It’s warming up nicely, even better than expected. An Ashes series, when the outcome remains undecided, gets under the skin so much better than any other. Even the press corps loses its air of bored resignation and cold objectivity becomes a strain.
Take Andrew Strauss’s catch to dismiss Phillip Hughes in Australia’s second innings at Lord’s. In the press box there was a cry of horror and indignation from the vastly outnumbered contingent representing the Australian media when Hughes was given out. On reflection the English seemed to think the catch was OK.
It took me back to Adelaide in 1998. There the Australian and English press happen to be segregated at opposite ends of the stand. Out in the middle Mike Atherton was embarking upon another valiant, ultimately vain rearguard action. He edged to Mark Taylor at slip. The catch was claimed; Atherton was not convinced and the matter was referred to the third umpire, who with surprising rapidity, judged that the batsman was out.
In the English press box the conviction, almost to a man, was that the catch was dodgy; in the Australian section it was deemed to be true. We try our best to be objective but… it’s the Ashes. For what it’s worth my view at Lord’s was that Nathan Hauritz had taken a clean catch at mid-on when Ravi Bopara was on strike. So too had Strauss at slip. And I could easily understand the exasperation of Ricky Ponting when one catch (by Hauritz) was referred to the third umpire by Rudi Koertzen, while the other (by Strauss) was not.
Ponting has been the recipient of most of the flak so far – for no good reason except that who else can play the pantomime Aussie villain in this series? In the past we could zoom in on Mr “5-0” Glenn McGrath or Shane Warne, with whom just about everyone seemed to share a technicolour love/hate relationship. (Now that Warne has retired who can bring themselves to hate him since he’s such good fun on the box?). Beyond that Merv Hughes, Rod Marsh, Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, all wonderful men, were tailor-made villains of Oz.
But on this tour there is only really Ponting. We don’t know Peter Siddle well enough, though he shows some promise for the post. At present we are more likely to feel sympathy rather than animosity for the fresh-faced Mitchell Johnson as he wonders what has happened to his bowling; Nathan Hauritz is obviously a decent, self-effacing bloke. Meanwhile most of the batsmen appear to be conscientious, civilised and well-groomed.
So Ponting is the man who has to cop the flak. He has, I hope, been around long enough to understand what is happening. It is nothing personal and all part of the crazy Ashes circus. Talking to Mike Atherton after the match on TV Ponting smiled while pointing out that the round of applause he received on the podium was his first in five days at Lord’s.
I was fortunate enough to attend a reception for the Australians at their High Commission just before the Lord’s Test and Ponting himself caught the mood perfectly in his brief speech: “There’s been a nasty breach of security: I found myself having to talk to a few Poms over there”.
Ponting will take some more abuse over the next three Tests. That’s how it works. But we should not lose sight of the fact that in reality Ponting is no villain. He is one of the greats of the modern game, open and accessible, admired by team-mates from Tasmania to Taunton for his generosity, his zest for cricket and his zest for life. By the time we get to the Oval he will deserve a farewell ovation on a par to that received by Warne and McGrath last time. And if there is any justice, despite all the intervening flak, he will get one.