England had won most of the Ashes series in Gary Naylor’s young life and he had no reason to think it wouldn’t always be that way. Oh but it would, it would, as he recalls here.
England, with a little help from the Packer rebels’ absence, had won the Ashes five times out of six, with the 1975 defeat overshadowed in my 12-year-old mind by the new fangled World Cup and the 1982-83 loss in Australia not covered by television and, therefore, it possibly didn’t actually happen. I was 26 and I hadn’t really seen a half decent Australian side.
So what was the big deal? England had rolled the Aussies 3-1 on their last visit in 1985, winning the last two Tests by an innings with David Gower, Mike Gatting, Graham Gooch and even Tim Robinson (whom I knew even then was a decent county pro and not much more) averaging over 50. Ian Botham, chugging in by this stage of his career, willed a few wickets but, apart from the estimable Allan Border, Australia just seemed to surrender a few batsmen whenever the scoreboard tilted away from England, regardless of who was bowling (John Emburey, Phil Edmonds and Richard Ellison took 51 wickets between them, despite only Emburey playing in all six Tests).
It wasn’t so different a story when England sent the “Can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” squad to Australia 15 months later and defended the Ashes 2-1, Chris Broad in the Tim Robinson role and Gladstone Small the unlikely bowling hero, channeling Ellison. Yadda, Yadda, Yadda… West Indies were the best team in the world anyway, with West Indies A probably the next best.
So I didn’t take much notice of the 1989 Australians, joining in the consensus that England would retain the Ashes, the old warhorses doing the business again since the Aussies were well short of the class of even the 1985 tourists, never mind the 1948 Invincibles! I’d been promoted at work and had more money in my pocket than I knew what to do with, had spent early May inter-railing round an Eastern Europe that was changing literally in front of my eyes and had attended the cathartic post-Hillsborough FA Cup Final that seemed to confirm that the Merseyside clubs would dominate English football in the 90s as they had in the 80s. And, to top off a busy life, I was savouring the sweet torment of a torrid affair for the first time in my life.
Then, things changed. A pattern was set that would last 16 years of Ashes cricket and 26 years of my life – and counting.
I can summon the memory of the exact moment with a vivid intensity, and, inevitably, cannot reject it when it bubbles up, unwanted at least once every four years.
I’d been with the object of my affections all day – a morning breakfast at Maison Bertaux in Soho, perhaps an hour or so in Harvey Nicholls (we both worked in fashion), then on to the Michelin Building in South Kensington for a spot of lunch and two, maybe three, bottles of the terribly popular ultra-oaky New Zealand chardonnays that were all the rage then and that I can hardly drink these days, now that I know better. We probably stumbled out about three o’clock or so, squiffy but pleased with life, wondering whether to head off to Upper Street to see some of these alternative comedians that were making such a splash or to continue West to Richmond to sit by the river, glass in hand, as the sun slid below the horizon.
Before that though, I wanted to catch the score (no internet then of course) and I knew that there was a Bang & Olufsen shop with televisions a block or two down the Old Brompton Road. There, to my astonishment, on a big expensive television set, Steve Waugh, hitherto a bits and pieces one-day player, was still batting. “He’s still batting”, I said, half to convince myself. In those days, there was no score on the screen, so without the benefit of commentary, I had to wait for the camera to pan to the scoreboard to reveal the full horror. “He got a big hundred in the first Test when we couldn’t get him out and he’s 145 not out now. You do know what this means don’t you?” I didn’t get much of a reply.
Worse, Waugh was wearing the baggy green pulled low over eyes that were little more than slits , and was chewing gum – this was a man consciously conjuring the last great Australian XI, that of Ian Chappell, Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. I might have had ten glasses or so of wine and it might have been a warm afternoon, but I swear the blood drained from my face. The Kraken was awake! And that was the moment The Ashes blazed into life for me.
Australia won that Test to go 2-0 up in the series, but even worse was to follow. Rain – wonderful rain – had helped England to a draw at Edgbaston, but the hosts were smashed again at Old Trafford to go 3-0 down and surrender The Ashes as meekly as can ever have been the case before (but not, alas, since).
It was easy in those days to avoid the score – indeed, you had to go looking for it – so it was with a sense of something akin to shock that I tuned into the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News to hear that Australia had batted through the first day at Trent Bridge. And there, on the screen raising their bats as they walked off arm in arm, were the two men who had achieved this almost unthinkable feat – Geoff Marsh (125*) and Mark Taylor (141*). In contrast to Border and Waugh, who at least looked like the kind of flint-eyed gunslingers that Australian cricket could whistle up from their yards the way Yorkshire cricket could whistle up a fast bowler from the pits, these openers had all the presence of a couple of estate agents from Moonee Ponds, the Melbourne suburb made famous by Dame Edna Everage. These two? History? Really?
Within a year, the girl had gone, a job taking her to the other side of the world. I bought a subscription to a new satellite television service which would, incredibly, find enough sport to fill a whole channel 24 hours a day! That, and, looming on the horizon, the Information Superhighway – which was like Ceefax, but I could have it on my work computer updating scores ball-by-ball – would revolutionise my access to Test cricket and give me no excuse not to watch as much as I possibly could. Which I did – and do.
Four years later, Merseyside’s domination of football was not working out as expected, but maybe the cricket would revert to type? Just when I thought it might be safe, I ducked out of Islington’s Design Centre where I had taken a party of students for a trade show and found a pub showing the first Ashes Test of 1993. I’d read a bit in The Cricketer about the blond wildchild beach bum of a legspinner with the ear-ring and the banter, and now I was going to see him bowl. He didn’t look much of an athlete as he tossed the ball from hand to hand, stuck his tongue out and walked a few steps to the crease to bowl his first ball in Ashes cricket. Mike Gatting was probably thinking the same thing…
This article first appeared on WisdenIndia and is reproduced with permisssion.