Travelling tittle-tattle, tall tales and shameless name-dropping by Jon ‘Don’t Call Me’ Norman

About Me

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The return of the long-forgotten goosebump

I don’t know whether it was the non-stop bitter drinking, the exposure to 48 hours of incessant sun or the glorious giddiness that comes about after watching England win The Ashes, but ever since I awoke last Monday with a big grin on my face and the thought “Thank god I’ve got today off.” I’ve struggled for inspiration.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time since trying to work out just how I explain the events of the weekend before last and what it means to me. But my brain just isn’t working properly. I’m at a loss. I’m a bit brain dead. A bit befuddled. The words aren’t coming out as I’d like and outside of "yeaaarrgghhhhh!!!!!" I’m not sure what I want to say.

So instead of reading my take on Graeme Swann sealing the triumph and the subsequent wild celebrations why not just watch it instead.



Celebration time was 5.48pm on the Sunday afternoon. Within ten minutes of when I'd kind of tipped the series to come to a conclusion. So many reasons to feel smug! Even though Fulham couldn’t add to what turned out to be a miraculous weekend I didn't let it affect my great mood.

Days one and two have already been discussed. But day three more than lived up to what was soon to follow. Opting to leave proceedings early at the Pilgrim Pub in Kennington on the Friday night to ensure I would wake up the next day fresh was one of my better decisions.

But unlike Brisbane when I left my mates in the pub the evening before the first days play of the series. I was about to witness the end of this particular chapter of Ashes history as a punter and I couldn’t be more excited.

Helped, of course, by the fact that England were in the ascendency thanks to Stuart Broad, my lord. I needed no excuse to get up out of bed by 9am and with 06/07 Barmy Army shirt on my back, flip flops on my feet. man-bag over my shoulder and trusty ‘Brooms Head’ cricket hat on my head I was soon set.

I met up with various friends and family members outside the ground and excitedly made my way into the stadium. I could have foregone the queues by flashing my ECB pass but so caught up in the moment I wanted to experience all that a paying punter goes through. And this meant an ever more thorough rub down by the attentive security guard; but more importantly merchandise! I always buy a Barmy Army shirt for the tours I follow and considering I’d watched nearly the whole series I stopped off at the Barmy Army stall to pick up a new shirt.

Ten minutes later I was sitting in my seat in Block 16 of the Bedser Stand with the first beer of the day in hand, my brother and friends alongside me and in a completely relaxed frame of mind. For the tenth time this summer I watched the opera guy sing his rendition of 'Jerusalem' as the Australians ran onto the pitch. I gazed up at the big screen to see the all too familiar replays of Ashes contests of the past. But this time I joined in with the growing roar that greeted the two English batsmen as they appeared our of their dressing room, ran down the steps and onto the ground.

For this was different from the opening passages of play I'd seen this summer. For this time I was at play with my professional hat to the side. A fan at the cricket with a half drunk beer before the clock had struck 11 in the morning. I was a bloke watching cricket in the sun and it felt good. So good that when the final strains of jerusalem rang out I cast my sight across the ground, taking in the fans and all that surrounded me and it gave me goosebumps. It's been a while since that happened.

For the first session of the day I basked in all that you take for granted while watching cricket. The guy next to you who confidently says 'good shot' every time the batsman gets anything on the ball. The bloke who whistles or groans anytime a batsman is forced into a defensive shot on the back foot. Or the women who get bored after the first couple of hours and just start nattering away about what their kids are up to. It was all good stuff.

The remainder of a truly glorious day was then spent doing what people do when they've got nothing else to do but sit in the sun and watch cricket. Drink! And make those unfortunate enough to be sitting anywhere nearby suffer.

Photobucket

The poor lady sitting the row in front of me will be delighted to hear that karma came good. As within a few hours I was waking up on my sofa fully clothed with the TV blaring and a full body sweat on. You know when you wake up after a days drinking and feel so horrendous that getting back to sleep is an impossibility? Well I went through every position a prone body can go through before sleep once again came my way.

