As Australia’s 2005 Ashes campaign lurched fully into crisis in Nottingham, I was approached to pen an appraisal of what ailed the tourists, from an Australian perspective, for publication in the following morning’s edition of The Times.
The hastily drafted article outlined a raft of shortcomings in the Australians’ preparation, in their acumen, and in their willingness to honestly self-critique. It concluded that the only area in which they had excelled was in blaming their failings on anyone, indeed everyone, bar themselves.
The assessment was deliberately caustic, in the knowledge that few, if any, members of Ricky Ponting’s team would read an English newspaper. Certainly not one as venerable as The Times. But on the final morning of the Test, I emerged from my hotel room bound for the breakfast room at the same moment the opening batsman in the adjoining room was headed for the team bus.
‘Saw your piece in The Times this morning,’ Langer said as he caught me up in the corridor. He glanced around furtively to satisfy himself nobody was peeking through partially opened doors, or eavesdropping near the lift well. ‘Don’t let anyone know I told you this — and if you do I’ll deny it — but I agree. Absolutely. You got it spot on.’ He patted me twice on the shoulder and then slipped into a waiting lift.
There remained one last hope to recover skills and solidarity before the final Test in London — another training exercise, dressed up as a two-day match against a group of eager youngsters posing as Essex’s first XI. Sagging spirits were not lifted when we arrived at our shared accommodation, a soulless 1980s-vintage country club perched among the denuded hills outside Chelmsford, and surrounded by nothing but farm country that exhaled the rank breath of blood and bone. Either that, or the resort’s effluent tanks had ruptured. Whatever the cause, it was emblematic of the Australians’ predicament.
Powering through the lobby one evening, in an attempt to outrun the stench, I heard a familiar voice beckoning me from a corner table deep in the otherwise deserted lounge bar. Shane Warne was sharing a nightcap and a whine with fellow spinner Stuart MacGill. And one of them was keen to shoot the rancid breeze.
‘Whadda ya make of all this?’ Warne said, picking up his drink and leaning in across the table. ‘This whole mess.’ The question was rendered rhetorical by his unwillingness to grant me right of reply.
‘It’s just horse shit, the whole thing,’ he continued, replacing his drink on the bleached-pine tabletop and flicking his cigarette lighter from hand to hand. It then became clear he wasn’t talking about our environs.
‘We’re stuck here in the middle of nowhere, playing a bullshit county game that’s not doing anyone any good. We should be in London, having a few days’ rest, and then hitting the practice nets for the biggest match of our careers. We need to be lean and hungry when we get to The Oval.
‘Too many of our blokes just aren’t pulling their weight. And the coach is the worst offender. I mean, what’s he done to fix all these problems? Nothin’ except leave cricket balls lying around during training drills and call a team meeting every twenty minutes. I’ll tell ya now, there’s a few blokes whose careers are on the line right here.’
He lifted a cigarette from a packet on the table, then slipped outside to freshen the air. MacGill just continued to nod furiously in agreement.
Warne had every right to feel let down. He was the only Australian to emerge from the series with reputation intact, even enhanced. Leading wicket-taker, most accomplished batsman, sole source of inspiration and defiant counter-attack. All achieved against a backdrop of tawdry tabloid newspaper headlines and a disintegrating marriage.
Even before it got underway at The Oval, the decisive final Test bore an evangelical aura. In keeping with idiosyncratic English tradition, an event of such profound national significance demanded its own cheesy soundtrack. Curiously, the imminent return of the Ashes was assigned William Blake’s spiritual call to arms ‘Jerusalem’, which had been set to music ninety years before the decider began on green and pleasant pasture in south London.
It was sung with choral gusto before and after each day’s play. At the beginning and end of every session. And it was even played on radio with a patriotic respect usually reserved for Sir Cliff Richard’s annual Christmas ditty. Fervour was also the only rational explanation for fans handing over £300 for a seat at the series climax.
Regardless of who claimed the Ashes, Test cricket had already emerged as the undisputed winner. And true to my calling as a dispassionate journalist, I did not have to struggle to avoid being swept up in the excitement. Bloodshot eyes now fixed unflinchingly on the finish, I cared not so much who secured the urn just so long as somebody did.
That party stepped forward late on the fifth Test’s fifth day, when poor light brought a premature halt to play with no result pending. The home team’s two–one series lead would stand. Which meant celebrations that stretched the length of the island were then uncorked.
For all the symbolism and emotion attached to England’s first Ashes success in a generation, there was something vaguely ridiculous about a dozen adult peers-in-waiting jumping up and down in unison, frosted in tickertape, in delirious worship of a trophy roughly the size of an eggcup.
The post-match media conference was packed and restless when Ponting strode in, and took his seat behind a large table buried under microphones, cables and dictaphones. In the awkward silence that habitually precedes the initial question of these events, an Australian radio news reporter decided that this was the time for hard-nosed journalists to take over from the compliant cricket media, and to pose the tough question. ‘Ricky, you’re the first Australian captain to lose the Ashes in England in twenty years. Are you going to resign?’ he boomed.
