The Ashes, First Test, Day Two: Botham's Fury

I've managed not to spontaneously combust but Botham is ready to kill. Ponting's gone, Bumble's eyebrows are going wild and Hussey is on the march...
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I've managed not to spontaneously combust but Botham is ready to kill. Ponting's gone, Bumble's eyebrows are going wild and Hussey is on the march...

Some years ago, in my first week as a paid journalist, I was handed Ian Botham's mobile number to try and gain an interview three hours before the magazine I was writing for went to the printers. I grew up when Beefy was in his pomp, my first bat was a Duncan Fearnely Botham model and my brother and I used to fight over who got to be him in the garden. So when I dialled the number, I was fairly nervous. Then I heard the foreign dialling tone…

After one elongated ring, he answered.

"Hello," came the unmistakable and, looking back, incredulous timbre of Botham.

"Hi Ian, it's er, Owen from…"

"Have you got any idea what fucking time it is?"

I looked at the clock on the wall in disbelief. I was sure it had said 6.30 two minutes earlier, yet somehow it had fast-forwarded to 8.30pm.

"I, er, ahhh."

"It's ten fucking thirty in Spain, I'm here with my bloody family, what magazine did you say?"

I stammered on for a bit longer…

"Not only is it 10.30, but this call is costing me money, are you out of your bloody mind?"

"Look Ian, I'm sorry… we're three hours from the printers and if you could do the interview, we'll pay for the call…"

"Pay for the fucking… Cath, have you heard this?…"

BEEEEEEEEEEEPPPPPPPPP

Although I didn't get the full force of his ire, I could imagine what it would have been like. I've seen him throw wobblers a few times since then, but always from the safety of my living room. And if one thing was clear from the moment that he delivered his pitch report earlier this morning, it was that he was furious and spoiling for a fight. "This is a pitch up pitch," he said, profanity clearly trying to force its way through his skull. "Nothing to be had from bowling short….”

Let’s face it, it’s a threat, and during the first 30 minutes you could feel him getting more and more angry as England bowled a consistently bad length. Short, rank and pointless, it was the cricketing equivalent of a bit of slap and tickle with Barbara Windsor.

To stop myself from falling asleep during this first hour, I tried gamely to engage on Twitter with any number of pundits and ex-players. Freddie ignored me, Aggers was having none of it and even Michael Vaughan didn’t respond to my request for a picture of Boycott. Then, from nowhere, Howling Mad Bumble spluttered into life.

Short, rank and pointless, it was the cricketing equivalent of a bit of slap and tickle with Barbara Windsor.

00.47: Tweeting from Athers' iPad thingy

00.49: Nowt much happening for Eng. Flat as.... said we were 200 short

00.57: All having an eyebrow pop...must be some good looking bar stewards out there!

1.02: Beef. Just erupted. Box emptied

I could feel Bumble’s eyebrows jump considerably as it came through. Have you seen him in those glasses? He looks like Ming the Merciless as done by Specsavers. Old Bumble has never wasted a syllable in his life; he turns the word comfortable into an opus. I tweeted and asked him to say ‘merciless’ on air, perhaps for the entire length of the drinks break without drawing breath. He didn’t take the bait.

And then the cricket kicked into gear. Just as I was considering turning in, Botham’s ghost appeared on the pitch and booted all of the bowlers up the arse. Anderson got one to move just enough to do for Shane Watson, Ponting went quickly after lunch, Steve Finn bowled beautifully to test the bad back of Clarke and all of a sudden Australia were 143-5 and 260 didn’t look a bad total.

This is why I love test cricket. It ebbs and flows, one minute you’re knocking over a full bottle of red as a wicket falls, the next you’re on your knees sucking it out of the carpet as a partnership starts to build. I don’t care if it takes five days; there isn’t a more finely nuanced sport out there. Test cricket thrives on partnerships, demon spells, a bit of luck and a lot of judgement. And that brings me to Michael Hussey.

Known as Mr. Cricket, Hussey probably has all of his food made into cricket items on his plate. Asparagus for wickets, peas for balls, meat for Ricky Ponting's face and the stomach of a cow for Shane Warne’s ego. Hussey is either curmudgeonly brilliant or stutteringly shit, and, as he started to smash Swann out of the attack, it was clear I was watching the former. The Hussey who averaged 80-odd after his first twenty test innings. The Hussey who asks for no quarter and refused to let Swann settle.

Much has been made of Graeme Swann. England’s talisman over the last two years and the second best bowler in the world, his form will have a huge bearing on this series. Australia has been cruel to spinners. The great Muralitharan averaged 78 for his wickets in Australia, and only the leggies, Anil Kumble and Mushtaq Ahmed, have bowled close to their career averages on Australian soil. As things stand, Hussey is winning the battle.

To go off for bad light in Australia is akin to having a lovely day out in Walsall, it’s the ace of clubs in a pack labelled oxymoron. But it happened, and Beef was furious. “Who makes the rules? The umpires? They made it up about bloody shadows…”

So this is where we are. Australia are 40 runs behind with five wickets remaining. Play will start half an hour earlier tonight, England have a new ball available and, according to Bumble, that guarantees a bit of cloud cover and the promise of the ball ‘hooping around everywhere.”

Just stay away from Botham if it doesn’t…

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