The following morning promised more of the same. But as England had once again had the better of things the day loomed large with the distinct possibility that I could actually witness The Ashes come home. No hangover in the world could prevent that from puting a smile back on my face and I dragged myself out of bed once more to meet a new set of fresh faced friends ready for a big day at the cricket. And if I needed any reminding of how big a day in English sport this could be I got it from a succession of beaming and animated faces - joyous that their one days cricket a year could offer such a monumental possibility.

And after two early wickets spirits were high that England could wrap things up in the day. We settled down to some serious sun-tanning and waited for the procession of Aussie wickets. At the stroke of midday drinks were called for with a chaser of 'one more wicket before lunch, please'.

But it was not forthcoming and with Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey looking comfortable at the crease those oh-so familiar fears started to resurface. Every delivery allowed to go through to the keeper elicited a sigh. Every single or scampered two brought forth a quick scan at the scoreboard & recalculation of the target. Every boundary evoked a groan and a comment along the lines of "I feel sick" or "they're gonna bloody win" / "this would be worse than Adelaide" or "I'll never watch cricket again". It was Lords all over again.

But then, a full three hours after our last wicket, Michael Hussey hit a quick single to Freddie Flintoff at wide mid on and called Ricky Ponting through for the run. I couldn't have been in a better position in the ground to see it being 180 degrees to where Freddie was fielding as he flung down the stumps with Ponting short of the crease. Cue bedlam. And when Michael Clarke went six balls later to another farcical run out the mood in the camp had improved immeasurably. For now The Ashes
were certainly coming home and boy, were we going to celebrate.

Photobucket

Another partnership between Hussey and Brad Haddin did have us all chewing what fingernails were left. But that had more to do with wanting to see all the action that day. It would have been an anti-climax to have to come back the next day for half an hour or so. How things had changed.

With the clock going past five in the afternoon I was aware but uncaring of events at Craven Cottage. And with five wickets remaining it looked like play would continue to the fifth day. But thankfully Steve Harmison and Graeme Swann had other plans. And Harmison's two in two sparked scenes in the stands that reminded me of more positive moments of my Adelaide experience and led to a stage in the game never before experienced.

Photobucket

And so we settled down to wait. With pictures and videos being taken at regular intervals we chattered animatedly amongst ourselves and with new friends in and around our seats. We high fived, we sang songs, we saluted Stuart Broad (again) and then, with 12 minutes to six on the clock, Graeme Swann approached the wicket, bowled the ball, Michael Hussey prodded forward and nickec an inside edge onto his pad and to the fielder stationed at short leg. And we all went a bit mental.

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

And after the England players hugged on the field and we hugged in the stands both sets of Englishmen applauded each other. Fireworks popped, arms were raised, cheers were made and we all waved goodbye to Freddie.

Photobucket

And he waved right back.

Photobucket

And after a couple of hours spent at a nearby pub that was about it. More amazing drunken cricket memories to add to the bank. Another day to be talked about long into the future and long into the night. Another cross in the book of things to do before you die - or kids get in the way.

And yet, as I made my way back from the ground, as I sat at my desk during the following week, as I rode the bus to and from work I couldn't escape a nagging feeling. A feeling that maybe this story wasn't completed on that Sunday afternoon at The Oval. A feeling that while one chapter has come to an end this particular book hasn't been closed. And it won't ever be closed and put away until one more thing happens that I'm there to see for myself. And hopefully that thing will happen at in someone else's backyard at the end of next year. Anyone say, "The Ashes 2010/11"?

Because, after all,

"We won the Ashes at The Oval
We won the Ashes at The Oval
We won the Ashes at The Oval
And we'll win it at The SCG"

Friday, 21 August 2009

Mixed emoticons

Forgive me if you've heard this one before..........A friend of mine called Alex had a trip to Australia planned. He was to set off from England, take in the sights of India and parts of Asia before arriving in Sydney around Christmas time where he'd stay with his best mate Damien.