I hurriedly rechecked my notes fearing that, amid my semi-conscious scribbling, I had imagined the preceding two months. When, but for the brush of a batting glove in Birmingham and the rearguard efforts of a couple of England tailenders in Nottingham, the Marylebone Cricket Club’s sacred urn could have quite easily remained in Australia’s name, if not its keeping.
Ponting was initially perplexed, then annoyed. ‘I don’t know, mate, you tell me,’ the captain shot back. ‘You obviously know a lot about cricket.’
The tour had ended pretty much as it began. At the scene of a bitter ideological battle. For almost an hour after the seemingly endless media conferences, I propped myself, completely spent, against the doorway to the Australian dressing room. I knew that, given what had just been lost, there was no chance of gaining admission.
But neither could I depart the ground and begin the tour’s final stretch of writer’s confinement until I had a column from the skipper in my keep. My hopes would lift fleetingly every time the wooden door swung open, but sink back when it yielded nothing more than team support staff stacking cricket bags in the corridor in preparation for the following day’s homeward flight.
In the room...
The brief glimpses I stole of the losers’ camp revealed a picture not nearly as funereal as I expected. Some players sat quietly on wooden benches, the music and banter that announced the end of most Test matches noticeably absent. But with each passing luggage run, the atmosphere within seemed to warm. Several England opponents clutching bottled beer and beaming smiles filed in to share a drink and a chat, and were greeted warmly as they sought Australian autographs on various pieces of clothing and equipment. As priceless Ashes memorabilia, these would prove far more lucrative in seasons to come than any county testimonial year.
One of professional sport’s dirty secrets is that the pain of losing usually hits supporters harder than players. The besotted fan delusionally believes their chosen team will succeed every time it takes the field. To entertain the alternative is a betrayal of their life’s cause. But players readily accept the risk of losing is writ large in the contract of competing.
As Justin Langer once philosophised, if the joy of triumph provides the game’s greatest feeling, then the regret of losing must be next best. Because if you’re not experiencing either of those, it means you’ve been reduced to nothing more consequential than a spectator.
During my catatonic wait, I tried to sketch out the series post-mortem I was to compile overnight by running the big moments, the defining contests, over in my mind. I drew a blank. I had seen so little live cricket between typing stints I may as well have been home in Melbourne. Or asleep. I made a mental note to buy a DVD box set of the 2005 Ashes series in order to catch up on the history I had missed while writing and rewriting it. That pledge will one day be redeemed.
Quit or stay?
Ponting eventually appeared, baggy green cap defiantly in place, hands jammed deep in his pockets. He indicated our meeting would be conducted in the corridor and, instead of offering any preliminary thoughts, he instead stared silently through a window that looked over remnants of the crowd being ushered through the heavy iron gates and into the Vauxhall gloaming, raucously ‘Jerusaleming’ their way to the nearest pub.
‘So you gunna resign?’ I asked, trying unconvincingly to channel the self-importance of a serious journalist. Ponting turned quickly, wearing a pained scowl, before recognising the gallows humour. If nothing else, it allowed us to establish eye contact.
‘And ya reckon I’d announce that through my column?’ he asked, through a grin that, until then, I suspected the plastic surgery he underwent after day one at Lord’s had removed.(Ramsey was ‘ghosting’ Ponting’s column)
‘As good a place as any,’ I suggested. ‘But maybe not tonight. I’d rather we go with the usual clichés, so I can get a head start on that sleep.’
Life on the edge at Edgbaston
The hobbling of Australia’s best pace bowler (Glenn McGrath had stepped on a ball and suffered an ankle injury) half an hour before start time might have provided ample fodder for early editions at home, but it didn’t faze Ponting, who again pushed stubbornly ahead with his scripted plan to bowl when the coin fell in his favour (second Test at Edgbaston). That decision drew a sharp rebuke from Warne, who saw it as a major tactical blunder. It was the first detectable hiss of discontent to seep from the tourists’ dressing room in weeks.
By stumps, Ponting could justifiably point to the fact that his bowlers had captured all ten English wickets. That they fell for a tick over 400 runs probably vindicated his leg-spinner. When the fourth morning dawned, the transition was all but complete.
The home nation converged on Edgbaston in ecstasy, and around radios and televisions as if awaiting a Churchillian pronouncement. Australia’s three least-credentialled batsmen, statistically at least, needed to pilfer more than a hundred runs from an England bowling attack that had dismembered their opponents’ top order twice in the space of a weekend.
The final overs of perhaps the most famous Ashes encounter transfixed households. Entire suburbs. It lives on in the memory of everyone watching, whether adhered to television or sitting, in gut-churning tension, among the spellbound crowd.
Everyone except journalists working to Australian deadlines. For the last half-hour, I saw not a single delivery, not a solitary run, nor even the tragi-triumphant final act when Michael Kasprowicz lost his wicket with Australia three runs shy of victory. Two runs short of a tie.
When that moment of history was finally written, my sole concern was ensuring the right version of the appropriate story was sent to its correct destination. And that I had interpreted the scoreboard correctly. The English, as a nation, were elated. The Australians understandably disappointed.
Reproduced with permission from ‘The Wrong Line - What happens on tour sometimes needs to be told’ by Andrew Ramsey published by Harper Collins, Aus. For details, visit www.harpercollins.com.au