Words vs Actions – why cricket in Australia still has a long way to go.

Welcome to Summer in Perth

It’s Summer here in Perth. It gets hot – it always has, and there is no doubt that it’s getting hotter, and will continue to do so.

Tomorrow, 12 December 2019, is a historic day for cricket in Western Australia. It will be the start of Perth’s first ever Day/Night Test Match, against New Zealand. It is to be played at the new Burswood Stadium, which has replaced the much-loved, but woefully inadequate, WACA ground as the home of major cricket matches in Perth.

But, apart from questions about how the drop-in pitch will play, there is another huge concern – the weather. Perth has never had more than two days of 40C or above in December, but that record is about to be challenged. The maximum temperatures forecast for the first four days at Burswood ar 41°C, 42°C, 41°C and 41°C. Even by Perth standards, this is a serious heatwave, particularly so early in the Summer. In the middle of what is, effectively, a massive concrete heat sink, temperatures are expected to be well in excess of 50°C, and significantly more for a fully protected batsman under the helmet.

burswood chart

Who Else Is Playing?

At 8.00 am on Saturday morning, my 9 and 11 year old grandsons, along with thousands of other junior cricketers, are due to start 3-4 hours of cricket, as they do throughout the season. It’s forecast to be 31° when they start, and to reach 40° by 11.00 am. Tonight, their club committee will discuss whether to call off the games in the interests of the players’ health and safety. I’m very much hoping that they will take pity and let everyone stay out of the burning sun. But when they make that decision, one of the things that has an impact is the extent of the leadership, or lack of it, shown by Cricket Australia, and State cricket bodies. 

In responding to questions about the extreme heat they will face in the Test match, both Australian and New Zealand players and officials have, understandably, spoken about the conditions being something you have to deal with; that “it’s a battle of endurance and fitness as well as skill”, to quote Australian coach Justin Langer. It’s true, too, that these are highly conditioned athletes, with superb levels of fitness, and that, other than when the pitch is dangerous, it has rarely been up to the players to dictate what is a safe playing environment.

We’re on Fire, too!

Last week, as a result of bushfires which have already destroyed an area in New South Wales which is larger than Wales itself, Sydney was shrouded in dense smoke. Hundreds of buildings were evacuated as fire alarms were tripped. Ferries on the Harbour stopped due to low visibility. Air quality was up to 12 times the hazardous level. Cricket NSW had advised its clubs on the previous weekend to consider canceling play because of the smoke hazard. But, with NSW on the brink of victory in their Sheffield Shield game, play at the Sydney Cricket Ground carried on despite the appalling conditions.

We doubt the SCG has seen many days like this before.

Big Steps on Mental Health

There is no doubt that the last few years have seen a very refreshing shift on the part of most cricket administrators towards mental health issues for professional players. While some countries have made greater progress than others, it is clear that, particularly in Australia, there has been a massive move past the “Toughen up, princess” approach which was prevalent for so long. It is hard to overstate the significance of this example to the rest of the community of how the long-hidden and suppressed mental health issues need to have light shone upon them, and to have proper support mechanisms put in place. This in a country where suicide is the biggest single cause of death for males aged from 18-45. I can only applaud the joint initiatives taken by Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers Association to so dramatically turn this around.

What is the Message on Physical Health, Though?

But then we come to the question of physical conditions for players. To all those junior cricketers out there every weekend, the likes of Warner, Williamson, Smith, Cummins, Starc and Lyon are heroes. They aren’t just highly skilled, but they are tough, resilient, and never back down! In many ways, they are great exemplars, but, for junior players in particular, there is also the message: “Be tough, never show your weakness“.

What doesn’t get articulated, though, is how important the issue of self-care is. That, when your body is telling you to stop, it should be listened to, not ignored. That the concept of “beating the pain barrier” is one which might be valid for some professional, fit, informed athletes, but which is not a universal requirement. Even then, there is cause for concern that players can be blind to their own best interests when they perceive that the interests of their team, nay, even their nation, are at stake. The sense of a war, rather than a game, can lead them to do what is often regarded as heroic, but which, in hindsight, is unwise, and sometimes dangerous. The memory of Dean Jones’ epic 210 in the tied Test in Chennai in 1986 springs to mind as an extreme example.

