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Blind cricket tourist who sees the point of sport

Blind cricket tourist who sees the point of sportI first met Andy Gemmell in a cosy pub called the Compton Arms, which is in an Islington lane in north London. Like many in the pub, Andy was interested in sport; he could talk about it all night, or at least until the guv’nor called time.

Andy went to rock concerts or football matches like other patrons from the pub, only more often. He was a volunteer at the Islington branch of Britain’s Labour Party. Besides having a bit more substance to his opinions than the other drinkers, the main difference between Andy and the rest was that Andy was blind.

Andy, who is 54, is in Australia on a long holiday during which he’s going to the cricket and the races, and catching up with friends he met through the Compton. He flew into town on the morning of the Melbourne Cup, and, after a quick spruce-up, was off to Flemington to see the race that stops an antipodean nation. It was his fourth trip to Flemington.

On the eve of the First Test, Andy flew from Melbourne to Brisbane. He went to four days of the Test and had a good time, even if the English team was disappointing, and the Queenslanders slightly coarse.

For the Second Test, Andy flew to Adelaide with a bunch of Melbourne friends, all of whom have connections that stretch back to the Compton. Andy loves Adelaide, and the Adelaide Test. He says the crowd at the Adelaide Oval is more intimate than other grounds, and much like Trent Bridge, in Nottingham.

Andy made his first Ashes jaunt to Australia in 1982–83, when he was a member of a tour group. In 1998–99 he completed his first full Ashes tour of Australia; that is, he went to every Test. He long ago stopped travelling to Australia as part of a tour group, but that’s only because he feels safe.

Blind cricket tourist who sees the point of sportHis one problem in Australia is Melbourne trams careering down the middle of the street, which he never has to contend with in any other cricketing city. Nevertheless, Melbourne is his home base during the Ashes.

"I just feel at home here," he says. "It’s comfortable; it’s all right."

Andy says he’s always been entranced by sport. His interest began during the English cricket team’s tour of Australia in 1958–59, when he was six. The patter on BBC Radio’s Test Match Special made him want more.

During the Australian team’s tour of England in 1961, when Andy was eight, he became entranced by the descriptions of renowned broadcasters John Arlott and Alan McGilvray. Images formed in his head. He still has a vivid recollection of Richie Benaud’s performance in taking six wickets in an innings at Old Trafford.

His fanaticism for sport led him to lie in bed at boarding school—he went to a school for the blind—with his radio under the pillow, listening to broadcasts of title fights from the United States. He listened to the great fights of the 1960s between heavyweight champions Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali.

More than once, teachers sidled up to him the next morning to inquire about the result.

When asked whether his blindness frustrated him as a child, Andy says yes, of course it did. He had to learn to accept it. Part of his acceptance was promising himself he would live life to the full. "You’ve just got to do it," he says. "You don’t get a second chance."

Blind cricket tourist who sees the point of sportThrifty saving and the occasional punting windfall have enabled him to travel the world going to sporting events. A recent inheritance has enabled him to stay at a comfortable hotel overlooking the Flagstaff Gardens during this Ashes tour. The view from his 10th-floor room is lovely, or so Andy’s been told.

I pick Andy up for this interview at his hotel, and take him to the MCG for the last day of a game between Victoria and Queensland. At the MCG, we go to a desk to arrange a reciprocal pass through Andy’s membership at Lord’s. The woman behind the desk addresses me rather than Andy. It’s something I’ve noticed with service people over the years: Andy talks, and the reply is addressed to me.

In the event that people respond to Andy directly, looking at him while they talk to him, they raise their voices as if he’s deaf as well as blind. Everyone can be assured that Andy’s hearing is fine. He’s often sat at the MCG and passed on whether a batsman has nicked the ball before technology has provided an answer.

It’s strange doing an interview in between giving descriptions of every ball. But then I indulge myself. I contrast Queensland bowler Mitchell Johnson’s fluidity with the bustling action of teammate Ashley Noffke. Andy says he’s seen Noffke play for Middlesex at Lord’s. He often says he’s seen such and such a sportsman or sporting contest. When I aver that he hasn’t seen them, he harrumphs. My claim is a petty quirk of language. He’s hardly going to say he’s heard a sporting contest, or sensed it.

"That’s stupid," he says.

After Queensland have wrapped up the match, we go just past Andy’s temporary abode and head into the Royal Standard Hotel in West Melbourne. A picture of former Australian boxing champion Lionel Rose on the wall sparks a boxing conversation with Wagga Bob, the publican.

Blind cricket tourist who sees the point of sportAndy describes his routine when a title fight is to be broadcast on the BBC. He opens a bottle of malt whiskey and savours the battle of fists and wits. In 1974, he went to London’s Hammersmith Odeon at 3 o’clock in the morning. There he listened to the heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the central African city of Kinshasa.

The "Rumble in the Jungle" was held when Andy was 22. More than three decades later, he’s still excited when describing the atmosphere in that London cinema as Ali confounded the world. "I couldn’t believe what Ali was doing," he says.

It’s this complete involvement in the atmosphere which brings sport alive for Andy. His reason for venturing across the world to follow an Ashes series that he cannot see makes complete sense.

"It's just to be part of it," he says.

To listen to a podcast of this story, click here.



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