As with most trips of this magnitiude it took a lot of planning a long time in advance. And Alex was delighted when he realised that England would be playing the final Ashes Test of the 02/03 series in Sydney a day after he got into town. The minute he found this out he was immediately on the phone to Damien to ensure he arranged tickets for the both of them. Day two at the SCG. What a way to finish off the holiday of a lifetime and welcome in the new year at the same time.

As the months ticked down to departure he received regular reassurance that the tickets were to be forthcoming. Damien worked in the city and was confident he could source two seats at the corporate end of the scale. Alex boarded his flight to India with a spring in his step.

A three month tour followed taking in the greatest sights India, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand can offer. But at no point did Alex ever lose sight of what he really wanted. A ticket at the SCG watching Australia versus England.......You can pretty much guess the rest.

With weeks to go until he got to Australia Alex received the news he was most dreading. Damien hadn't come good with the tickets. Despite having a year to arrange he'd relied on friends even less trustworthy than he'd ended up being. Alex would not be one of the 45,000 going to the ball.
By the time Alex and England rocked up in Sydney the series was lost. But despite the 4-0 scoreline there was something riding on the contest for the feeling within Australia was that this was to be the legendary Aussie captain, Steve Waugh's last ever Test match. And on day one of the match, the time Alex arrived in Sydney, England were making a game of it at last.

And so it came to pass that the day that Alex was supposed to be at the SCG he was in fact watching it on TV on a sofa in a house in Sydney, a stones throw from the cricket ground, close enough to hear every cheer, gasp and roar from the capacity crowd as Steve Waugh struggled to hold together the Australian first innings.

For England were by now on top. Andy Caddick and Steve Harmison had reduced Australia to 200-odd for five after England had posted 362 in their first innings. But Waugh was playing in his final Test at his home ground in front of his own people and he was not to be denied. With the clock ticking down he moved into the 90's and with just one over left in the day was four short of a historic hundred.

As the crowd starting stamping their feet and banging their fists on the advertising hoardings that final over was about to be bowled by the off-spinner Richard Dawson. He didn't know it at the time but though it was to be his final Test match he was moments from writing himself into the history books.

As Alex got comfortable on the sofa the first three deliveries were defended. But amid deafening noise the fourth ball was hit for three runs to leave Waugh on 98 but stranded at the non-strikers end. Adam Gilchrist found himself on strike and he became an immediate hero by sneaking a single off the penultimate ball of the day.

By now Alex had only to open the window above his head a notch to hear the crowd baying for their local boy to hit the runs to register the most famous of all his 32 centuries. Dawson approached the wicket and turned his arm over. Momentarily the noise was silenced as the ball travelled through the air, it dipped, bounced and Waugh cut it away majestically to the boundary for four and his hundred.

Both English and Australian fans went crazy and back in his former friend's living room Alex watched on TV. Then after a suitable pause to take in all that had just happened the legendary cricket commentator, Richie Benaud said the four words that drove home just what Alex had missed that day. "Best days cricket......ever."

I've dined out on that particular story for a few years now. And today I lived it for myself. For after watching an intense but relatively uneventful morning session I was left The Oval today under dark clouds. With covers on the pitch I walked the short distance to the Pilgrim Pub on Kennington Lane where I was to produce a live show for talkSPORT between 4-7pm.

I left my dad, sister, brother-in-law, friends and work colleagues at the ground and made my way to a pub the other side of the gas holders, synonymous with Surrey Cricket Club. So close that I could hear the crowd roar every time a wicket fell; at least it meant I never missed a wicket on the television. Eight times I looked up at the screen on cue; in one magical session of Test match cricket. It was the definitive session of the summer. And I was in the pub.

Oh woe is me, WOE IS ME!!!!!!!!!! How could it come to all this? After winding my way across the planet and back watching England get pounded by the Aussies I had to go and leave the ground then. Ah, who am I kidding? I've got tickets for tomorrow and Sunday. And for once I'm not working which means I can drink a beer, cheer at the top of my voice, punch the air, shout and dance and get act thoroughly unprofessional as England, hopefully, win the Ashes in front of my eyes. Bring it on muthaf*ckers!!!!!!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The ageing process

Sitting on the steps between the press box and the punters in the Vauxhall Road End you'd have been forgiven for thinking I was watching a public hanging. With hands wringing and nails a'biting I spent most of the day peering up at the heavens or with my eyes fixed superstitiously on the bowlers run up convinced that if I concentrated enough then so would the batsmen.

