By Peter Della Penna
The following is taken from a series of journals written upon reflection in 2006, a year after the author spent a semester abroad in Sydney, Australia starting in July of 2005.
My arrival in Australia truly began when I saw a sign hanging over the baggage claim at the airport in Brisbane: “Welcome to the Lucky Country.” After getting my bags sniffed by a quarantine beagle at customs, I went through the terminal and bought a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald to read while I waited to board our group’s connecting flight to Cairns.
There it was, spread across the front page, a picture of the mighty Australian captain Ricky Ponting, cut and bleeding badly on the face courtesy of a bouncer from England fast bowler Steve Harmison. “Bloody Hell – These Poms Mean Business” screamed the headline. Mind you, at this point I had no idea what a bouncer or a bowler was, let alone any of the other terms that were listed in the article such as reading the score (97 for 5 at lunch) or the out descriptions (caught behind, bowled, lbw) or the fielding positions (gully, square leg, cover). Cricket was a foreign language. The Herald may as well have been written in Mandarin because I had little chance of deciphering either one. But I decided that if this was on the front page, it must be worth learning.
I could never have known it at the time, but this was a seminal moment in my life. Here was the genesis of my addiction to cricket. It was the line of demarcation, separating my life into part A and part B. Part A was my life before cricket: September 14, 1984-July 22, 2005. The dates fittingly read like a tombstone etching. My life as I knew it was dead and buried, never to be seen again. Now, there existed my second coming: July 22, 2005- …
I was truly privileged to have the second Test at Edgbaston be the first match I ever saw and knew the rules to. The day before it started I sat down with a kid who hung around the apartment complex I was living in, Macquarie University Village. His name was Daniel, but everyone called him Hoag (which I later found out was because, simply enough, that was his last name). That night, one of my roommates, Julia, felt sorry for Hoag because he had just been kicked out of his home by his dad and had nowhere to sleep. Julia, being the Alabama Angel that she was, took him in and made him sleep on the couch… but not before he had finished his drinking rounds for the night. Hoag was meandering around our kitchen looking for some more beer. I asked him what he knew about cricket and this sparked a two hour long tutorial on the game. He discussed fielding positions with me, the various ways to get out, pace bowling vs. spin bowling, batting techniques, general terminology, etc.
The next morning Hoag was gone, never to be seen again with my eyes. But I am forever grateful for the time he took to enlighten me.
Just like any sport though, I didn’t really get a chance to fully learn what was going on until the match started and the action unfolded. I remember going into Star City casino early in the evening to play blackjack first and then watch the morning session of the match. Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss seemed to be scoring easily, too easily. I had some foggy recollections of the events of the first Test at Lord’s which I watched while at the hostel in Cairns. But when the fog settled I could vividly envision Australia celebrating wildly about every 20 minutes or so. Here there were just a bunch of long faces and long chases to the boundary to fetch the red cherry. Every 10 minutes or so, the cameras panned to a guy with a chubby face coated with zinc. I caught on, even without any volume from the television in the casino, that this guy was the star attraction. The more I thought, the more I pictured him as being one of the men at the center of those profligate howls and hollers from the previous match. This was my first real memory of the legend of Warne.
I left the casino at the lunch break to take the bus back to the Village and continue watching… only to be horrified at the sight of my new roommates cuddling on the couches with a laptop planted in front of the only television in the apartment. Zoolander on Jake’s computer was the designated form of entertainment for the night. Here I was trying to get stuck into life as an Aussie while the others and their friends were still clutching onto American life and all its manifestations. At least the movie ended in time for me to resume watching after tea.
It is incredible looking back now to see how fast I caught on to cricket. Before long I got the opportunity to enjoy a part of the game that for most Americans would be the most impossible thing to accept: the outcome of the thrilling third Test match at Old Trafford in Manchester. This match ended in a draw.
Some may wonder how on earth a sport that features a match taking place over five days could produce neither a winner nor a loser. That is part of the beauty of it all. It is just one more strategic element to a complex game, almost as mind-bending as a chess match. Of the five Ashes Tests of 2005, this was the most gut wrenching and heart pounding of them all. It was definitely my favorite match. I remember watching the start of the final day’s action at 7:15 PM local time in Sydney. However, even more vivid was staying up until 4:30 AM to watch the epic conclusion. I was hopping up and down all over my apartment, willing the Aussies to the draw.
