With the second test of the Ashes series set to begin at Lord’s on Thursday, the Australian cricket team tonight attended a formal reception at Australia House in London, hosted by High Commissioner Mike Rann. The High Commissioner delivered the following speech to assembled guests in which he discussed the important place that the Ashes series has in the cricket world, given the growing popularity of the one-day and Twenty20 forms of the game.
A warm welcome, particularly to our former Prime Minister, John Howard and former Premier of South Australia, John Bannon, both of whom have a love of cricket that is without peer. Most of all I want to welcome our special guests, the Australian Cricket Team, led by Captain Michael Clarke and by coach Darren Lehmann.
I have known Darren since his teens when he was recruited by the Salisbury Cricket Club whose President told me: ‘Mike I think we have found a future Test batsman’. I also had the privilege of playing cricket with Darren in Chennai after which he described me as the ‘worst cricketer he had seen anywhere in the world’. Darren, I hope I’ve redeemed myself with the upgrading of your beloved Adelaide Oval.
With the Ashes no global sporting trophy carries an influence so inversely proportional to its size. The Ashes represent much more than the end result of a series of cricket matches. The Ashes are important because of the unbroken link they convey to the very birth of cricket as an international competition. They enshrine, the intertwined history of both nations competing. Fierce rivals, firm friends. Family. The Ashes’ evolution was only interrupted by two World Wars where we put down bat and ball and fought side by side, in the same team.
This wonderful building, whose foundation stone was laid by King George V 100 years ago this month, has been part of the Ashes story, with many receptions over the decades, as Richie Benaud can attest. So tonight I want to talk a little about history because each Ashes series also celebrates the great names who have graced the sports honour roll on both sides.
For Australians, we think most of all about Bradman, whose memorabilia was unveiled at Lord’s a few days ago. Despite all of the improvements in equipment, amenities and technology, Bradman remains almost 40 per cent better than the next best batsman cricket has so far produced. If you transpose that superiority to other sports, then in an Olympic marathon it would equate to a difference of almost 50 minutes between winner and runner-up; or staggeringly almost two and a half metres in height over the pole vault bar. As I mentioned the other night, Bradman’s enduring legacy is not just about statistics, or the memory of a greatness in sport never to be surpassed.
Bradman was our country’s shining light in the darkest days of the Depression. His achievements also showed a young nation, whose spirit had been so recently tested at ANZAC Cove and at Flanders Field, that it could stand on its feet in any arena. He was the taciturn symbol of an unpretentious country that is also sometimes lucky and good at games. But Bradman’s legend is also about values. No-one ever doubted Don Bradman’s patriotism, or that he was there to win for his team, his country, his sport. And of course the story doesn’t begin and end with Bradman. On Friday, Shane Warne will be inducted at Lord’s into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame.
On the surface, there could be no two different bookends for a century of Australian cricket. Different in personality, style and temperament. But like Bradman, Warnie is unmistakably Australian. No other nation or national type has his combination of larrikin cheek, mischief, mateship, zinc creamed face and bloody-minded courage — or the ability both to admit and often laugh at his own failings. No setback could vanquish Warnie – no injury or tabloid front page – could daunt those artful, subtle fingers. If Australian cricket ever had a weapon of mass destruction it was Shane Warne. And like Bradman, no one doubted Warnie’s love of Australia and his pride in playing for it. But let’s get back to this Ashes series.
While the Ashes are important to the history of the game they also remain fundamental to the very survival of Test match cricket. As abbreviated forms of the game spearhead cricket’s push into new markets, and build market share in established ones, Test cricket is undoubtedly battling for relevance. Without the Ashes, that fight looms ever larger. Because as long as the Ashes matter then Test cricket will matter. And not just in England and Australia. And it will remain an inspiration for people everywhere who harbour a passion for cricket as it has long been played, and an appreciation for the foundation that underpins the modern game.
The power of The Ashes was graphically illustrated during the 2005 English summer. On that absorbing Sunday afternoon at Edgbaston, when any one of three results was possible right up to the final ball. But that memorable finish, ridden to the end by anxious fans gathered around televisions and radios, at all hours of the day and night around the world, did so much to revive England’s appetite for test cricket. And to reawaken Australia’s hunger for a challenge. That showed — in the space of an hour or so —why the Ashes matter. The renaissance since in English cricket has led – as we have all seen in the UK media here over recent months — to the local team becoming odds on favourites to retain the Urn this summer. And in the Australian summer that follows.
But commentators predicting a 10 nil whitewash have selectively short memories. They don’t seem to recall Allan Border’s unheralded team arriving here in 1989 to much derision, and then cutting a swathe through England’s finest. They certainly don’t cast back as far as Ian Chappell’s brash young upstarts who were given no chance here in 1972, and came within a whisker of a famous campaign. So Darren, Michael and everyone in the touring party, there is history here waiting to be written.
Like Steve Waugh at Headingley and Lords in 1989, Bob Massie at Lords in 1972, and Don Bradman pretty much everywhere he went in 1934,and Ashton Agar at Trent Bridge last Thursday, the Ashes offer a stage on which to make an indelible mark. To captain an Australian team that reclaims the Ashes in England is a very exclusive club — only Bill Woodfull and Allan Border, if my memory is correct, are its members.
Of course, the fact that the upcoming Test is at Lord’s carries its own significance. Australia has a record of only two losses there over the past century but well known Aussie humility prevents us from asking the MCC to offer Australia use of the home team’s dressing room! And what’s even more certain is the visible, vocal support you will be receiving from a not so barmy army of expatriate Australians at every venue throughout the remainder of this Series
So play well brave friends — we wish you good fortune and we are certain you will do yourselves and your country proud.