It’s Getting Hotter!

The example set by Cricket Australia around players’ physical health and safety is hugely important. The impact of their stand on mental health is indicative of how a similar show of concern around playing in heat, and smoke, can directly affect the actions of so many others. And yet, it seems the “toughen up” message continues to be writ large.

This is an issue which will only get worse. We face ever hotter Summers, and parents who will, rightly, discourage children from playing if they see it as hazardous. This country has a legacy of the highest rate of melanoma in the world, largely as a result of inaction despite all the warning signs being apparent. The same applies right now, and we need Cricket Australia to step away from financial considerations and give the top priority to protecting the long term health of players at all levels, by quickly developing very clear guidelines on safe heat levels for playing cricket.

Disclaimer: I claim absolutely no qualifications in the medical disciplines, but I have elite expertise, born of living this long, in the bleeding obvious.

Postscript.

As I was about to leave for the cauldron of Burswood Stadium, I was delighted to receive the advice that the South Perth Junior Cricket Club has decided to cancel all games this weekend!
south perth

 

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Guerillas in the Night

What a perfectly shitty morning it was – I’d just been to the vet, and held my beautiful 16 year old dog as she breathed her last. Tears, grief, gratitude and love were bouncing around my head. It was 44⁰ in the shade, and my mind was melting.

And then the extraordinary happened. Playing in the background was the stream of the previous night’s match between South Africa and England on Guerilla Cricket, when, all of a sudden everything changed. Two very familiar, and extremely slurred, voices materialised, announcing that, as it was 4.00 am and they were at a loose end, they had decided to commentate on England vs Namibia Under 19s. Thus began six hours of what may well go down as the most remarkable world wide cricket broadcast in history.

Guerilla Cricket – crazy but wonderful!

Perhaps I should explain a bit about Guerilla Cricket, though they’re a hard mob to categorise. From where I sit, it seems that the basic prerequisites to become a Guerilla are an absolute passion for cricket, an extremely affable nature, a willingness to divulge pretty well every personal secret, a good sense of humour, and a healthy disrespect for the cricket establishment. The ability to consume copious amounts of alcohol, mild insanity, and left-leaning political views are an advantage, but not mandatory. Every time England play, and some other games as well, they gather together in front of a muted TV and give their listeners a ball by ball commentary, and some of them are pretty damn good at it – it’s a skill which is a lot harder than it seems. There is so much more, too – every player and event is greeted with an appropriate jingle, some inspired, some not so much, and there is discussion; discussion of everything from the cricket itself, to art, drama, classics, literature, fashion, music, cheese (!) – indeed anything that takes someone’s fancy. Nothing is off-limits; the language can be colourful, but rarely gross, the humour is good, and the cricket always remains at the centre. Occasional guests, be they authors, cricketers, comics or just fans, are invited to add to the colour, and there is a sense of being part of a group of fellow enthusiasts, simply enjoying cricket and all that comes with it.

And then there’s us, the Guerillerati, listening all over the world (in several hundred countries, apparently!), getting to know everything about our commentators, and about the cricket, of course. I’m sure there are those who are happy just to listen, but many of us become a part of the whole process via Twitter. Getting tweets read out includes us in the conversation in a way which is both involving and highly addictive. Tweets are often very funny, perceptive, informative and involving. Never, ever, are they abusive or unpleasant – it’s the most positive social media environment I have ever encountered. Occasionally I’ll get tetchy if the debate is so intense that the tweets aren’t being read out – it’s because I feel like I’m being left out of the discussion, and the point I wanted to make passed some time ago! That’s how much I feel a part of it. By the end of it all, I know more about their personal lives, vices, prejudices and talents than I know about many of my friends! Indeed, I had the pleasure of spending a day with them in January, and it felt like I had known them for ever – like greeting old friends.

The Ash Wednesday Enlightenment

And so, to the night in question. Cue the main protagonists – Roger, a Northern Irishman, born in Jamaica, a professional classical musician, with a radio voice to die for, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things to do with cricket; a great sense of humour, and the ability to remain steady during any crisis. And Katie, who has generously let the Guerillas broadcast from her London flat for the past few months, an effervescent cricket-lover, an artist, raconteur and teacher with a huge range of expertise in Latin, fashion, literature, music, art, partying, name-dropping, and much else besides (I say expert in the sense that she knows more about all of these subjects than I).