The morning session was as tense as I can remember seeing in the flesh. Sure, there have been many instances in the past that has seen me nervously pace around the living room watching a valiant rear guard action. Hell, my life seems to have been spent pretty much doing nothing but. But I couldn't recall ever actually being at a single days play with so much riding on it. And I couldn't remember ever feeling quite so ill during a days play either.

And it wasn't just a final game, winner takes all Ashes win that occupied my mind on the short journey to the ground. With friends and family attending the first four days I attempted to envisage a perfect scenario whereby everyone English would be catered for but that wouldn't involve such perfect weather to make batting too easy for the Aussies. It was more difficult than you'd think. Especially when bringing the toss into the equation.

The big fear was that under blameless skies, Ricky Ponting would win the toss and the Aussies would be out of sight by the end of the first days play. Thankfully he called incorrectly but this just added to the tension. For the last time England won the toss and batted they made 102 and were out of the game by lunch. That was last week. Even my memory isn't so bad that I could forget that.

So I spent the first session with head in hands (between deliveries) and a refusal to get carried away as England went to lunch on top. In this respect I was well served. As is England's want, a promising situation was thrown away as they lost wickets at regular intervals. But such is the weakness of the English mentality some solace was garnered from the fact that at least we were making a fight of things.

By the end of the days play both sets of former player turned pundits were making a good case for England's 306 for 8 not being too far off a par score. Much notice was taken of the way the pitch appeared to be breaking up and offering big turn so early in the match. With runs on the board England, some were saying, were in the box seat.

But until we see the Aussies bat all judgement will be rested. Even if 350 is a par score I can't see them making much less. All of which would set things up rather nicely in a game that now looks destined to end in a result either way. Tonight, I suppose, I will go to sleep reasonably content that England live to fight another day. Which says a lot about my expectations as an English cricket fan.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

5.55pm on a Sunday afternoon

It's a time of the week that immediately brings to mind images of Harry Secombe boring half of England senseless on the old ITV show Highway. It was a rival to BBC's Songs of Praise and featured the former Goodie singing Christian songs on hillsides up and down the country.

Every week its signature music would set off an alarm in my adolescent brain that said "homework can not be put off any longer". I would drag myself off to my bedroom to pore over crumpled pieces of Science or English papers that demanded attention. Before then putting my feet up on my desk and reading a comic.

The stresses that the spectre of unwritten essays held over me meant it took years before I learnt how to enjoy my Sundays. The dread of the upcoming schoolweek and the hungover regrets from preceedings nights out made even Formula One an appealing way to take ones mind off things.

But times change when you work six days a week; for now any day off is enjoyed to the maximum. It's no surprise that everyday things like newspapers, TV, lunch or football are elevated to elysian status simply by putting the word Sunday in front of them. However this particularly Sunday may prove a little different as two opposing worlds are destined to collide and the fallout could be quite devastating.

For this Sunday, my mental health and nervous system will be tested to the limit as Fulham play Chelsea at exactly the same time that England attempt to wrestle The Ashes off of the Aussies. And although my body will be at one of the spiritual sporting venues I call home my mind will not be at the other. I will be watching England versus Australia at The Oval but I will not be listening to Fulham versus Chelsea at Craven Cottage. I simply cannot take it.

The chances of Fulham emerging victorious are even greater than England beating Australia. With Fulham 6/1 and England 10/3 the chances of both winning are.......I don't know, I can't work it out. Anyway, it's not going to happen. So I'll try and cut out the events at Craven Cottage by limiting myself to half-time and full-time updates. And I'll direct all my attention to the action on the field in front of me.

I don't know what's going to happen this weekend but I do know this. I've been dreading the cricket ever since Headingley, that Fulham were lucky to score a late equaliser in the corresponding fixture last season, and that it probably won't be a good idea to call me at 5.55pm on Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

How low can you go?

