Watch out for Matthew!


NOVEMBER 25. England are in trouble with everyone. The Australian newspapers, determined to have as much fun out of their discomfort as possible, get irate because after the four-day defeat in the second Test England once again fail to practise. Sometimes even I, one of their most sympathetic followers, feel they hardly put in enough effort. Especially after I hear that one star reflects on the crushing defeats in the following manner: "Perhaps I should stick to soccer. After all, if you lose 5-zip on the football pitch it only lasts 90 minutes. Losing to Australia by the same margin will take us eight weeks." In the land of Go Aussie Go and all that patriotic fervour the English sophistication and their laid-back attitude is sometimes easy to misunderstand. One of the old guard, no longer an active player, used to philosophise that "you play your first Test for honour and glory and the rest for money." Another used to ask newcomers to the side: "What is the difference between playing for your county and playing for England? About 1,000 pounds a week." I have to admit that cynicism is not confined to the dressing room. Thank heavens then for the Barmy Army, still faithful to the England cause, still chanting and singing even though some of them have paid around 3,000 pounds sterling to watch their heroes, take a couple of drinks and be abused by the local population for their trouble. They are undaunted and tonight they hold a monumental party to celebrate their time in Australia in The Old Adelaide Prison, now an entertainment centre. Their favourite song of the moment relates the origins of the Australian nation being based on a convict population 200 years ago. Not that the Aussies mind. Mrs. Bob Merriman, wife of the chairman of the Australian Board of Control reminds me that it is a matter of pride among some Aussies to descend from Prisoners of Her Majesty, one of the many supposed origins of the word Pom, the Aussie insult for a pale-faced British new arrival. "Once," she says, "we used to be ashamed of our convict origins. Now we are sorry if we cannot find a convict among our ancestors." I note she is quick to point out, however, that her family have no law-breaker to boast about. I cannot say the same. When I visit Tasmania's Port Arthur, the most brutal of the prisons, I am not in the main hall more than five seconds when I spot the name of one Richard Corbett, born in Birmingham, as I am and sent to this escape-proof hell hole for aggravated burglary. Not a relation, of course.

November 26. Perth, three hours west of Adelaide is famous for its heat, the bouncy pitch at the WACA ground, gold discs on the pavements of the main street celebrating its most famous citizens; and friendly little flies that crawl all over your face and make you give what is known as The Perth Salute as you try to waft them away. The pitch for the third Test is said to be the fastest for 20 years and Australia recall Brett Lee to exploit its nasty surface. "I'm not full of malice and I hope no-one is hurt," he says. This lack of malice cannot be extended to the men who are assume to be descendants of prison warders and who are in charge of security. They cause many of us some irritation, including the gentleman who tries to insist that bags ought to be searched as spectators leave the ground. Even the normally compliant Aussies revolt against that idea.

November 27. At the WACA we meet one Stan Johnson, who spends his life travelling the world, watching about 11 Tests a year and writing down the odd, amusing and controversial moments of his travel time. He has seen 150 Tests so far and thinks that he will have seen 200 by his 70th birthday. Naturally he is looking for a publisher and to that end he carries a typed script with pictures and graphics. It contains the astonishing revelation that he goes round the world every year for no more than 11,000 pounds sterling. In Perth he is staying in a YWCA that costs only 50 pounds a week and sometimes he finds accommodation that is even cheaper. Should make an interesting read although as a wannabee author who spends a year trying to get a novel into print I know that he faces a hard time before he gets so much as an acknowledgement.

November 28. If you are a batsman it is time to be very, very afraid. You may remember one Jeff Thomson, timed with old-fashioned technology at more than 100 miles an hour, liable to bowl a ball that rose from a length to tickle your chin but, off the pitch, mostly interested in growing orchids, roses and other beautiful plants. He is also a very patient fisherman and, at not much more than 6ft tall, not an obvious terror merchant. He has a son Matthew, 17, 6ft 8in and every bit as quick as his father. "He is an ungainly lad, not really together physically, although at that age it does not matter too much so long as they are quick. Anyway, I pointed out one or two things to him which he seemed to take on board and now it's up to him. I'm not sure he will make it to the top because, like his father, he really doesn't care about very much so he may just duck out of cricket and do something else. But he is quick, he makes the ball stand up off a length and when he gets it right, watch out!" Those words come from the man who has known Matthew since he was a little boy and who has one coaching session with him. His name is Dennis Lillee, the bowler who partnered father Jeff, and who is now the finest fast bowling coach in the world. As I said, if you are a batsman it is time to be very, very afraid.

November 29. As the third Test begins, there is a serious debate. Which is the worst Press Box in the world? This wretched WACA box from which I cannot see a team I probably no longer wish to watch? Or the Oval where I get a headache every day for five days once a year? I am not madly enamoured of Auckland which involves clambering around iron scaffolding or Wanderers in Johannesburg where I have never been able to use my cell phone among all the steel shuttering. I also have a personal argument with Ahmedabad but only because police lathi charge the crowd in front of me, the spectators run for their lives and I fall painfully against a railing. Although with great professional calm I kept hold of my lap top. No, I give the award to Perth because it is just as bad despite a recent major overhaul. One Pressman never gets to sample the character-testing box. Trevor Marshallsea searching for a way out of the ground and falls from a 5ft wall and hurts his right leg so badly he may never walk properly again. As the Test begins Trevor, from the Sydney Morning Herald, is in hospital no doubt regretting his hasty decision.

November 30. Whatever the failings of the England cricketers, the footballers of the media section, bolstered by the England assistant manager Phil Neal, a former professional League footballer, manage to keep sporting honour intact with a 2-1 victory against the local football writers, including a couple of Australian Olympic players. Not exactly a great performance by the media men: the English goals come from Angus Fraser and Jim Souter, two ex-cricketers. I hear that if Fraser can rid himself of a lifetime habit of looking down - you will remember his long slow walk back to his mark looking at the ground for inspiration - he may score at least two more goals.

December 1. What keeps the Barmy Army so cheerful? A proper philosophy. I overhear two of them on the free bus that conveys the citizens of Perth around the city and the Barmies to the WACA. As they come within sight of the floodlight pylons one ventures that within half an hour "we will be ashamed to be Englishmen." "No you will not," says his companion. "It's only a game, you know."