On Shrove Tuesday, during the broadcast of the SA vs England ODI, having made pancakes for all assembled, Katie declared that, as she intended to swear off alcohol for Lent, she fancied having a few last drinks before it started. Although details are sketchy, it would seem that the crew subsequently adjourned to the local hostelry, consumed considerable amounts of Little Creatures ale, followed by an unknown number of bottles of champagne. Back at the flat, at around 4.00am, having exhausted Katie’s Benjamin Britten catalogue, someone switched on the TV and noticed that Sky were covering the Under-19 game between England and Namibia. At this point, automatic reflexes cut in – “cricket is on the TV, we need to commentate on it”. So they did.

I was delighted! It was as if, to distract me from my grief, a couple of old friends had dropped around to talk about the cricket and chew the fat, despite them being ten thousand miles away from Perth. The fact that there were probably only three of us listening made it all the more intimate – sane English people were still sound asleep, so it was those of us across the other side of the globe who were there to share it all. Roger was less than happy with Katie’s choice of Vivaldi for background music, but tolerated it when we supported her. Katie was decidedly unimpressed when I suggested she might not be able to abstain for the whole of Lent as she was too bibulous (excessively fond of alcohol), and immediately demanded to know the supine of “bibere” (it’s bibitum if you’re interested – I hope you find a use for that). We were appalled to discover that at least four of the English Under-19s were well past their 19th birthdays. We all disappointed Katie because none of us had read Middlemarch and couldn’t discuss it with her; and there was a minor crisis when the champagne appeared to have run out, but another was fortunately unearthed, albeit warm but drinkable. Those of us listening, whatever our own time of day, were forced to start drinking just to keep them company. There was a “Katiedote” concerning trying to teach her students about “Post hoc ergo propter hoc”, and appropriate examples…. and so it went for several hours.

“The Lights are Going on All Over Paris…”

As time passed, the word started to spread, and while some wilted, others joined up, almost invariably starting off with a “wtf?” comment. Or, as Robert in Paris put it when he joined us at 5.15 “Is this real? How drunk are you people? Jesus. Should one of us intervene?“. And we had a ball! A crisis at 5.45, when the feed dropped out. As Robert said, “It’s heartbreaking. This was radio history. I was watching all the lights on my street blink on as folk tuned in.” But after a couple of minutes the feed was back, and we all partied on. People were re-arranging their days so they would not miss a minute, and growing numbers of incredulous and bleary-eyed English listeners were having their most exciting breakfast in years. Could they last? Would the alcohol last? Would Hendo go incandescent when he tuned in? And, of course, was it being recorded for posterity? By 7, the pace was starting to tell, as Katie came to a standstill, and had to go and “rest her eyes” for 30 minutes. Never one to resist a challenge, though, Roger upped his game and went into monologue mode (à la James Joyce, as a couple of tweeters noted). It truly became a tour de force, as he reported on the cricket, responded to our tweets, and regaled us with his mother’s wit and wisdom. Going solo had its drawbacks, of course – no jingles, and the occasional lengthy silence as physical demands were attended to, but every time, just as we were beginning to think we had lost him, he came back, fighting fit and determined to get through to stumps! He even managed to revive a very woozy Katie, but her stamina couldn’t match his, and she soon had to absent herself to “make her bed” (and therefore to lie on it, as Roger surmised).

And Still He Goes…

And get through he did, as Namibia folded to a disappointing 93 all out after 25 overs, and we thought that was that. But we were wrong! With the bit between his teeth, Roger was determined to carry on, so, from God knows where, he dug up highlights videos from various games over the last 15 years, and proceeded to cover them as well – even managing to be surprised at the turns of events which he had committed to memory in the distant past. For all I know he’d be going on still had it not been for a knock on the door around 10 o’clock, after which nothing was to be heard but the occasional snore.

