The Barmy Army isn't dispirited

Former Australian speedster Merv Hughes specialises in after dinner speaking these days.-V. V. KRISHNAN

As England cross fingers, touch wood and, in some cases, even offer prayers that the dreaded green and gold wash is avoidable, it is interesting to make comparison with the 1920-21 tour when Australia win 5-0 by wide margins. Ted Corbett's diary continues.

December 11: While the England players are messing about with a two-day, 12-a-side game in Perth, we spend the weekend with friends in a remote part of Western Australia, knocking away the flies, trying not to use too much of their precious water supply and observing the local wildlife. Our friends have their own animal antics. Their dog — a tiny cross of all too many breeds — has followed the household interest in vegetarianism and is inordinately fond of carrot and apple. Their chickens — that is "chooks" in the local lingo — go in the opposite direction and can sometimes be seen swallowing small mice whole. The resulting eggs are lovely. Back in Perth, a lovely city, we walk up steep hills to beautiful parks. We see parrots, ravens and the quarrelling magpie robins, who have so little fear that if you hand out bits of bread the birds will take them unhurriedly. Bill O'Reilly, the old leg-break bowler turned sports writer, shows me the trick many years ago. The birds live among lines of gum trees and neatly mown grasslands. It is Australia's best trick, this ability to enhance natural beauty and in Perth any visitor will find more than just cricket.

December 12: Shane Warne's slow march to the bowling crease, his screwed-up face when an umpire denies him yet another wicket and his excessive use of the verbals is so much show biz that it is not surprising he is always in the weekly magazines to detail the swings and roundabouts of his love life. On the front page of a weekly called `New Idea' a headline says he and wife Simone are reunited but on closer inspection of the article a dozen pages later it is clear that this reunion will last only as long as Christmas. No doubt we will read a similar story at Easter and the start of the summer holidays. A friend suggests it is all a cynical, money-making venture. Tut, tut; how can he even think such nastiness.

December 13: The sight of the WACA ground makes me recall the 1982 Test when an English youth recently settled in Australia runs on to the outfield and causes Terry Alderman to injure himself and be out of the game for many months. A few bold reporters decide to investigate the incident after the match and head for the police station only a couple of hundred yards away. On our way I and another senior journalist formulate a plan of action. "Australian policemen are not helpful so we must tread carefully," he says. "I will ask the first question; don't rush in but try to support me." I agree to help even when I see that the station sergeant is tough enough to tackle a dozen hooligans — larrikins in the Australian English — without a second's thought. But before either of us can say a word a young reporter on his first Ashes trip barges straight in. "I know there is nothing you can say, sergeant," he begins and, quick as a flash the sergeant replies: "Quite right, son, I'm not saying a word" and heads back to his inner sanctum. Exit a dozen unhappy reporters, two of whom have just seen all the best laid plans torn apart.

December 14: Merv Hughes, that big fast bowler with a handlebar moustache who has a lot to say for himself on the field, now turns his gift of the gab to after dinner speaking. During a lunch at the WACA he tells the story of a Test there against West Indies who are then world champions beyond dispute. According to Merv, Australia are in the field and Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge are laying waste. Dean Jones, his best pal, comes up to him and says: "Mate, we need a wicket." Merv gives him a familiar glare. "Mate," he says, "I am bowling to Haynes and Greenidge, the greatest opening pair in history. If I get one of them out, in comes Richie Richardson. I get him out and in comes Viv Richards, followed by Carl Hooper. Please, please, find a reason to encourage me to take a wicket!"

December 15: Throughout the Test messages bleep into my phone from a busy lady who manages to watch the cricket, concentrate on her job and ask me difficult questions about the motives of umpires who give the — according to her — wrong decisions, particularly when England are appealing. She is from Eccles, the area of Manchester where Michael Vaughan is brought up and one of her pleasures is to fly her parents to Australia every time there is an Ashes series so that they can share in the few triumphs and many disasters. She tells me that it is common for her and her highly skilled team to listen to the cricket on the radio while they are doing their intricate work and that sometimes they get carried away and forget the task in hand while they discuss Steve Harmison or Andrew Strauss's off drive. I did mention what line of work she is in, didn't I. No? Well, she is a surgeon and, I am told, a very good one. I just hope her patients do not know what goes on around them while they are unconscious on the operating table.

December 16: On the wall of the WACA Press Box is a board recording the officials in the West Australian Media organisation. The new patron is one Dennis Lillee, who has not always been so fond of the pressmen who write about him. In fact there is a listing in one of his many autobiographies which says that there are only two in the world he rates very highly: Ian Wooldridge of the `Daily Mail' and another whose name escapes me. Perhaps an unnatural mode of modesty is responsible. When I ask Dennis about this change of heart he just grins, leaving me to imagine that he is still not fond of all media men.

December 17: Kerry O'Keefe, former Test leg-break and googly bowler, now a regular voice on radio in Australia, has a reputation as a wit but I wonder how rehearsed or spontaneous is his remark on Australian Broadcasting Corporation cricket commentary during the Test. Asked who is the greatest batsman he faced, he offers this analysis: "It's not rocket surgery, is it?" What does he mean? I think we must be told. He says he greatly admires Shane Warne. "After all, " he says, " we have 750 Test wickets between us." Incidentally, there is a cricket reporter in Australia who is clearly much helped in his job by name. I hope to meet him one day since I know his "other half" extremely well. His name: Courtney Walsh. I don't know what cricket people at the other end of the phone think when he rings up and says: "I'm Courtney Walsh and I want to interview you."

