My entry for the Wisden Writing Competition, written mainly during the first session of the Ashes. It was about as good as it got…
High blue skies, streaked with scudding cloud. Antipodean heat and baked earth. Early summer. A new ground in the old country.
James Anderson cocked, focussing over a curled left arm, the classic action of Trueman and Lillee. Potential energy thrumming; bowler as Futurist cyclist. When he releases, right arm whipping through, the Ashes will begin. The cod psychology, the mind games, the mental disintegration. Another deposit of cricketing history, added to the coloured strata of more than a hundred years of matches. Anderson, the latest incarnation of the English bowler trope, facing Chris Rogers, the batsman’s Celtic freckles a reminder of the local origins of this trans-global clash. Rogers seems weathered by hours at the crease in the sunburnt country, his hair the red of outback sand. His opening partner, David Warner, perceived as little more than nasty, brutish and short by the English Fourth Estate, bristles, moustachioed and mercurial. The clash between his twenty-teens Twenty20 technique and his ‘seventies Lillian Thomson temperament has made a marketable miscreant. There is hardly a breathless hush in the Gabba – Stuart Broad draws the majority of profanities – but the richness of cricketing culture and history is palpable in the turbid Brisbane heat.
The first ball. Anderson will hope for a seemly arc back towards the batsman, the subtleties of invisible physics and the bowler’s art colluding for swing. Rogers will hope to feel the reassuring tangibility of a middled stroke, or the exhalation of a leave, the tactic Gideon Haigh called “Fabian batsmanship”. Warner’s ready to run. Careers could be made or lost, injuries could be sustained, reputations reinforced or shattered. The entrails have been examined, the omens augured. The pitch has been dissected, the forecast consulted. Portentous words will be spoken by those who ought to know better; predictions made and forgotten. Minor breakthroughs will be heralded and discarded; the flames of controversies fanned and left to burn out.
The first ball. The first note in the concerto of a test match. Extrapolate all you like. Even Steven Harmison’s greasy palmed opening salvo in 2006 was an aberration only compounded by England’s repeated mediocrity. But it lives in the memory as a distillation of the contest, the inevitable result of five tests condensed into imagery. A bad start can be expunged through good cricket – few remember Andrew Strauss’s first over dismissal in 2010. The opening delivery is merely an introduction, the first step of a journey. The trajectory of each delivery leaves an invisible path, the patina of thousands of balls interpreted into narrative, a sporting Songline for the new Australia. Millions of potential events lie between this Anderson delivery and the final delivery at the SCG. Millions of potential series exist. Which will occur? Why? Why are we watching? Why are they playing?! Maybe it’s best not to think too much, better to sit back and enjoy. After all, it’s only a game and it’s afoot. The fielders in the slips might not stand like greyhounds, but the two nations and their representatives on the baize of the outfield strain up on the start.