As England were screwing up on a grand scale on the final day of Adelaide 2006-07, Nigel Henderson found himself drawn into an awkward and unwanted conversation with an Australian fan.
As I stood on the Southern Concourse at the Adelaide Oval, shaking with almost visible rage as Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey picked off an England that had completely lost the plot on the final day of the second Test, an Australian turned to me and said: “How good is this?”
“Not very,” I mumbled, hoping I could strangle this communication at birth.
“Pardon, mate,” he replied, not so easily shaken off.
“Not very,” I said again, this time a little louder, a rise in decibels that enabled him to clock me.
“You’re not from Adelaide, then,” he probed.
“Er… no,” I responded, aware that my nationality was becoming dangerously apparent.
“Oh, you’re a fuckin’ Pom,” he shot back, the glee undisguised. “I didn’t pick up the accent; it’s not very thick.”
A face made for punching? You would, wouldn’t you?
“Unlike England’s management team,” I observed, trying to locate some grim humour in the situation as Ashley Giles again failed to find the rough outside Ponting’s leg stump and Andrew Flintoff, the captain, looked surprised to see his Australian counterpart ease another single into an off-side field so lacking in attacking intent that even with nearly 100 runs needed, it seemed England’s three lions had rolled over, purred deeply and allowed Ponting and his team of ringmasters to rub their tummies.
“It’s worse than ’94,” I added, referring to my previous visit to these shores to watch another inept England team be blown out of the water.
“No!!!” my inquisitor boomed, hardly able to believe that I could compare the Ashes 2005 heroes, OBEs still dangling from their necks, with the no-hopers that Mike Atherton had led 12 years previously.
But, yes, this was worse. It was worse because we had expected something of this team, unlike Atherton’s men, whose predilection for self-inflicted damage was some act to follow. (Devon Malcolm caught chicken pox in Brisbane, Alec Stewart broke his right forefinger in Melbourne, England lost a pair of one-day matches to the Australian Academy on successive days, and watched as Australia A beat England to the final of the quadrangular tournament that also featured Zimbabwe. But at least they won in Adelaide and went close in Sydney).
We might not have expected to hang on to the urn, Australia having rid themselves of the complacency complex that took hold in 2005 after their easy victory at Lord’s. But I did expect more than this, about to be 2-0 down after two Tests, tickets, hostels and travel fares to Perth, Melbourne and Sydney already destabilising my bank balance.
It was said that this team, like that of 2005, had not been bowed by the experience of failure. Maybe, but on this final day they played as if they were. Or, if not the experience of failure, the fear of it. The worst thing about a worst-case scenario is that the more you consider its possibility, the more likely it becomes; it’s a close cousin of the self-fulfilling prophecy. So, when England went back to their hotel on the fourth night, they knew they could not win this Test match; but they knew, with Shane Warne beginning to turn the ball, that they could lose it.
It only needed Steve Bucknor to open the door, with an appalling bat-pad decision against Andrew Strauss, for the rest of the England team to file obediently through it. And with Warne appealing with a hysteria almost entirely at odds with the spirit of the game – whatever that means – you knew that the second or third plea would be answered in the affirmative.
That is not to disparage another world-beating performance from the greatest of spinners, but it did at least highlight some common ground between me and my acquaintance on the Southern Concourse.
“He’s great, Warnie, isn’t he?” he said before suddenly completely changing tack. “But I can’t stand him. He’s a total cockhead isn’t he? If he walked into my local, I’d smack him straight in the face.”
At that moment, I knew exactly what he meant.
This article is adapted from Nigel Henderson’s book, If It Was Raining Palaces: The Ashes Travails of a Whingeing Pom.