And so ended a truly remarkable broadcast, one which, for many a year, will stick in the minds of those of us who were lucky enough to be a part of it, particularly for the first three hours or so, when the alcohol and serotonin were at the height of their powers. However much Roger and Katie may have suffered the next day, I can promise that it was worth every brain-cell lost – a memory that will become folklore in the annals of Guerilla Cricket’s rich history! As I signed off (with apologies for somewhat distorting Shakespeare), “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! The rest is silence. Thanks for a formidable performance.”

And it reminded me of what cricket can be and do – so much more than the game itself, it has provided, for me at least, a hugely rich tapestry of connection with like-minded people who share the passion and appreciate one another. Thank you, Guerillas and Guerillerati all, you have undoubtedly changed my life for the better! Indeed, you make the world a better place to be.

The WACA – A Fond Obituary

Myth And Reality in a Unique Cauldron

I’ve been lucky, really lucky. I have seen some fantastic cricket at the WACA.

and so on….

I even got to see some great football matches there, when the West Coast Eagles used it. It was a great place for watching football, but I guess it didn’t hold enough spectators, and God knows what the curator thought of the way they ploughed up the square. I even saw a very ordinary Rolling Stones gig there in 1973 – NOT a good concert venue!

In the Beginning……

waca 1970
The WACA during the inaugural 1970 Test

Perth was SO proud of itself when it got its first test in 1970. With a population of just 750,000 (now 2m), Perth has sometimes been described as a city with a well balanced approach to life, as a result of having equally large chips on both shoulders. Here was a chance to prove that Perth was the equal of any other Australian city! $400,000 was raised, partly by public subscription, to improve facilities, and they constructed, not very well, the “Test Stand”, later to be renamed, very appropriately, after John Inverarity. It was basically a concrete edifice, where many of the seats were still in the sun for a lot of the day, but it was a “proper” stand nonetheless. There was something of a carnival atmosphere around this very special occasion, and Perth went on an orgy of self congratulation. Crowds totaled 84,142, almost twice the crowd in Brisbane, and gate receipts were three times those of Brisbane at $106,748. (that’s an average of $1.27 per head, or $14 in today’s terms!) And everyone was extraordinarily pleased with themselves. Never mind that the pitch was dead, leading to a predictable draw – it at least enabled the celebration to last a full six days (remember the good old rest days?)!

PENTAX Image
Queens Gardens

For all the new fangled development, though, the WACA retained a very real character and charm. Those of us coming from the city would approach (and still do) through the beautiful tranquility of Queens Gardens, and enter into an arena where the predominant colour was green. There were plenty of grassy banks, and the terraced benches were on grass rather than concrete. Between what is now the Lillee-Marsh Stand and the scoreboard, there were plenty of terraced wooden benches under corrugated iron roofing, which provided a great view and plenty of shade on a hot day, at an excellent price. On many a day I recall my young children happily playing in the dirt, consuming the sandwiches and cordial we took in, with the occasional, reasonably priced, ice cream. A good cheap day out, it was. The beer prices were affordable, perhaps too affordable, judging by the state of some of the barrackers, but there was always a friendly, good natured atmosphere about it all. I LOVED those days, before work and family responsibilities dragged me away and left it all a distant memory.

….and in the End

WACA 2015
The WACA 2015 – Australia vs New Zealand

Perth has changed. Cricket has changed. WE have changed. And, by God, how the WACA has changed!

Apart from the historic scoreboard, and the badly-aligned Inverarity Stand, not much remains of the “old” WACA, least of all its friendly, welcoming atmosphere. Despite a few token patches of grass, it’s basically a concrete and plastic heat sink. Gone is the charm and easy-going mood, and the cheap shaded seats. I considered going to this last test against New Zealand, I really did. But the prospect of sitting in sweaty plastic seats (give me wooden benches any day) in the very hot sun, with no shade, paying high admission prices, and queuing to pay a ridiculous amount for mediocre food and half strength beer was not attractive. Sitting cool in my comfy armchair, in front of a muted TV, listening to Jim Maxwell, Dirk Nannes and Geoff Lemon on the ABC, while furiously exchanging indignant tweets about every event in the game – that was a much more attractive option. Not the same as being there, I know, but I have become soft and stingy in my old age, and what I saved was enough to buy a good meal AND a great hat from the inimitable and wonderful Guerilla Cricket! I really would have loved to have been there for Kane Williamson‘s sublime century, but I don’t regret my decision!

