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Ashes to ashes. Oh, England our England! First the football, then the rugby

13 December 2006

1:11 PM

13 December 2006

1:11 PM

Ashes to ashes. Oh, England our England! First the football, then the rugby …and now the prettiest balloon of them all has been well and truly pricked so soon after its jingo-jangled and so jauntily buoyant launch. I sense blame about to be heaped on the wives and girlfriends, the dreaded Wags. Cricket’s lot have been landing in Australia all month. Comfort and compassion are suddenly the priority, not, as they’d thought, the top-up of their tans. At least cricket’s Wags seem less brazen and more softly simpatico than football’s slebby femmes fatales in Germany last summer. After his heroic bowling was so wantonly squandered in the debacle at Adelaide, Matthew Hoggard sighed to his Times ghostwriter that at least his disappointment ensured ‘a  cuddle from wife Sarah’ when she arrived in Perth. The kids have piled in too: in his Sunday Telegraph diary, batsman Andrew Strauss admitted he’d spent the eve of the opening catastrophe in Brisbane looking after baby son Sam, ‘playing with toys, changing nappies, and guarding against dangerous objects — the perfect foil for all the intensity of morning practice’.

Once wives were solely the captain’s perk. W.G. Grace and his Agnes used the 1873-74 Australian tour as a honeymoon, Archie MacLaren married his Maud during the 1901-02 tour, and Ted Dexter took along Susan for the 1962-63 Ashes series. Wags first descended in uxorial mass for Melbourne’s Christmas Test of 1974, and I can still vividly picture the horrified face of man’s-man Keith Miller at the door of the breakfast-room at the Windsor Hotel on the first morning of the match. At least it gave him on a plate his front-page column for next day’s Daily Express: ‘The dining-room is littered with high-chairs, with England’s so-called heroes popping cornflakes into their youngsters’ mouths. Test cricketers? These men are weak-kneed imposters. Wives and children must never again tour with players.’ Meanwhile an appalled Johnny Woodcock had cabled home thunderously to the Times, ‘Lord Hawke took the same view as I do about families on an Ashes tour. It is no more a place for them than a trench on the Somme.’

Pre-Waggery, olde-tyme cricket tourists sought solace in their diaries. Sixty Christmases ago Walter Hammond’s men of 1946-47 were in Sydney. Only after his death in 1977 did the family of Paul Gibb, engaging loner and worrypot wicketkeeper, allow cricket-lovers to read his riveting daily log: ‘25 December, Sydney: Had kept back family letters so had a few to read when I awoke. Thought of kids safely wrapped up for the night and the biggest thrill of their little lives in the morning. Cannot claim team’s Christmas dinner was huge success. One or two raised a sparkle after a few drinks, but obviously all wished they were at home. Skipper Walter did his best to get liquor into me: I turned down all offers. Dick [Pollard, Lancashire bowler] played a few songs on piano before we put on paper caps and ate our dinner. Laundry accumulating; and am in need of seamstress to sew buttons.’

On Christmas Day 1873 Dr Grace had left his new bride in Melbourne to go shooting for kangaroo near North Cross Reef gold mine, ‘but no luck came our way’. Nevertheless, ‘after a good long late night’ the Doc was ‘sharp enough’ on Boxing Day to take 10 for 58 and hit 51 not out. Twenty-four years later, when Middlesex’s Jack Hearne kept the journal, most of Stoddart’s 1897 team also went into the bush to shoot over Christmas — ‘no wanga-wanga pigeon, but 40-brace snipe, one hare (very large), one blue crane and two deadly black snakes …Caterer gave us real Christmas dinner, beautiful green peas, but chaps not away Xmas before seem a bit down, especially Ted [Wainwright, Yorkshire all-rounder], who remarked feelingly at table: “Oh, I wish I was back in the little cottage turning the meat.”’

In 1903-04, the diarist on ‘Plum’ Warner’s tour was Sussex’s chirpy all-rounder Bert Relf: ‘24 December, Melbourne: Had a good bowl, got 4 wickets, they could not touch me. Wrote letters. Went to theatre to see The Great Millionaire, before Mr Christie took us round Chinese quarters in Little Bourke Street — interesting to see opium smoking and gambling dens but would not go again. 25 December: Very hot. Packing. Stroll around having drink or two to old folks at home. After dinner, drawing-room, some singing and dancing. Left for Bendigo game by 4.50 train.’

Not a Wag in sight. Nor on Jardine’s infamous 1932-33 ‘Bodyline’ tour. The England players spent Christmas in Tasmania. On the 25th, the captain ‘seriously fished’ upcountry with friends, others played tennis, the two Yorkies, Bowes and Verity, took a tram out of Hobart and, quoting poetry to each other, climbed Mount Wellington — and Gubby Allen seethingly sulked because Jardine hadn’t let him remain in Sydney to party with friends and family. That spat, and not — as some lax historians reckon — the captain’s bodyline tactics, inspired Allen’s famous letter home to his father saying, ‘Douglas is so damn stupid that sometimes I feel I should like to kill him.’

It was all of 22 years after Jardine that England next kept the Ashes down under when Hutton’s side bounced back spectacularly at Christmas in Sydney, ‘Typhoon’ Tyson blowing away the petrified Aussies with 10 wickets in the match. For Christmas Day dinner, the suddenly immortal young Tyson took his Northamptonshire pal, reserve keeper Andrew, to meet for the first time the parents in Manly of the blonde and bonny beauty Margaret, ‘first true love of my life’, with whom he’d had a passionate shipboard romance coming over on the Orsova. Her parents were unamused. I quote Frank’s vivacious and vividly enlightening 2004 memoir In the Eye of the Typhoon (Parrs Wood Press, £20): ‘Dinner was a very subdued affair indeed, and I had the distinct impression that Keith and I were not the most welcome of guests. We opted to take our leave early.’

At the time, I daresay, Frank didn’t agree with Margaret’s parents that the mix of wives, girlfriends and serious cricketing was not a happy one. Alas, the Wags.

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