That Australian cricket is in uncharted waters is self-evident; but if this bare fact needed any confirmation it came from coach Darren Lehmann at the weekend.
Lehmann said no one knew what would happen when the Australians took the field for the first of four Tests against India here on Tuesday or late Monday night for those of in the northern hemisphere. “We don’t know how they’ll go until the opening ball is bowled,” Lehmann said of this first Australian Test since the death of batsman Phillip Hughes. “Hopefully everyone will get through.” Hopefully indeed, for no one knows.
Any Test in Adelaide is hard enough as it is. With its cathedral spires, sprawling Moreton Bay Fig trees and red-brick cloisters, this city appears as genteel as the game it hosts, but it’s a hard place. Given events, the fingers hover over the keyboard before writing about broken cricketers, but the Adelaide Oval broke Ricky Ponting, who retired after a double failure here two years ago. Adam Gilchrist and Damien Martyn both drew stumps here too.
If this city can lay such players low, then goodness knows how the Australian XI will make it through five days carrying the weight of their heavy hearts. Lehmann certainly doesn’t profess to know. His pre-Test statements have been free of bluster, without any of the series-eve boastfulness of Australian campaigns past. For only the boorish blowhard would dare predict what will unfold on this grand old ground this week.
In pictures: Phillip Hughes funeral
Lehmann’s candour is a sign of how the Australians have been carefully handled by the counsellors and psychologists since Hughes was struck on 25 November and died two days later. Applying liberal doses of space and time, with plenty of support and hardly any cricket at all, the professionals have done all they can to walk the players though the grieving process.
“We’ve been incredibly well looked after,” all-rounder Shane Watson said on Sunday. “It’s been tough but it’s great to get back into the game we all love playing so much.”
Their first training session since Hughes’s death was an ebullient affair following the initial moments of reflection during a team huddle; as if they had made a pact to enjoy being together (although they have scarcely been apart in this past fortnight of funerals, wakes and dressing room communions).
The former Australian selector and Somerset captain Jamie Cox, who played a big part in Hughes’s shift from New South Wales to South Australia three years ago, said last week’s funeral in Hughes’s home town of Macksville, halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, was such an important step for the players as they grieved. But he senses the players are determined to honour their friend by embracing the game he loved and they love.
“The Australian players need this, cricket needs it, and indeed the country needs it,” Cox said ahead of the Test. “It’s just such an important thing to get that first ball bowled. To get the game going again. The game must go on and it must return to the battle it once was.” And that battle will include bouncers. Ponting has called for the first ball to be a bumper to “clear the air”.
Josh Hazlewood bowled the first at training on Friday, which was quickly followed by Peter Siddle hitting Chris Rogers with a vicious lifter. Mitchell Johnson made a mockery of the Adelaide featherbed last year to run through England, and will do the same to India if he bowls with the venom he has showed at practice.
“I think once the first ball has been bowled we’ll see, once again, a pretty fierce series,” Cox said. “You can’t deny the emotions that some of the Australian players will be feeling. But I think you’ll find that the Australian team will bond quite quickly. Those first steps might be hard but they have to be taken.”
They will likely be taken before thinly-populated stands at Adelaide’s now-finished, 50,000 capacity, stadium (the Eastern Stand was under construction during last year’s Ashes).
Cricket Australia’s decision to re-arrange the series – cramming four Tests into a month – has upset many fans who had arranged annual leave around the original dates. More than that, South Australia rides not so much on the sheep’s back as the grain header, and the state’s farmers were hard pressed to get the crop in before the original fixture, let alone one moved forward by three days to accommodate shoe-horning the Brisbane match between Adelaide and Melbourne.
It might seem trifling, but some ticket holders are annoyed, especially those who feel the recast schedule is all about TV lucre.
The cricket itself has been relegated by Hughes’s death, of course. All the usual speculation over selection and pitches and sledging in the lead-up to a series has been absent. Events have washed away all that and more. Indeed, on the day Hughes was hit, Cricket Australia and captain Michael Clarke were at odds about whether he would play a warm-up game to test his injured hamstring.
Since then Clarke has been roundly praised for his leadership amid an infinitely more profound crisis than being two down on a damp seamer. He has barely trained and must still be sore, but is determined to honour his close friend by leading the side.
He and his players will wear shirts carrying Hughes’s Australian Test player number, 408, and the crowd will rise for 63 seconds of applause before play, one second for every run Hughes scored in his last, forever unbeaten, innings.
That applause was chosen instead of a minute’s silence is perhaps another sign that the game is moving to the next stage of its collective grief.
Andrew Faulkner is Adelaide cricket correspondent for ‘The Australian’Reuse content