On The Road At The 2002 Ashes

After the first day of the third test England are just four wickets down for 300 or so runs in the stifling Adelaide sun; surely they can't mess this up...
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After the first day of the third test England are just four wickets down for 300 or so runs in the stifling Adelaide sun; surely they can't mess this up...

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So, the 2002/03 Ashes, not for the first or last time England have played one, lost one and we’ve got a full car with ten days to get from Brisbane to Adelaide. Is it down the east coast and onto Sydney, Melbourne and along the Great Ocean Road? There’s going to be plenty of time for that later so we hang around some of the beautiful Queensland coastline before making plans. Arriving in Gold Coast (“Famous for Fun”) we park up and spend enough time (about an hour) looking around to assess that it’s no more appealing than its English counterpart, Great Yarmouth. OK, y’know, but not what we’re here for. Byron Bay is just right for a chilled day on the beach but our arrival coincides with “Schoolies Week”, when the town is set upon by hundreds of Aussie kids celebrating the end of summer term and any of the relaxing hippy / surfer vibes we’ve enjoyed turn into a night time free-for-all of mid teen boozing, screaming, puking and fighting. Again, fine at the right time but not just now, thanks.

Looking for something a bit off the beaten track, mildly interesting and wholly Australian we point the Mitsubishi inwards to the vast expanse of nothing that is rural New South Wales and head towards Tamworth. Saturday night in “The Country Music Capital of Australia” might sound like heaven to some but the reality is not quite the spectacle of cowboy hats, gingham dresses and hay bales I think we’re all secretly hoping for (we’re two months early for the Annual C&W Festival). Ending up in a caravan park that takes us for $15 each the night is spent sinking tins of Victoria Bitter and cremating hunks of red meat on the communal barbie. Perfect. We leave the next day only when it is confirmed, unequivocally and with 100% certainty, and contrary to Welsh Dan’s assurances, that there is no Pizza Hut Eat-All-You-Can lunchtime buffet in town.

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So it goes, through Cobar and Broken Hill, each pretty nondescript, a few bucks a night for a bed and some beers, as Adelaide and the next Test gets closer. Accomodation in the city is easier to find - Cannon Street Backpackers is central, cheap (less than $100 for the week) and known to be legendarily feral to those who have passed through previously. Six-bunk rooms with barely any natural light? Yep. Enough floor space to dump your bag? Just about. Bar downstairs? Definitely. What more do you need on a trip like this?

Injured in Brisbane, Simon Jones is out and there’s a pace bowling spot up for grabs. Steve Harmison is looking to impress and is fired up in the nets although, perhaps wisely, none of the batsmen want to face him and it’s spinner Ashley Giles who is on the receiving end of Harmy’s try out. The first ball is short, rears up and cracks Giles on his left wrist, breaking the bone on the hand of England’s leading wicket-taker in Brisbane, the fourth frontline bowler to be seriously injured since they arrived in Australia. Rumours that Giles was seen in a bar later that evening, wrist in plaster with a grin from ear to ear are, erm, unconfirmed, but either way it’s not long before he’s flying home. Ironically, in the days leading up to the game it’s a 20 year old from Luton called Monty Panesar, attending the ECB’s Adelaide based National Academy and still three years away from taking Giles’ place in the team, who impresses the most in the nets, twice cleaning up the captain.

On match day morning the Adelaide Oval is as picturesque and tranquil as the old stories always have it and when Nasser wins the toss he bats, obviously. It’s a good start that continues all morning before strange things happen in the afternoon. Things like Shane Warne bowling waist high full tosses that Michael Vaughan casually laps high into the stands. Steve Waugh, short of ideas, brings himself onto bowl. Englishmen in front of the iconic scoreboard enjoy what is happening on the pitch. The only predictable sight is the steady stream of locals being ejected by the Police, unable to stop themselves scrapping after a few hours drinking 2% beer in the sun.

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Vaughan is scoring effortlessly, reaching a century before tea and although Hussain is out just short of 50 the Adelaide pitch is living up to its reputation as a place to bat, bat and bat some more. At 294-3 its England’s day as Bichel starts the last over to Butcher; Vaughan stood next to the umpire, leaning on his bat handle, 177 not out, his job done for the day. Back in August, against India at Trent Bridge, he’d nicked off on 197, a trick repeated a month later at The Oval for 195. Surely this is his time for a double. We’d find out tomorrow, Butch’ll see off Bichel and we’ll all be on our way to the bars…

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It always seems, when watching England, that the later in the day and closer to dressing room safety they are, the bigger the chance of a fuck up. And so, the first ball is on Butcher’s legs and he runs it down to fine leg – it’s Vaughan’s call and he takes the single. The next ball passes through to the keeper but the third has a hint of movement away from the bat, Vaughan plays at it too hard and edges to slip where Warne (who else?) takes the catch.

Being English you’d settle for four down for just under 300 and, despite this being a big blow from what is now the last ball of the day, spirits are high amongst those of us who congregate in the first bar we find on the way back into the city. It’s a while later when I spot an all-time sporting hero. Tony Greig, captain of England when I first watched cricket, South African born and the scourge of the English cricket establishment since he’d taken sides with Kerry Packer a quarter of a century previously is there, at six foot six towering over his drinking partners. I go over and see that he is with Ian Healy, former Australian wicket keeper, and along with Greig, a current TV commentator. More than a few scoops in and with the cheek that that brings I ask him for a picture. “Sure” he smiles so I shove my camera into his hands, tell him what to press and stand proudly, almost shoulder to shoulder, with AW Greig.  Not surprisingly “Heals” looks at me as if I’d asked if I could piss in his ear before handing the camera back and skulking off. No sense of humour, these Aussies. Still, Tony Greig, eh?

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Looking back that was the last cricket related enjoyment to be had in Adelaide. I wasn’t there the next night when Jon, pissed, sidled up to Richie Benaud in a smart restaurant and asked if he could “do” his rudimentary Richie impression (“two for twenty two” etc) in front of the great man but by then there was precious little happening on the pitch to smile about.

“Meek” doesn’t do justice to England’s batting on the second morning as the last six wickets fall for 47. “Torturous” could sum up watching Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn bat into the third day as the temperature touched the late 30’s. Australia declare with an hour or so until stumps, 210 ahead, maybe with one eye on the weather forecasts that are predicting heavy rain in the coming days. That hour is as compelling as it is difficult to watch, the light drawing in and the Aussies sensing a wicket every ball. They get three.

“Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” isn’t actually inscribed on the Victor Richardson Gates on the Sunday morning but it might as well be. Rain is still forecast but the skies are clear as England are immediately four down, Vaughan is still in touch and the old warhorse Stewart thrashes a half century but both fall to Warne as the weak resistance crumbles away. “It’s the Ashes” comes the shout, forlornly, from within the travelling fans, they know what they’re here for but do the players? From that position just before the end of play on the first day to an innings loss with five sessions to spare is poor and the frustration is increased as the rain comes mid-afternoon; enough to end play for the day, maybe enough to wash out tomorrow as well.  But England’s performance hadn’t deserved anything other than what it got.

One consolation. The next Test starts in Perth on Thursday, we’re driving the 1900-odd miles and we’ve now got an extra day to get there.