Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The loneliness of a long-distance Ashes follower

If you want sports nostalgia, you can't do better than Frank Keating. The veteran Guardian writer, now in his seventies, only seems to be wheeled out these days to talk about sport when all the participants are dead, but he does it beautifully.

Take this piece on the Ashes, for instance. Keating recalls his 8-year-old self listening to the 1946-47 Ashes on the wireless while away at boarding school:
"It was the week before Christmas and I swear I can remember vividly still that telling first moment I twiddled through the hiss and crackle, the strident squeals and seashell static to deduce from a faraway voice with a metallic, self‑satisfied colonial twang that Australia had declared at 659 – Barnes 234, Bradman 234 – and England were on the way to a slaughter."
The first Test slaughter is a common part of my Ashes awareness. I was ten when England last won the opening Test of an Ashes Down Under and cricket had not yet seeped into my skin. I'm afraid I have no memories of the 1986-87 Ashes.

Other events from 1986 have stuck: Space shuttle Challenger exploding, I can definitely recall. I'm pretty convinced that I remember the Government announcing plans to build the Channel Tunnel, too (there's a joke in Asterix in Britain about needing to build one, so that is probably why the news stuck). I remember the Hand of God and the Jeremy Bamber murders, which happened in a village close to ours. I remember seeing The Great Mouse Detective, Disney's take on Sherlock Holmes, at the cinema. But I don't know if I took an interest in the Ashes and Gatting's success. For shame.

That was the last Ashes tour that I did not make a point of following and the last that England won. Since then, I have fanatically been glued first to the wireless - and, rather desperately, to Teletext - then to the internet and satellite TV. In three hours' time, I will start the ritual again as England attempt to beat our old friends in their own backyard for the first time since 1986.

It will be a lonely vigil, unless my month-old daughter decides to join me, and I am sure that I will not make it far past lunchtime on any day. And then I will wake when the baby wakes, probably with an hour to go in the evening session, and switch on the TV again, wondering for half a second whether England are still in the match or whether they have again been slaughtered.

Sixty-four years ago, Keating listened to the fourth Test as the slaughter continued and found enough brief joy in a short passage of play to send his mother a brief birthday card with the line:
"Dear Mum, Happy birthday, Bedser bowled Bradman for a duck, Your loving Francis x."
She never threw the card away. Today, children would probably send it as a tweet and it would be lost almost as soon as it was received. How sad.

I end this post with a delightful tale of Keating's about the passions that listening to the Ashes in bed can arouse:
"During that victorious 1987 England trek the Observer published an unforgettable letter from a reader, Vicky Rantzen, who told how her best girlfriend was making love to her husband at dead of night when, just as mutual passion was reaching its heady heights, she noticed something in his ear.

"Ardour dampened, she pulled away and asked him what it was? "Be quiet, woman, I'm listening to the Test match from Brisbane."

1 comment:

Brian Carpenter said...

There must be something about the ritual of listening to cricket from Australia that makes you reminisce about the first time you did it, as I posted something very similar yesterday.

Brisbane 1974 for me. England wrecked by Thomson and Lillee, but Tony Greig made a great counter-attacking century.

There were half an hour's TV highlights each evening as well, lifted straight from the Aussie coverage. As a sightly strange eight year-old it was my first experience of cricket played abroad (I can't remember anything of the previous winter's West Indies tour, which was very good by all accounts), and I can still hum the signature tune 36 years later.