Ricky Ponting played the most magnificent captain’s innings, reaching 156 when the unthinkable happened. While trying to play a short leg side ball for a single to retain strike, he nicked it through to the keeper and after what seemed like an eternity, Billy Bowden gave him out. There were only 24 balls left in the match with only one wicket remaining. The two tailenders, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath, were the last line of defense standing at the crease.
Here’s where I will make a modified comparison to baseball for this situation. Imagine a World Series Game 3 with the series tied at 1-1. The Yankees are up on the Cardinals 5-2 in the 9th inning with two outs and David Eckstein is on first base. Mariano Rivera is pitching to Mark Mulder, who even though he is a pitcher, must bat because there is no one else left on the bench. Keep in mind there are no extra innings allowed either because 9 innings is the designated amount of time the game must be completed by. After going to an 0-2 count, Mulder fouls off the next four pitches to stay alive. Then in a bizarre twist, Eckstein is allowed to come off first base to continue the at bat for Mulder and he fouls off the next six pitches as well. They switch places again where Mulder fouls off another six pitches. He is skilled enough to do this on purpose because he knows that if Rivera can not strike him out within 24 pitches the game is over and the Yankees will not win and the Cardinals will not lose. Joe Torre is fed up with Rivera and brings back Mike Mussina, who started the game and is allowed to re-enter. Mulder still fouls off the next five pitches. Then on the 24th pitch of the at bat, Mulder fouls off another one and the game ends. Because Rivera and Mussina could not record the 27th out, the Yankees do not win, even though they were leading 5-2, because they could not finish off the opponent. While this may seem convoluted, the game is not replayed. So the series goes to game four standing at 1-1 and a draw.
This may sound far-fetched, absurd, ridiculous and completely un-American in its nature, but it is quite the norm in cricket. It turns out to be surprisingly dramatic. I would say I was on the edge of my seat for those last 24 balls, but I couldn’t sit down at all. I was nervously pacing about the living room of the apartment as Lee and McGrath saw off ball after ball. When Lee steered the final ball of the match, a full toss from Steve Harmison, safely through the on side for four, I jumped for joy. The Aussies had batted out the day to save the match.
Then there were the events of the fourth Test at Trent Bridge. It was adrenaline pumping stuff, that final day. When the Aussies set England 129 to win, their chances of defending it and winning were extremely doubtful. It was at this moment that I learned anything is possible when Shane Warne is handed the ball and magically twirls his fingers.
Now it was on to the fifth Test…
I remember watching the match intently for four days, agonizing over the forecasted rain and bad light that came to fruition. In contrast to American sports, cricket essentially does not make up or reschedule hours, let alone days, for play lost to weather conditions. Once the match starts, five days is all the teams get. If the match can not be finished for whatever reason, so be it. However, come day five, the Aussies were still in with a chance to win it. I remember watching day five with two of my friends from next door; Evan Foley from Drew and Paul Connaker who went to Minnesota. When McGrath took those two wickets to be on the hat trick ball, we were absolutely rapt with delight. We could not stop screaming, jumping up and down, hugging each other.
There we were in Unit 3 of the Macquarie University Village, gleefully delirious because the door was opened by Glenn McGrath to carry Australia to an Ashes retaining victory. Just as quickly though, Shane Warne shut that door. For a professional cricketer, it was the most routine of chances. He spilled it like an amateur. It was crushing.
Here was a man who had carried Australia the entire series despite myriad problems with his personal life leading up to the start of the series almost two months before. He had taken the most wickets in the series, almost twice as many as the second best bowler. He had even batted better than most of the recognized batsmen for Australia. His contributions were colossal. Yet the single moment that may be remembered more than any other will be the moment he dropped the Ashes. Then it was up to Kevin Pietersen to pick them up and make off like a bandit, which he did in a way only a man with a skunk looking hairdo could.
This is the tip of the iceberg for what cricket can be to tens of millions of people ready to learn about the sport in America. As the first Test between England and Australia gets underway in Cardiff this week, don’t hesitate to grab someone totally foreign to the game and give them a baptism by fire. There is a burning desire for cricket lurking inside the hearts of many just waiting to be stoked by the spectacle known as The Ashes.
(Peter Della Penna can be contacted through Twitter @DPMilGaya. The complete unedited version of his introduction to cricket titled, “The Ashes Chronicles,” can be found on his blog, The Cricket Tier, at thecrickettier.com.)