December 18: You may think that the defeat at the WACA and the loss of the Ashes will dispirit those faithful souls in the Barmy Army but they know what is important in life and soon after the third Test finishes in tears they head off to Perth's cafe society area in Northbridge where they find a pub that offers all the beer you can drink for $10 and the sight of Brett Lee playing his guitar. "I hope he will play like a complete muppet but he stays with the regular band for more than half an hour and, although I hate to admit it, he is brilliant," says one music lover.

December 19: As England cross fingers, touch wood and, in some cases, even offer prayers that the dreaded green and gold wash is avoidable, it is interesting to make comparison with the 1920-21 tour when Australia win 5-0 by wide margins. Of course the First World War stops all cricket for six years and Australia have seven players making their debut in the first Test. One is Herbie Collins who makes 70 and 104 aged 32. Does that remind you of anyone called Michael Hussey, 31 and lining up a nomination as player of the current series? England have some of the greatest players in our history — Jack Hobbs, Wilfred Rhodes, Frank Woolley, Patsy Hendren and the captain Johnny Douglas — in the 1920 touring party but sink without trace by 377 runs, an innings and 91 runs, 119 runs, eight wickets and nine wickets. In the first Test at Sydney, Australia make a colossal 581 in their second innings. The third Test is played out over six days and six centuries are made. Then the two sides set off for England on the same liner and play it all over again while the Australians take part in a three-Test series in South Africa on the way home. What, no talk of player burn-out?

December 20: What will the modern tabloids make of those defeats 85 years ago? `The Sun' comes up with Perth-ectic this morning which just about sums up the whole tour. Meanwhile, two of the English journalists are giving Duncan Fletcher, the coach, an uncomfortable ride with pointed questions about his personal responsibility and his future. "The sight of the English media eating one of its own makes quite a spectacle," comments one Aussie writer. Frankly, I have never seen it as part of my job to support the England team and I guess the two reporters grilling Fletcher feel the same way. Instead I remember one uncomfortable moment at the end of the 1986-87 series when a prominent Australian reporter stands up at the press conference after Australia's consolation win in Sydney and says to Allan Border: "I hope you know, AB, we are all praying for this sort of success all the time."

I hear that Yorkshire are still searching for a new captain after Chris Adams of Sussex agrees to lead them and then — very suddenly — changes his mind. They actually look to Surrey for their next skipper but it does not work out and the hunt continues. Terry Jenner, coach to Shane Warne says that Mark Lawson is the better leg-break bowler of the two teenagers in the Yorkshire side. "He has got a bit of cheek which will help him," says Jenner who fears that overwork will mean Adel Rashid can suffer a nasty injury if he is not careful. "He is the better cricketer, certainly the better batsman," says Jenner, who coaches young English players with all the care and enthusiasm he puts into his work with Warne.

December 21: One of my colleagues writes a damning piece about service in restaurants in Australia which is not up to standard, he says. He adds: "And don't get me started about taxi drivers." Some of us with less well-lined pockets are not always able to travel by taxi but I can assure you that the free bus service to the ground is excellent and that the drivers stop on request, are helpful to those who find climbing on to a bus too difficult and drive off with half a load when their rules say they ought to wait. Frankly, I will not have a word said against these wonderful people; just don't get me started on security men though. As we fly into Melbourne there is a different feel to the place. It's the smoke from the bush fires which gives the city the appearance of Peshawar and other cities in the north of the sub-continent. Bush fires, combined with a water shortage, is naturally very worrying to the Australians. A rich lady rings a pal in the United States and tells her she will give a fat wad of notes to the Bush Fund to help out the victims of the fires. Her American friend is horrified. "Surely you're not giving money to help President Bush," she snorts.

December 22: See ya' lader, Warnie. Indeed we will. He has quit Australia, Victoria and his club St. Kilda but, oddly, will work his two-year contract with Hampshire. The last couple of days see him anointed as the greatest bowler in history, the greatest cricketer since Don Bradman and an unparalleled wicket snatcher. Hey, hang on a minute. I'm not sure he is even the greatest bowler in Australian history. What about one Dennis Lillee who collects 355 wickets in 70 Tests? That earns him a statue right outside the MCG. I have unlimited admiration for Warne — cricket's first rock star who takes 4.8 wickets in each of his 144 Tests. I want to point out that there have been other great spinners like Clarrie Grimmett who grabs 216 wickets in 37 Tests or 5.8 a time, Bill O'Reilly who claims 144 in 27 Tests at 5.3. I wish big Bill, a plain spoken man, is to see the hype. He will be purple in the face by now.

December 23: The new MCG is magnificent. Clean, functional and huge; you can walk to it easily across a modern road complex and a footbridge; there are cafes, walkways, nets for fast bowlers, spinners and even for bad batsmen. Everything the 100,000 spectators want although as the cricket and the Australian Rules fans congregate to watch their favourite events they may wonder at the notice on the concourses. "No ball games."

December 24: We people watchers know that round the world we can observe the same behaviour. A cinema never gives an address in its adverts? Text maniacs know that they can walk and use their mobile and rely on the rest of us to get out of their way. And even if a Test finishes in two days, you can bet that for the next three days the papers will put ball-by-ball commentary in their listings.