Every time Graham Onions bowls he tricks me into thinking he's about to pull up. After roughly six or seven paces he looks as though he's about to slow down. Never the most fearsome or in-your-face of fast bowlers he appears to run in with everyday thoughts running through his mind before suddenly a thought pops into his head. “Did I leave my daughter on top of the fridge?”

It’s enough to make him slow down but before he comes to a standstill and the batsman gives up his guard another thought flashes into his brain. "No wait, I don't haev a daughter. Or a fridge." With all well in the world again he continues at a regular pace to complete his delivery.

Despite having the best English bowling average in the series it looks as though Onions will be one of the fall guys after the Headingley debacle. It was a performance so inept that in a lifetime of watching English sporting disasters this is one without precedent. I’ve never watched a game of Test match cricket that was over by lunch on the first day. Statistically, it’s unlikely I ever will again; although Bangladesh are due to tour here next year.

All of which is probably my fault. Posting a blog heralding the greatest days in my cricket life was always going to tempt fate. And days one and two at Headingley more than matched the worst I’ve ever encountered. For this was worse than the tedium of Brisbane, was devoid of the animal carnality of Hamilton, and the pain lasted so much longer than it did in Antigua. Although the same can possibly not be said for my dad.

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be in the press box for the astounding 4-4 game at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Liverpool. 3-1 down on aggregate, Liverpool somehow managed to drag themselves back into contention at 2-0 up. But the second half saw a revival from Chelsea who appeared to have put the tie to bed as they went 3-2 ahead on the night with just 15 minutes to go.

A good night’s entertainment then began to tinker with the boundaries of reality as Liverpool hit two goals inside three minutes. With nine minutes remaining they needed one goal to cap off the most incredible night of sporting drama in the history of the game. It was at about this point that I had actually stopped enjoying the game. Things had taken such a turn for the extraordinary I couldn’t take it in. I found it impossible to feel emotion for the match was entering unchartered waters. It was bordering on the surreal.

As it was, Chelsea scored once more to secure the match and soothe my sanity. But memories of this game came flooding back while I watched England steamrollered by the Aussies. After England were dismissed by the slip cordon inside two sessions our bowlers somehow managed to perform even worse. They put on the most ludicrous display of bowling ever seen. It was a bowling display that actually defied belief. For the second time in six months I found myself watching a sporting competition that required a deeper range of emotional ability than I possessed.

It really was that bad. But was it bad enough to top the worst days cricket ever seen? Sadly no, I honestly hope I never see anything that can knock that particular days cricket off the top of the list of worst witnessed.

AUS v ENG, Adelaide, Day Five – England start the day one wicket down and a lead of over 100 runs. They end it on the receiving end of a six-wicket defeat and are 2-0 down in The Ashes.

Photobucket

ENG v AUS, Headingley, Day One – England go into the game 1-0 up in the series and within two hours need to win the remaining match to retain The Ashes.

Photobucket

WI v ENG, Antigua, Day One – Game abandoned within an hour of play while three family members are on a plane on the way to watch the game. You couldn’t make it up.

Photobucket

AUS v ENG, Melbourne, Day One – England win the toss and bowl in the most bowler friendly conditions imaginable. In driving rain & heavy cloud cover England are bowled out for 159. Rudi Koertzen then fails to give Hayden out who was plumb LBW. The following day he goes on to make 153 to change the course of the match.

Photobucket

NZ v ENG, Hamilton, Day Three – England score 199 runs in the day against England ‘A. At the end of day press conference Kevin Pietersen bizarrely described his 131-ball knock of 43 as his best in an England shirt. This was greeted by widespread jaw dropping silence.

Photobucket

Monday, 10 August 2009

It's just not cricket

You know the world's turning on its head when at a time that football crowds are widely felt not to be as vocal as they used to be cricket fans are being slammed for being too boisterous. England supporters were recently rounded upon for booing Ricky Ponting to the crease; while the general boozy nature of cricket crowds these days also came under attack. The Australian captain is apparently too good a player to warrant such abuse. While the fans were seen to be letting themselves, the sport and England in general down by their overtly partisan, boorish and dare I say it.......working class attitude. “It simply wasn’t cricket, darling. The fans were behaving like football supporters!”..."Gasp!"..."There was swearing and everything!"

