Memories of the baggy green

Melbourne Cricket Ground, 1 January 1864

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One of the gifts I received yesterday was a book I had left heavy hints about, Australia: Story of a Cricket Country. This morning in bed I began to read it.

It is a large format book with pages of absolutely gorgeous, and occasionally iconic, photos: Kim Hughes wielding his bat one handed as if one the Three Musketeers with a rapier in hand, Dennis Lillee in full flight, Victor Trumper striding down the pitch, pictures from the Sydney hill, and so on. It would be easy to classify it as a coffee table book but for the quality of the writing inside.

It’s essentially a book of essays collected around different themes and by and large with an Australian slant. The writers are a diverse lot, cricket journalists, commentators and ex-cricketers predictably, but also historians and novelists, passionate followers of the game from all walks of life, a couple of ex band members, social commentators and the like – reflective of the wide and deeply grained love of cricket in this country. The essays range from the historical and fact driven to the swoopingly nostalgic. Inga Clendinnen, for example, writes a lovely piece on her memories watching her brother play local cricket in the years after the war. Though it’s an era far removed from mine there was much in it I absolutely knew such is the pervasive cricketness of Australian cricket. It was a beautifully written piece of intelligent Australiana that brought to order so many of my own parallel memories.

Is cricket Australia’s central sport? It probably is, though AFL is giving it a run for its money. Cricket all the same is the sport most sporting Australians identify with at a national level: it is our cricket team, and we ride on its coat-tails. A book like this would not be as resonant if it were not for the rich history of Australian cricket, as distinct from cricket elsewhere. At the top end there is the proud record as the winningest team in the caper. Most of us keen cricket watchers feel that is our birthright, and passionately uphold the notion that it is only ever a matter of time when we’re not. On top of that it’s a sport that has a rich iconography. In Australia we’re fortunate to have spawned some great characters as well as cricketers: Warne, Lillee, Miller, Bradman, Spofforth, and so on. Then there is the grass roots appeal and presence, never o0verlooked in this book.

Growing up we played cricket every summer in our street. We were protestants wedged between two catholic families, one of whom had about 15 kids. We never had any shortage of players, and hard fought contests. The teams were generally led by myself and my best mate from next door, Peter Woody as he was called, six and half feet tall by the time he was 15. More often than not we played in the backyard of my house, though often enough we would also play on the nature strip in the street. These were pretty full on contests that went one way then the other. Each of us skippers were the pre-eminent batsmen and bowler on our team. Often with a bin acting as our wicket and kids huddled all around the bat the bowler would storm in in emulation of Lillee, or else stroll up to bowl slow balls that might bounce more than once before reaching the batsman. Grubbers – where the ball would hit the pitch and roll – where mostly deemed illegal, though not always.

Unlike most of the kids I played with I had some professional coaching. One of our greatest family friends was an Australian ex-test bowler. I remember him as a big and very friendly man with a seventies moustache full of good stories. Every Sunday for a while I would show up at the cricket nets where he coached and hone my technique. Even today in impromptu scratch matches I have a classical cover drive and a perfect forward defence. Like most kids though I loved to hit the ball.

In recent times there seems a lot of old cricket either being broadcast or written about. By some happenstance there are many links between what I see and my own life at that time. I was there the day of the Centenary test in 1977 when David Hookes smacked Tony Greig for 5 consecutive boundaries, and Marsh scored a hundred. I was there with Peter Woody and his gruff dad.In this book there’s a photo of John Dyson taking his famous catch against the Windies in 1981 with the SCG outer in the background. I was there that day in the summer heat with my aunt and uncle.

I was also present at what is one of the most famous, and probably best, days of cricket ever at the MCG in 1980 when Australian was bowled out for just over 200, but with Hughes making a fantastic ton, before the Windies went to stumps at 4/11 with Lillee bowling Viv Richards with the last ball of the day. I was there with my grandfather, and still remember it well: my grandmother, being the driver in the family, dropping us off nearby in the morning in the silver Holden Kingswood they seemed to have forever. The short tram ride with others heading to the cricket, before we settled in the outer. My grandfather, a gentle and always elegant man, would share the thermos of tea he had brought and the sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.

