Close encounters with cricket history

Richie BenaudAnother season, another agonised spate of worrying about the state, fate and weight of the game of test cricket. (By 'weight' I mean its importance in the sporting scheme of things, but I'll admit that the lure of neat rhyming was irresistible.)

It is, paradoxically, a sign of the health of test cricket that it invariably triggers detailed, distant and affectionate memories of other years, other famous encounters between the flannelled fools.

One Day Internationals have been too numerous, too swift and ephemeral, often — but not always — too inconsequential to be remembered one from another. Whereas test cricket is a distinct culture. It has engendered a substantial literature and inspires the kind of religious fervour, the profound sense of cricket as part of the flow of existence, that led legendary commentator John Arlott, for example, to refer to the Second World War as the 'Second Great Interruption'.

Remembering the particular details of individual test matches is like knowing where you were and what you were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated: these are events that are part of life, not simply discrete moments. Which reminds me ...

In January 1961 I became part of that phalanx of Australian students who took off for Europe at the end of their undergraduate university days and in July of that year my three friends and I thrashed our Kombivan — bought brand new six months earlier in Munich but now decrepit and tired — in a mad dash that began in Marrakesh and ended at historic Old Trafford.

Arriving in Manchester late on Wednesday 26 July, the eve of the fourth test, we drove straight to the ground expecting to find queues and perhaps even all-night campers poised to claim the best spots when the gates opened the following morning. We were probably influenced by our many experiences of AFL Grand Finals and the rigours of trying to get a ticket on the last Saturday in September. No problem at Old Trafford though. There was not a soul to be seen.

Just as we were about to leave, however, to hunt for some cheap accommodation, a bloke emerged from one of the gates and came over for a chat. Fascinated to discover that we were Australian, had made an exotic journey to get there in time, and were running out of cash, he offered some help.

'There's a pile of cricket matting in there,' he said, pointing to a large pavilion in the nearby parklands. 'The shed's open; you could sleep there till someone twigs.'

So we took up residence in the equipment shed of the Old Mancunians Cricket Club, slept each night on the matting and used the change rooms to achieve a semblance of daily hygiene and cleanliness. No one 'twigged' and from this base we walked the few hundred yards to the cricket ground gates each morning and saw every ball bowled in what turned out to be one of the most famous and dramatic test matches in cricketing history.

We sat in the same seats each day and soon struck up an acquaintance with the rather grizzled, pipe-smoking, tweed-wrapped Lancastrians around us.

By and large, we didn't have a great deal to cheer about as the game developed. When Australia went in to bat for a second time, they were 177 behind, a critical situation which greatly amused our Lancashire friends. A century by Bill Lawry and a last wicket partnership of 98 between Allan Davidson — who hit 20 off one over from Englishman David Allen — and the youthful Graeme McKenzie, had us extravagantly cheering at last.

'Be quiet lads and watch t'cricket,' said one of the North Country seniors as the tension tightened.

On the eve of the final day, with Australia's plight looking grim, we went to a Chinese restaurant near the ground. We'd just given our orders when Richie Benaud, Neil Harvey, Allan Davidson and Ken 'Slasher' Mackay walked in and, once settled, began reviewing the state of play and what might be done.

We could hear just about everything. When we left, we gave them a muted round of applause and, to our delight and surprise, we shook hands all round.

Next day, England's cruise to certain victory was interrupted then sunk when Australian captain, Richie Benaud (pictured), famously decided to bowl round the wicket and attempt to land the ball in the footmarks left by England fast bowler Fred Trueman. He took five wickets for 12 in 25 balls.

Seemingly dropping off the pace in an era of speed and instant gratification, test cricket, like chess — a board game in the computer age! — remains fascinating precisely because it weds deliberation with fierce tension, because it is unselfconsciously gradual amid reverence for the headlong, because while ageless and always recognisable it is paradoxically mercurial.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life. 

Topic tags: test cricket, Richie Benaud, Neil Harvey, Allan Davidson, Ken 'Slasher' Mackay, ashes, old trafford



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Existing comments

Brian Matthews, you're a gem!
Joe Castley | 09 December 2009

Couldn't agree more, Brian. Brilliant!

My memories of the tests I've been to are as acute as they were the day after. But the one dayers? A mess of inconsequentiality.
Erik Hoekstra | 09 December 2009


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