commented on every twist and development on the pitch. He tends to be more pessimistic than me – I always think there’s a way – but by the time I hit the sack at about midnight, I didn’t feel confident of the result.

It informed my sleep a little. The couple of times I woke up I looked at the clock, thinking, it’s happening right now, and it’s happened, and wondering how it happened. Eyes shut it got into my unconscious, affecting my sleep. I woke, hoping against hope, but it was without surprise that I checked the scores and found we’d been well flogged.

I’m disappointed, naturally, but we’ve had a good go of it. I can’t complain – though I can suggest.

Most of the tournament we’ve played well, but there have been holes in our performance. Maxwell under-achieved throughout and Stoinis hasn’t played a decent game of cricket all year. I had queries regarding the batting order, as most did. Then a couple of injuries before the semi-final had the potential to cut through that Gordian knot.

Khawaja was ruled out with a hamstring injury, which freed up Smith to bat at three. In retrospect we could have done with him yesterday, he was just the steadying influence we needed after being three down early. Wade was brought into the squad in place of him.

The other injury was to Stoinis, his second for the tournament. This seemed fortuitous to me. He had given the team nothing with either bat or ball, and at this stage, Mitch Marsh was surely a better option. But then Stoinis recovered, and Marsh didn’t make the squad.

Leading into the game, there was a lot of discussion about the make-up of the team. I wanted Wade in it. I’m not a big fan of him generally, but he’s been in explosive form for the last 6-7 months, including a couple of recent games for Australia A. He was the sort of player we were looking for.

I was willing to take a gamble and leave Stoinis out altogether and play Wade and either Handscombe or Coulter-Nile (as bowling all-rounder). I’d have retained Maxwell because he can win matches, but shuffled him down the order and given the ultra-impressive Carey a better go at it.

As it turned out, both Maxwell and Stoinis played. Carey and Maxwell effectively swapped places in the order, And instead of Wade, Handscombe was brought in to replace Khawaja. And we were 3-14 before Smith and Carey (temporarily) steadied the ship.

We were well beaten on the day and on the face of it no changes would’ve made much of a difference, though it becomes a new game with new players.

I like Langer and think he’s done great things for this squad. I admire his loyalty but fear it came at the cost of pragmatism. I think both Stoinis and Handscombe were selected against better judgement. Langer made reference to Handscombe ‘deserving’ his spot, and he stuck fat with Stoinis even though he’s been injury-riddled and ineffectual.

No complaints, though. It’s a great effort to get this far after the year Australian cricket has endured. We’ve rebounded and proved our resilience, once again. The Ashes are coming, and we have a chance for revenge against the Poms then.

As for the final, the Poms deserve it, but I’ll be barracking hard for the Kiwis, naturally.

A complete individual

With Wimbledon on, there’s been a lot of talk in Oz about Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic, especially relative to the new darling of Australian tennis – and world number one – Ash Barty.

Like, everyone, I think Ash Barty is a breath of fresh air. She’s unpretentious and decent and upfront. She just gets the job done and with very little angst. In some ways, she’s an old fashioned Australian sporting type, and maybe even a throwback to previous eras in tennis when it was nowhere near as hyped as it is now, and the egos were much more reasonable. Now she’s hit number one she appears to have established a rich form line which may well carry her to the Wimbledon title, and beyond. The test will come against Serena Williams – just about her polar opposite – but I think she’s clever enough to win that.

Like just about everyone I deplore Bernard Tomic. I think he’s a disgraceful human being. Clearly, he has issues that lead him to behave as he does, but he has to be accountable for his actions. I can find no redeeming features. He’s lazy, arrogant, disrespectful and, worst of all doesn’t have a crack. He’s derisive of others and petulant to boot.

Last week he made the news by losing in the first round and being stripped of his prize money for basically tanking it. I think this penalty is the cumulative result of many tournaments and matches where his effort is cursory at best. I think it’s fair enough, but then if someone shot him out of a cannon, I’d think that was fair enough also. As you can probably tell, he’s held in general contempt. (I admit to some pity for him – he’s obviously playing up and there are reasons for it – but in the end, it’s up to him to be better).

Then there’s Kyrgios. The jury is much more mixed when it comes to him. There’s plenty who despise him. They see him as graceless and rude. They find his antics offensive. He’s also a wasted talent.

Then others think he’s great. For a start, he has in abundance that thing that Tomic lacks altogether – charisma and personal charm. He’s entertaining, even fun, and on top of that, a complete individual. He runs his own race and has no time for the conventional courtesies. He’s candid and straight-forward and, even if he is a wasted talent, completely free of pretension.

As you can tell probably from my commentary, I fall more so into the second camp. I find it a great pity that a man of such extreme talent – potentially the best in the world – so fritters it away. But then I acknowledge his point that it’s his life and his choice. He’s upfront with his shortcomings, that he hasn’t the concentration or dedication to achieve much more than what he does now – which amounts, generally, to several highly entertaining cameos and the occasional disappointing walkover.

He gets away with a lot because he is so utterly charming (though not everyone sees that). And because he is great to watch when on song. And because he’s so honest and transparent. Underneath I think he’s a genuinely nice guy who isn’t made for the circuit, and he’s definitely someone I’d like to share a beer with (my measuring stick). He has none of the contemptuous and cynical ill-grace of Tomic, and his sheer individuality is refreshing.

As an Aussie I wish he was winning one grand slam after another, but would he be as interesting an individual if he did? Ultimately it’s his right to deploy his talent as he chooses. We assume goals and a career on his behalf. That’s how we see things and have become conditioned to expect. He’s rejected that. I think he’s a pure soul, and while occasionally I may shake my head at his antics, I can’t help but like him. And I respect his right to choose his own road. He’s an individual, and for that, he should be applauded.