How goes it at the Gabba? We shall know by now how the first Ashes Test is panning out. Have radio’s pre-dawn choruses from Brisbane already been ruining your days? Or making them brighter? Was it a dramatic start on Thursday? Who leapt headlong from the traps? Have England kept their nerve? Are the Aussies showing their age? Or their innate, dismissive swagger? Down the years, England have made a habit of messing up in the opening Ashes Test down under; surely they haven’t done it again, have they?
I winced at Mike Atherton’s ruefully sarky reply early this week when he was asked what he would do if he won the toss on Thursday morning, ‘I’d look at the pitch, call over Nasser Hussain and ask him what he would do — then do the opposite.’ It was, of course, England’s then captain Hussain who last time in the Brisbane opener cataclysmically asked Australia to bat — and at 364 for two at close of play the boys in the baggy-green were, to all intents, laughing all the way to February. Which painful memory had me shuddering in vivid recall of Atherton himself as grim-faced skipper nine years before when, first up at the Gabba again and Australia batting first, Mike tossed the new ball to De Freitas and McCague — and with Taylor and the cocksure Slater tucking voraciously into them the half-century was posted on the board in under seven overs and, there and then in half an hour, the Ashes seemed won and lost; which they were. Mind you, as I doodle over this before the latest new beginning, it’s not all pessimism: there is a nice anniversary omen to cling to: fifty-two 26 Novembers ago at the same old Wooloongabba field, England’s gloomy eminence Leonard Hutton sent Australia in to bat on the Thursday; by mid-morning on Saturday the home side was sated enough to declare at 601 for eight; England lost by an innings — but went on to win the series at a glorious, even frightening, gallop. So how-ever stands the board this Saturday morning, remember all is not lost, or won. Cricket may seem a sedate, orderly, even predictable pastime and contest. But increasingly in the new showbiz, crash-bang-wallop five-day game, cricket wheels out its rollercoasters for a hairily dramatic ride — as it did so ravishingly in the Ashes spectacular of 2005.
Before setting the bedside alarm-clock for the bleary witching-hour radio reveille for Thursday’s opening overs, I helped settle the over-keen anticipation (and worrying pessimism) with a rewarding in-dip of the new doorstop-thick Wisden Anthology 1978-2006 — weighty in both senses: 1,300 pages for £40. Stephen Moss’s daunting commission was to measure up to the pick ’n mix editing resplendence of late, great autodidact Benny Green, whose masterly half-dozen treasuries of the-good-book-so-far lit up sports publishing’s 1980s in rich, bright, primrose lustre. Moss relishably triumphs: order and care, panache and flourish, although he would be first to acknowledge that while the good Benny had to sieve in more murkily dull and cloudy waters, the last decade or two of the Almanack, many editions edited by Matthew Engel, have produced a seam which offers far more glittering gems to work with. Wisden’s obits are perennial pillars of the book: here Moss allows less space by far to reprise tributes to such as Barrington, Compton, May, Larwood, Statham or Sutcliffe than he does to, er, Kerry Packer. Ah me, that’s showbiz.