There;’s many thousands of people who have claimed to be present that day in the years since – if there can be iconic ‘days’ then this is one. What I remember is the steady tumble of wickets down one end while Kim Hughes defended or else played lovely swashbuckling strokes that would race to the boundary, the crack of ball on bat reaching us a moment after we viewed the stroke. Late in the day the ground was in crescendo, Lillee at his imperious best charging in as the crowd chanted his name. I joined in, thrilled, stirred, feeling myself part of something bigger as Australia surged and the wickets fell in quick succession to roars that must have rivalled that in the Roman Collosseum.

Another day I remember, at home this time pacing around listening to the radio as Allan Border and Jeff Thomson staged a last wicket partnership at the MCG against England. They scored reached 71 of the 74 runs needed when Thomson was finally dismissed. Despair and dismay in my household, and thousands of others, but also respect. It was a great effort.

Such are the memories, but that is what a book like this is all about. Less a book of raw cricket history and statistics, and more of a cultural study, as the name suggests, about what cricket means to a country such as ours. That’s memory, nostalgia, ambition, hope, expectation, triumph, fear, sentimentality, and so on. It’s about the arc of the game as a force within society. For us who follow cricket there are all these little footholds and occasional arcane moents which mean everything to us in our secret language. This book in fact was promoted earlier in the year by publicising the best 25 Australian cricketers through history, many of which I found contentious, until the top 5, which seemed perfectly predictable (Gilchrist, Miller, Lillee, Warne, Bradman). That whet my appetite for this book, and now I have it to read over this Christmas/New Year break, nicely coincident with the annual Boxing day test.


Always remembered

Anzac Day is just about my favourite day of the year. Yesterday it was fine and mild. I headed off early to get myself a seat at the MCG for the big match. Bought a badge at the ground, one of the marinated chicken rolls I like so much, then settled in for the game. IMG_0091

As always it was very impressive, and very moving. The two teams burst through the same banner before lining up across from each other for the last post and the national anthem. Everyone stood. In the silence you could hear the flag flapping in the breeze. In the national anthem 90,000 sung along to the words everyone now knows so well.

It was a cracking game, worthy of the day. We lost, which was no great surprise, but we gave them a fright, and played with intensity and heart. I left satisfied knowing that we are the real deal, thinking that we are ahead of everyone else in the comp but Collingwood. That's a big call, but I've seen no other team this year approach the intensity and skill on show by the two teams yesterday.

Last night I watched some of the programs I had recorded earlier. I watched the pre-game show, which featured interviews and conversations with the usual experts, but unusually also featured social commentators and journalists. Anzac day is the big day in Australian culture, and yesterday was deep immersion.

I found myself greatly adffected by what I saw. Many times I found my eyes glistening with emotion. Interviews with old diggers relating their stories. Commentators putting into some kind of context. And in the background looming was the big game.

There is occasional controversy over whether a big game of football devalues the day, or commercialises it. I find the arguments specious rubbish. I'm loathe to get into discussions about what people fought and died for because it becomes trite in the expression – however, if I want to attribute any meaning to it then I would suggest these men marched off to war to preserve the lifestyle and freedoms we all so cherish. Football may seem small beer, but it is a good part of our culture and in its way representative of those hopes.

Football is not life and death (though it feels it sometimes), and it doesn't pretend to be. We fight for 4 points, and no lives are on the line. Only the very lame draw those parallels. It is who we are though, proved by a crowd yesterday of 90,000 and a TV audience of millions, including thousands of ex-servicemen. It's part of the life these great guys fought for, and a day like yesterday the perfect celebration of what they stood for.

What is also often overlooked is how a game like this has put the spotlight on the Anzac tradition. The teams, the AFL, are very respectful of the day and what it means. The hype and and aura of the game feeds into the Anzac legend, which the teams and the media pay homage to. I truly believe that this game creates awareness, and in the periphery of it educates as each year other stories are highlighted.

The other argument is whether the day should be the sole provence of Essendon and Collingwood. Not surprisingly there are many envious of the tradition and granduer of the big Anzac day clash. For me it's a no-brainer. These are the two biggest and most popular footbal clubs in Australia. Support for them is tribal and vociferous. Between them they have created this tradition around which so much has accreted. They have made Anzac day this celebration, and it is the tradition and the rivalry between these two clubs that has made it so.

To change that formula would be to diminish it. The magic is in the tradition and the clubs who have built it. It would lose the glamour and mystique if it was just another home and away match.

Footy is a good way. This is a great season so far, and the Bombers are looking good.


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