The old generous spirit has gone

I shall not be returning to Australia which I used to hold in such high regard: for its rough and tumble politics, says Ted Corbett.

I first went to Australia in 1982, on the Ashes tour led by Bob Willis, and believe me the living was easy. I had a bit of trouble at Sydney airport where the Customs officer kept questioning the need for the six handkerchiefs I had brought with me. Perhaps she thought they were saturated with some noxious substance but after 15 minutes of intense questioning she let me go.

No further trouble until I tried to re-enter the country after a side trip to New Zealand and found my visa had run out.

“Mate,” said the chief immigration officer, “it’s a good job I was on duty tonight or you might have been delayed here for an hour or more. I just happen to be the chairman of the Sydney Ground supporters group and I can’t let a fellow cricket man down.” He issued me with a new visa immediately.

That is the way it was then. Australia was the country of the young and free, populated by helpful and friendly guys who might tease you for being a Pom but who, by and large, were pleased to welcome you to the Lucky Country. I certainly felt happier there than I had during two years working in Scotland.

Frankly, I loved it. At one time I made a big effort to get a job there and live in the place of — almost — perpetual sunshine where I had pals and a day on the beach seemed to be the natural way of life.

I went back a dozen times, twice at my own expense, soaked up the sun and the wine and those whale-sized prawns and thought I would rather be in Oz than anywhere else in the world.

Nothing much changed until the last visit with the team led — disastrously I have to remind you — by Andrew Flintoff when it became clear that Australia was no longer the home of the free but rather the land of the heavy-handed security guy.

Three incidents offended my liberal way of thinking. First, there was the very pregnant lady who asked, politely, if she might go through the nearer of two gates to leave the ground at Perth and join her husband who was standing by that exit gate.

The attendant who was in charge of the keys refused so brusquely that I could not believe it was one woman addressing another. “Your ticket says you can go out of that gate 20 metres away and I suggest you make use of that gate before I call a policeman.”

OK, so it was not a massive effort even for a lady who was clearly ready to give birth within a few days; it was the manner, the insistence that the rules must be obeyed, a reminder that Australia has ancestors who were convicts and others who were prison warders.

Incident No.2 came when a family of five Asians tried to cross a railway line. It was clearly a dangerous way to head for their train but the reaction from the security guard was out of proportion to their offence. “Move one step further and I’ll have you arrested and put you in the jail,” he bellowed.

They scrambled back to the platform, looking sheepish and I thought that no British bobby would have behaved in that way.

Thirdly, I tried to make my way to a gate at the end of a long day’s play when another security guard locked it. “Just a minute . . .” I called from ten yards.

“Go to the next gate,” he said. “I’ve locked this gate and it stays locked until tomorrow morning.” Not a violation of my human rights but unnecessary.

So you will understand that, from the safety of my home in the East of England I was not shocked when I read that three of the British press corps were going to be sent home because their visas had run out after 90 days.

I wonder if any of this was part of Australian contempt for the beaten Pom. John Etheridge, a long serving cricket writer, said: “We hoped we might be allowed to stay here until England won a match.” They managed to see the fourth ODI by the skin of their teeth.

I understand that every diplomatic and political help was sought to get the three visas extended but it sounds as if the new Australian philosophy of “rules are rules” was allowed to run unchecked.

I shall not be returning to the country which I used to hold in such high regard: for its rough and tumble politics, its beautiful vistas, its vitality and the breadth of vision.

Not to mention its cricket. That is the national game of this vast country where every man and most women understand its subtle ways and the broad outline of the game. It reminds me of . . . oh, yes Yorkshire where I learnt to love the bat and ball, the need for slick fielding and in particular how clever captains win matches

Cricket is more than moves in the field, strategic planning and tactics learnt at your father’s knee.

It is also about recalling a batsman wrongly given out, what Neville Cardus called “fair cheating all round” and an understanding that justice must be seen to be done.

I hope that some Aussie cricketers will be thinking at this moment that they have let their standards slip because there is no doubt in my mind that the old generous spirit has gone out of the window.