14 August 2005

Some of you may have missed it but there was a dramatic collapse of the England middle order shortly after two o’clock. ‘Jason Gillespie’ was the hero. Bowling off his longer run he produced a stump-shattering hat-trick to defy those disgraceful chants of “Where’s yer caravan?” in reference his somewhat untidy hairdo.

True the Australian breakthrough was aided by the cunning ploy of doubling the height of the wicket but then England had been pretty unscrupulous in their relentless switch of bowlers. Having taken hits from an attack which included a blue painted man dressed as a Smurf and a tattooed Liverpudlian in blond wig and a black bikini, they were traduced by a lady whose opening, indeed sole, ball was an underarm “grubber” which knocked the stumps, sorry plastic beer glasses, asunder.

Rain or no rain, start of the Premiership or whatever, this Old Trafford crowd had come to enjoy themselves. At 10 o’clock with rain sheeting down the crowd were already hustling past the other Old Trafford, off up Matt Busby Way as if football had never been invented. They carried umbrellas, hampers, plastic sheets and the wherewithal to get through a full day of Lancashire weather. But they, like the game, wore a smile on the face.

The proof that English cricket had got its confidence back had come at breakfast. A year ago the back pages had been swooning at the prospect Mourinho’s Chelsea treating Manchester’s finest with disrespect. Yesterday they were full of an almost Calypso chant of “Cricket, lovely Cricket”. After that incredible Edgbaston Test, England were again in a strong position, the old Australian ascendancy seemingly on the wane. What an excuse to relish a day out.

There is a fancy dress award now on a Test Saturday. So among the dripping throng there were four convicts, two ‘Jonners,’ three gladiators, a double-chinned bloke with a ginger wig, a schoolgirl outfit and a dragon on his upper thigh, and a portly guy in a dog collar who looked a dead ringer for Fred Trueman. Actually he may just have been a vicar on a jolly outing.

In ordinary times keeping faith while the rain sluiced down would have been an impossibility. However many including Batman and Robin repaired up Warwick Road to stand sardine tight in the Trafford Arms, some developed an impromptu cricket match, the ultimate of which was our England v Australia showdown by the front gate, and a few history-minded souls repaired to the museum.

There under the fabled byline of Neville Cardus was a report on the rain-stopped play third test of 1938, complete with a picture of Don Bradman checking into his hotel in a raincoat and a very large trilby hat. “The place was sad and desolate,” the great man wrote, “the lonely gatekeeper saying with some pathos, ‘Old Trafford doesn’t deserve this’.” We live in somewhat livelier times.

And more optimistic. When a voice shouted “there’s a pitch inspection in an hour” at our unofficial Test, a great cheer went up, and one of the English batsmen raised his ‘bat’ in triumph, albeit having changed from ‘mini-bat’ to using a white plastic shoe in his attempts at caning the Australian bowling. Sure enough some tiny traces of blue began to form in the sky and by 2.30 some very soggy covers were being removed to reveal even soggier outer wickets.

In Cardus’s times there would still have been precious little chance of cricket but the miracles of hovercovering the match wicket and plentiful planting of sawdust soon saw the England team in a red, white and blue huddle while across the way Shane Warne got some batting practice. By ten to four the great hover had finally been wheeled away, the last of the TV presenters had ended their opines on the pitch, and England had gone to change into whites. How Sir Neville’s shade must wince at the practice shorts.

He wouldn’t have approved much of drunken cricket shouts either, but after all day waiting for play, and the first 4pm restart ending after half an hour, you had to forgive those who waited for the six o’clock sunshine and Flintoff roaring in to hit Gillespie in the midriff second ball. After the bowler rocketed down another that bounced over, everyone chanted “Super Freddy Flintoff, Super Freddy Flintoff.”

After our hero had completed his third terrifyingly rapid over and Giles came on to wheedle in the close, the captain of the unofficial team gave one last raucous rally to the evening sun. “We are the army,” he sang in a not so rich baritone, “We are the army, the barmy, barmy army.”

Time was when “barmy” was not too far off England’s cricket hopes of beating Australia. Not so barmy now.

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