Yes, there’s been plenty of redevelopment of the WACA in the last 45 years, but what’s there now for me, the ordinary fan? From my perspective, it seems as if the great bulk of the comfort and shade is there for members, corporate sponsors and those with deep pockets. There is a very important word in there: SHADE. If you haven’t come to Perth, let me tell you something about it. It get HOT, very hot. And it’s been getting hotter! It’s two weeks until Summer is meant to start, and last week, for the NZ Test, it was 39° (a century in the old money). That’s nuts!

Meanwhile, we are getting increasingly addicted to our own comfort. In 1970, air conditioned cars were a rarity. These days, I doubt if you can buy a new car without air conditioning. The same in homes. Generally, the heat is not something we are forced to endure any more, especially without shade. UNLESS you go to the outer at the WACA. For some unknown reason, the WACA has failed to spend even a modest amount to provide shade for us plebs. I heard their CEO trying to justify their actions the other day, and my interpretation of what she said was somewhere between “I don’t give a shit”, and “toughen up or pay more”. No wonder the WACA is doomed!

…and that Pitch????

Of course, until last week, there were many bemoaning the loss of the “famous” WACA wicket, with the planned move to the outrageously extravagant Perth Stadium in a couple of years. Like so much in life, memories can be somewhat selective about what the “good old days” actually gave us!

But first, let me look at a few figures:

  • Of the 42 Tests played in Perth, 8 were drawn (only 1, an amazing heartstopper against NZ, was close). There were 12 innings victories, and 10 victories by 150 runs or more. Only 2 came anywhere near to close – a 35 run victory and a 2 wicket victory. 12 were over in 4 days, and a remarkable 8 took just 3 days. It’s not a ground of tight finishes. More often than not, one side will completely dominate the other.
  • Four of the eight fastest test centuries ever made were at the WACA (Gilchrist, Warner, Gayle and Fredericks). No other ground features more than once in the top 20.
  • The WACA was the scene of Australia’s best post war bowling performance (McGrath 8-24) and best ever batting performance (Hayden 380)

So, it’s true that a lot has happened in a short time at the WACA. With just 42 of the almost 2,200 tests played, it’s certainly over-represented in the record books. The outfield was usually lightening fast (though I do recall an occasion when the top dressing made it almost beach-like), so anything snicked through the slips would be at the boundary in a trice.

But it’s also true that, despite all the hype, a lot didn’t happen. That very first test, 45 years ago, saw just 1,224 runs for the loss of 29 wickets, at only 2.4 per 6 ball over (they were 8 ball overs back then). In 1971, I remember, with considerable discomfort, the sight of Bill Lawry taking over 7 hours to grind out 116 against a WA attack of Lillee, McKenzie and Massie. Regrettably, that was the day I had chosen to introduce my new wife to the joys of Shield cricket – she managed to read 7 chapters of her book, and never returned! In 1978, a dour Geoff Boycott managed just 63 runs in a full day’s play. In 1985, five days yielded just 925 runs at just 2.1 runs per over. And finally, of course, there was the road produced for the NZ match last week , which was always destined to produce a draw.

So, it’s not so much a matter of the WACA wicket not being what it used to be, but rather it not being what it sometimes used to be. Frankly, there’s probably a better chance of getting a decent drop-in pitch at the new stadium than there is of the WACA producing the “pace and bounce” we were promised a couple of weeks ago.

So in saying farewell to the WACA, I’m not so much sad as appreciative of what it offered before it tried, rather unsuccessfully, to grow up into a “real” stadium. It’s just not cut out for that, so I just say thanks for the chance to experience something that I will always remember with fondness.

…one last thing… PLEASE WA Cricket Association, don’t try to hold the “smaller” Tests at the WACA. Once the new stadium is available, put all the Tests there – the last thing we want is another fiasco like last week. I would go to the stadium, but not the WACA, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Oh, and stop charging ridiculous entry prices! (Have a look at this great piece by Geoff Lemon)

waca scoreboard 2013
Ashes 2013