What most observers failed to pick up on, or opted to ignore, was the decidedly tongue-in-cheek nature of the abuse dished out. This wasn’t a returning Wayne Rooney to Goodison Park, nor a fat Frank appearing at Upton Park. Rather it was an English crowd giving stick to an opponent who hails from a country we can’t get enough of.

There wasn’t a hint of vitriol in affording Ricky Ponting this 'welcome' as the fans highlighted just what standing he has in the game. It’s not rocket science that any man who has scored over 11,000 Test runs and 8 centuries against England might just be the danger man, a man who could single-handed rest the Ashes away, a man to be targeted.

You can bet your last Aussie dollar that Michael Hussey would swap the lukewarm lethargy that surrounded his welcome with that of his captain. It says a lot about the man that Ponting is still regarded as a character worth bothering with. The crowd wouldn't know a Marcus North or Simon Katich if they were pulling pints at the bar. The lack of a Gilchrist, Warne or McGrath leaves just two comedy villains, and there’s no point telling the 12th man to keep his arm straight when all he’s doing is carrying the drinks.

But I'm not so naive to suggest that everyone in the crowd was gently jibing Ponting. Sure there would have been some whose vision was obscured by the descending red mist. For long memories aren’t needed to remember the claimed 'catches' against India, the apparent encouragement of his sides bullying manner and the perceived ungraciousness of his character. But they would hardly be the only ones who think like that. For let us not forget that Ricky Ponting has more than his fair share of critics back in the homeland.

And while we're focusing on that particular hemisphere let's look at the attitude of the Aussie fans, shall we? Glenn McGrath has been saying that Oz supporters would have never doled out such inhumane treatment to Andrew Strauss. Don't make me laugh. I can still hear the crowing that accompanied Steve Harmison every time he was thrown the ball during the last Ashes series overseas. I can still picture the Gabba crowd laughing at Simon Jones after he wrecked his career on the outfield. Hell, the Perth crowd once threw beer cans and a punch at John Snow while he patrolled the boundary. And any fan that has spent an afternoon at the cricket at the Adelaide Oval will know how it’s possible to keep one eye on the cricket and another on incoming missiles from the Aussie fans.

Nobody knows all this better than the Barmy Army. A group that have come in from a pummelling from all quarters and hit from pillar to post in the past week in a manner that the England bowling attack are becoming all too familiar with. Apart from the fact that their members apparently refused to get involved in the booing they were blamed with pretty much all that is wrong with the game in this country. All this despite the fact that even after travelling across Australia watching that 5-0 reverse in 06/07 they spent the final session in Sydney cheering on both sides. Hell, if they didn't boo then they're hardly going to start now.

And what's wrong with a bit of booing anyway? Racism, violent & homophobic chanting are understandably unacceptable in any walk of life. But booing? Really? What's next for the chop? Tutting? Booing would almost be seen as a term of affection on most inner city street corners.

All of which detracts from the recognition of the special place in our hearts that the Aussies are held in this country. The rivalry starts on the field and ends on it. We're not talking about the nastiness associated with our sporting rivalries with Germany, Argentina or Scotland. Australia is a country that we love to beat, love to poke fun at but also love to visit. The Aussies and English share a history, a sense of fair play and whenever possible a beer.

We also share a sense of humour. For if you had closed your eyes as Ricky Ponting stepped onto the Edgbaston stage you'd have almost be forgiven for thinking Captain Hook was going into bat. For the treatment dished out to him was nothing more than pantomime. On the field he was playing the part of the villain. Of it, one moron aside, he's immediately afforded the respect due to any human being.

At the end of next year it'll be an Englishman's time to don the black cape, cover one eye and put a parrot on the shoulder. You would have thought those moral custodians of the high ground would have realised and appreciated all this. For is their anything more upper or middle class than a visit to the pantomime?