The English might have invented cricket but it’s the Aussies who have made the game a perennial, loud part of their national conversation. I first visited Australia three years ago, over Christmas in 2014, a year after the 5-0 whitewash of Alastair Cook’s side and seven months before England won back the urn in 2015. I was in the Whitsundays, a long way from a cricket pitch, and a woman serving me ice cream heard my accent and said, apropos of nothing: “I hope you’re having a better time out here than your cricket team usually do.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that most of us “whinging Poms” don’t actually care about the fortunes of our national side.
It’s the Ashes that really ramps up the volume, though, and this time I was in Melbourne for the fourth test of the 2017/18 series to see what all the fuss was about. It was officially a “dead rubber” – we lost 3-0 back in Perth – but that didn’t stop what felt like every other person saying “there’s no such thing as a dead rubber”, with over 250,000 going to the series to watch the eventual draw. The SCG (capacity 48,000) has sold-out for the first three days of the fifth test.
There’s no mistaking the partisan vibe. Cricket Australia’s official campaign for the 2017/18 season is #BeatEngland. Yep, the sport’s national governing body encourages people to share disparaging remarks about England on social media, not just for the Ashes but for the upcoming one day internationals and T20 tests.
“Nothing brings our nation together like the prospect of beating the old enemy on home soil,” it says on the website. Advertisers are in on the act too. An ad for Ashes sponsor Hardy’s Wine shown in the first four tests read: “Why can’t the Poms open a bottle of wine? Because they don’t have any openers.”
It’s the sort of jingoistic stuff we usually associate with our red-tops after an England-Germany football fixture. This might irk the true cricket fans, but for an unsavvy observer like me, the sledging element makes the whole thing more fun. Spectators heading to the SCG can expect #BeatEngland posters in lurid yellow and green, shades more-in-your face than the traditional forest green and gold Aussie colours. There will also be the “Buckethead Army” out in force. Those are the fans wearing green and gold cardboard buckets on their heads. It’s an ad campaign by KFC to get Aussies to support their national team and to take on our own Barmy Army (of which more later). They look, frankly, ridiculous, and the buckets don’t even protect necks from the sun. In the press accreditation office at the MCG, they were using them as bins.
The buckets do at least make the opposition easy to spot in the massive mixed crowds. The MCG is the biggest of the five host stadia with more than 100,000 capacity (over 88,000 packed in on Boxing Day). All except Perth’s WACA Ground have more seating than our own largest arena, Lord’s, which makes watching cricket a different proposition here. And it’s the Melbourne and Sydney tests that traditionally draw in what the ECB calls “event goers” (that is, clueless spectators like me there as much for the experience as the sport). Prices across the venues are accessible: general admission ranges from $30-$179, with juniors from $10, though the less you pay, the more likely you are to be sitting in the blazing sun. I spent a bit of time in the cheapest seats and was gleefully told by a bar tender that I had “classic Pommie sunburn”.
The atmosphere on the second day of the fourth test was festive and no one seemed to care that the whole thing was pointless. “Every four we get, every six we get, we celebrate it like it actually means something,” said one fan. Imagine that happening at your average Premier League football match if a team was 3-0 down in the 90th minute.
Security told a guy to put his shoes on...
So this happened ]]>😂