It's important to remember that the Ashes is still tied at one test apiece. It's not as though this has been a disastrous summer for English cricket. It just feels as though it could have been better. That being said, I don't think many people are confident that England will find a way to win at the Oval and England's pusillanimous selection has both failed to inspire confidence and dampened enthusiasm for the fray.
Perhaps this is too pessimistic by far. Perhaps it's a little too soon to be quite so gloomy. Nonetheless, there's a sense of foreboding about this test match. So it's good to be able to read a book that takes us back to a time when it was the Australians, not England, who were a shambles.
Christian Ryan's Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket might have been retitled "Kim Hughes and the Good Old Days" for the English market, such are the happy memories of that extraordinary 1981 series. But, actually, there's a quiet tragedy to Hughes's story. He's remembered, in this country at least, for losing the Ashes to Botham in pretty hapless fashion; in Australia, he's the guy who cried when he resigned the captaincy. Both images, both memories, hint at weakness, a certain effeminacy, a lack of toughness that was most un-Australian. Hughes, when push came to shove, wasn't made of the right stuff.
Yet as Ryan's splendid book makes clear, that's an unfair verdict. Whatever Hughes's own shortcomings, he was crippled by hopeless management and the legacy of the Packer-driven civil war in Australian cricket. Frankly, it would have been a miracle if he'd succeeded. As it was, Australia won just four of the 28 tests he led them in.
The villains in Ryan's book are the Australian cricket board and, most especially, Denis Lillee, Rod Marsh and, to some extent, the Chappell brothers, none of whom offered Hughes the support he deserved and in fact often did their best to undermine him. There's an extraordinary account of how Lillee, bowling fast and furious in the nets, would routinely try and hit his skipper in the head, deliberately bowling bouncer after bouncer at Hughes in spells that astonished and perhaps even sickened some of his team-mates.
Hughes' story is quietly pitiful. by the end, beaten into submission by the West Indies and averaging just 19 in his final 19 test innings, you see a man broken by the very thing - cricket - that had made him in the first place. For while Hughes' career record is pretty average, on his day he was a batsman of rare exhuberance. This too, mind you, was out of kilter with the prevailing, Chappell-inspired, hard-as-nails Australian ethos of the time. Perhaps Hughes batted with too much flair for his batting to be completely reliable or trustworthy. In England, of course, some people viewed David Gower with something like that level of suspicion. A sad business for all concerned.
Cricket is a tough sport. There's no hiding place. The game can reveal character only too fully. The American political strategist Lee Atwater - a take no prisoners type if ever there was one - liked to say that he would "strip the bark off" his opponents. Cricket does that too and it doesn't always make for a pretty picture. Hughes's story is like that. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make gifted.
Anyway, it's a sad tale, told splendidly.
PS: A note of local interest: Hughes spent the "happiest six months" of his career in Scotland, playing for Watsonians. He made his debut against my own club, Selkirk where, having narrowly survived being bowled for a duck, he duly made a century.
Actually, though there's a shortage of top-class fast bowling, you can build a pretty good team from test players who've been pros at Scottish clubs. among them: Gordon Greenidge (Greenock), Michael Hussey (Ferguslie), Jimmy Adams (Royal High), Rohan Kanhai (Aberdeenshire) , Sadiq Mohammed (Poloc), Budhi Kunderan (Drumpellier), Wilfred Rhodes (Gala, Perthshire), Bob Massie (Kilmarnock), Omar Henry (Poloc, Stenhousemuir, Arbroath), Abdul Qadir (Stenhousemuir). There are, I'm sure, plenty more that I've either forgotten or am simply unaware of.